How to Use Divergent and Convergent Thinking to Improve Your Work

It’s easy to get “stuck” during the course of a project. When you do, remember to use both divergent and convergent thinking to get unstuck. Here’s how.

Patrick Buggy

June 29, 2016

Divergent and convergent thinking is not just for creativity in the workplace. We use them all the time in our daily lives!

Choosing what to wear in the morning is an exercise in divergent and convergent thinking.

You start by looking in your closet to explore options. There are so many choices to consider! You could wear pants, shorts, a sweater, or a t-shirt. In fact, forcing yourself to look at things that you haven’t worn in a while is good example of using divergent thinking.

With the time ticking away, you narrow your options down to a final selection. You make choices by considering a range of factors. How hot is it? Is it rainy? Is there an important meeting on my calendar? Focusing your consideration set is convergent thinking.

Picking out what clothes to wear is a simple example. But we can take it a step farther to illustrate the important relationship between the two modes of thinking.

Without diverging, you sacrifice the opportunity to create much better options to choose from.
Without converging, you’ll keep too many options open and sap your team’s attention and energy.

Diverge to explore new possibilities

It might seem obvious that we need to think divergently and explore new ideas.

But it’s often easier said than done.

Divergent can be uncomfortable compared to convergent thought. Choosing from a list of options is much easier than having to come up with the list in the first place.

So where’s a good place to start?

Here are a few best-practices you can try to get your team moving:

  • Gather a wide range of stimulus.
    Look at many similar and different ideas in the topic area you are working on. Take inspiration from successful companies in other industries.
  • Use a deck of creative prompting cards.
    Resources like the Creative Whack Pack are filled with thought-provoking prompts to get your wheels turning in a new way.
  • Brainstorm with colleagues who aren’t working on the project.
    After working on a project for a long enough time, it’s natural to stop challenging assumptions as frequently. Your colleague’s relative naïveté will bring a fresh perspective to your group. Use a collaborative cycle to structure a productive brainstorm with outsiders.
  • Document every idea.
    Regardless of the method you choose, be sure to document each new idea. We like to use concept sheets to document each idea individually. When each idea is on a separate piece of paper, it makes your convergent phase easier. Download the method card below!

Download the Concept Sheets How-To Card

Learn how to use Concept Sheets to document new ideas and invigorate your next brainstorm.

Remember, diverging is all about the uninhibited exploration of new ideas. Don’t judge ideas as you come up with them. Even if it feels like a ridiculous idea, share it anyway. It may inspire a new idea for one of your teammates.

Converge to focus on the best route forward

After casting a wide net and sourcing new inputs, it’s time to narrow your focus.

In a convergent state of mind, you’ll ask questions like:

What concept is most likely to resonate with our consumers?

Which project approach is most likely to meet our team’s goals?

Do certain ideas align more with company strategy?

It’s tempting to generate new ideas while you’re in the midst of evaluating what you already have. Resist that urge, and focus your attention on what’s already been created.

Here are a few best-practices for converging on next steps:

  • Use an affinity sort to recognize patterns.
    Create categories from the data by grouping similar things together. What stands out about the different categories?
  • Establish evaluation criteria.
    Use a common set of goals or metrics to evaluate new concepts in a consistent manner. Try visualizing these criteria with a framework.
  • Force yourself to “state the answer if you had to do it now.”
    By making a quick decision, you can see where you and your team might be viewing the options differently. It’s a great way to spark productive conversation.
  • Conduct a “dot-vote” for prioritization.
    In a group setting, give everyone 5 sticky dots. Have each team member vote on their preferred ideas to establish priority.
  • Sketch ways of structuring your problem.
    Try sketching a bubble diagram. Using a visual medium makes your brain work in a different way.
  • Give it some space.
    Remember to get away from the problem for a day or two — sleep on it so that your subconscious can work on the problem.

Explore a range of options before selecting the best path forward

The divergent-convergent rhythm is at the heart of all projects. Projects that create new value have periods of uninhibited exploration followed by critical organization and refinement.

The beauty of this structure is that it applies in any time frame. You could use it in an afternoon meeting, several times in a one-week sprint, or routinely across a two month project.

The key is to recognize which behavior you might need at any give point. Are you stuck in a rut on the project? Then explore new options through divergent thinking.

Do you have too many options and you’ve been looking for a direction? Force yourself to edit and prioritize so you can work on something more specific.

Don’t try to do both at the same time!

Let us know what your favorite methods for diverging and converging are. Reach out on Twitter: @gravitytankinc.


About Patrick Buggy

Patrick is passionate about using human-centered design to build stronger businesses. Drawing on his experience in strategy and marketing across a range of industries, he strives to help others achieve meaningful impact in their organizations by working differently.

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