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What is divergent thinking? Definition, examples and its link to creativity

a man with blue hair has multiple ideas in his mind showing how divergent thinking works

Divergent thinking lies at the heart of creativity. It's a way of figuring out answers, solutions and ideas in a free-flowing, spontaneous way.

It's one of three problem-solving methods that underpin our ability to achieve creative breakthroughs: convergent, lateral and divergent thinking.

We'll explore them below, but this one in particular is what's typically associated with 'creatives', and their ability to imagine 'something from nothing.'

Whatever your natural method of idea generation is, learning how divergent thinking works will illuminate your metacognition - you'll better understand how you think. And that means learning how to think more effectively when it comes to problem-solving and innovation.

But what exactly is divergent thinking? Are we all capable of it, or is it an inherent skill that only a few people have? And can organizations foster more of it in their teams?

We'll look at all of those below. Here's what you need to know about the kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, multicolored, creative world of divergent thinking.

Table of contents
Why should you learn to think divergently?
How can you learn to think divergently?

What is divergent thinking?

Divergent thinking is the generation of many different ideas in a free-flowing, unstructured manner. From the seed of a single starting point (or influence), a multitude of connected ideas blossom rapidly.

It's a cognitive process that's at once chaotic and beautiful; messy and powerful.

A strong divergent thinking ability is highly useful when you want to explore multiple possibilities to solve a particular problem. It's one of the core skills in creativity and is really worth learning how to make use of.

Divergent thinking is one of the three major forms of problem solving; to understand it best, you have to see it in context. Let's see what that means.

What's the difference between divergent, convergent and lateral thinking?

Divergent thinking makes more sense when you look at its polar opposite: convergent thinking.

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking is a process of laser focusing on a single solution to a problem. You start out with a bunch of options, and narrow them down to a final answer.

In data-driven, logical professions, this type of thinking is most prevalent: architecture, software engineering, financial planning, and so on. It's about taking a scientific, 'vertical' approach to creativity.

Convergent thinking is ideal for situations where there's one correct answer, because it's a process of narrowing down until the solution is clear. There's a definitive endpoint to the process.

If you were trying to decide which color to decorate your bedroom with, convergent thinking isn't too helpful; there's no definitive answer, only subjective opinion. Divergent cognition would be more helpful here, as you'd want to think of a bunch of different possibilities before making your decision. (Although if you've already bought two cans of paint, and you're deciding between the two, you'll have to use convergent thinking, as you've got limited options).

Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking takes the opposite approach. Instead of filtering out multiple options before arriving at a single idea, it starts with an inspiration and branches outwards, like the roots of a tree.

It's what we mean when we talk about brainstorming. It's about looking in multiple directions for a possible solution, combining ideas together to make new ones, and discovering new possibilities.

Here's another example. If you were tasked with figuring out how far it is from Paris to Rome, you'd use convergent thinking, because there are only a few answers. As the crow flies (689 miles / 1109km), via aircraft (1 hour 15 minutes), via road (889 miles / 1431km), and that's pretty much it.

But if someone asked you "What's the best way to get from Paris to Rome?" you'd have to think differently.

How do you define 'best'? You could come up with the fastest way, or the most scenic way, or the most relaxing way, or the most eco-friendly way. You could choose the most impressive way, or the silliest way, or the most outrageously wasteful way. All of these are subjective interpretations of the word 'best', and there are thousands of different permutations. Here, you'd use divergent thinking to creatively ideate your way to multiple relevant options.

The more open-ended the question, the more 'divergent' the thought process is to reach the answer.

Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is a combination of the above two. It's what you would broadly describe as 'thinking out of the box'.

Lateral thinking combines the logical reasoning of convergent thinking with the imagination-based process of divergent thinking. A two-pronged attack to solving any problem, it's not so much a cognitive process as a technique you can intentionally adopt.

Basically, if you're prone to divergent thought as your default problem-solving method, you can intentionally adopt some convergent thought patterns after letting your imagination run wild.

In practice, this sort of lateral thinking might involve letting yourself brainstorm freely for half an hour, noting down everything you come up with, then coming back a little while later to logically analyze your output.

In a group context, you could make this part of your creative process, or you could delegate each part to team members who suit that sort of thinking .

This is one of the smartest ways to increase overall group creativity, and it's what's known as cognitive diversity.

Is divergent thinking a skill you can learn?

Yes it is - and it's something really worth learning.

Various subjective reviews are highlighted in this Science Direct roundup, which mentions a 2004 meta-analysis of multiple creativity training studies. These studies looked at the effect of creativity training, including specific divergent thinking training .

The result: "... each of these outcomes can be increased significantly as a result of creativity training."

Here's why it's an important skill to learn, and how you should approach it if you're interested in developing your divergent thinking skills.

Why should you learn to think divergently?

Divergent thinking equips you with the ability to identify options. That's crucial when life gets hard.

Mark Runco, an expert on the psychology of creativity, highlights the key links between divergent thinking and adaptability - the ability to adapt and cope with challenges and unexpected circumstances in life. In his book 'Creativity: Theories and Themes', Runco explores the link between creativity and psychological flexibility:

"A flexible individual... will have alternatives and choices when solving problems, and therefore solutions are likely and frustration and distress are unlikely. Inflexible individuals, on the other hand, follow routines, make assumptions, and have difficulty when problems lead to fixedness [inability to see possible solutions]."

So when life gives you lemons, rather than being sad and giving up, divergent thinking helps you to figure out how to make the proverbial lemonade. Runco highlights Bruce Lee's creative philosophy of adaptability:

"[Asian cultural] emphasis on adaptability may explain why Bruce Lee, for example, was said to prefer the metaphor of water to describe a creative life. Water flows and adjusts to obstacles; it changes as required. Yet it is remarkably strong. It can wear down rocks and push heavy objects."

How can you learn to think divergently?

Individuals can increase their divergent thinking skills through a number of different ways.

Practice synectics

Synectics is the act of bringing together two seemingly unrelated things. It's a classic creative thinking exercise that was developed in the 1960s.

Try doing this once a week. Open up a newspaper on a random page, and pick a random noun. Now go to a different page, close your eyes, and put your finger down to find another random word. Then, try to make as many connections between the two as possible in two minutes.

Let's say you end up with the words "purveyor" and "exception". What could be described by those two things?

Maybe a seller of 'indulgences' in medieval Church times. It could be someone selling fancy hats (to make you an exception to standard fashion trends. Or it could be a corrupt judge handing out lenient sentences.

There's no goal to this other than mental exercise. You're not looking for an answer - only possibilities. And doing this repeatedly over time should strengthen your ability to come up with multiple ideas on the fly.

Use the SCAMPER technique

This is a brainstorming toolkit that gives you an array of questions to attack a problem with. It helps you look at an idea from a range of different viewpoints.

The initials refer to the different ways of approaching problems:

- Substitute - swap elements for something else

- Combine - mix with other elements

- Adapt - change something

- Magnify / Modify - change its scale, shape or other attributes

- Put to other uses - try it in a different context

- Eliminate - remove elements and simplify it

- Rearrange / Reverse - move parts around

You can apply these modifications to an idea for a physical product or system, or an abstract idea, like a sales process, or something intangible like a brand identity.

So at the 'combine' step, you'd ask - "Can I mix this part with that part? What would the result be?"

And at the 'eliminate' step, you might ask yourself "Will this idea still work if I remove this part?"

It's a holistic process for adding creativity to pretty much any situation.

For more example questions that help you use the SCAMPER technique, here's an overview from the journal Knowledge Solutions.

Coach specific attributes

The ability to 'zoom out' and see your task in a wider context is a crucial part of divergent thinking. As you widen your viewpoint on a problem, you'll be able to see the branching paths of possibility open up, including new ways to connect, remix, rearrange and work around things.

Having a 'big picture' viewpoint is an important skill for anyone looking to boost their creative problem solving capabilities. Our Big Picture Thinker coaching program will help you do just that, with Coach Marlee guiding you through two 5-15 minute sessions per week.

For someone who's prone to getting stuck on the details (a convergent thinker), laser-focused ways, big picture thinking can really help you understand the strategic side of things better.

Another key skill for letting creative ideas develop is patience. You can't force new ideas to pop up out of nowhere - sometimes you have to let them stew a little. But for motivated, driven people that can sometimes be a little difficult, especially if deadlines are involved.

That's why we developed the Reflection & Patience coaching program, in which Coach Marlee will help you master the art of stepping back, observing the situation, and sticking with tasks for the right amount of time. Following the logical steps of patience during your creative ideation is key to coming up with the very best ideas.

Let nature provide the answers

You can always try drinking psychedelic tea.

A study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that the South American psychotropic plant tea Ayahuasca - famed for its use in traditional shamanic ceremonies - 'enhances creative divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinking'. Researchers invited participants to take creativity tests before and after a round of ayahuasca, and found that it increased 'cognitive flexibility' and divergent thinking in almost everyone.

Of course, we wouldn't recommend taking part in any activity that's potentially harmful or illegal. And there's a long way to go before we see widespread cultural adoption of psychedelic drug-taking as a 'productivity hack'.

But if you're reading this article a few years after publication, your country may have taken more steps towards the legalization of psychedelics - something which is looking more and more likely. Maybe one day you'll be starting your day with a Starbucks ayahuasca latte.

Are people with ADHD more likely to be divergent thinkers?

People with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) could be described as having an overabundance of divergent thinking; their thoughts are so unstructured that it interferes with their ability to focus and get on with life. Therapies and medication can push them towards more convergent, focused thinking, which can be useful for certain productivity-oriented goals, but potentially at the expense of creative expression.

One article Scientific American explores just how intertwined ADHD and creativity are:

Previous research has established that individuals with ADHD are exceptionally good at divergent thinking tasks, such as inventing creative new uses for everyday objects, and brainstorming new features for an innovative cell phone device. In a new study, college students with ADHD scored higher than non-ADHD peers on two tasks that tapped conceptual expansion and the ability to overcome knowledge constraints.

When extraordinarily divergent thinkers, such as those with ADHD, are asked to perform linear, focus-based tasks (like studying for exams or writing essays), they're likely to have a pretty hard time. This can lead to misdiagnoses and a wrongful impression that they're not 'intelligent' or properly suited to the task.

Thankfully, the rising cultural appreciation for 'neurodivergence' means people are gradually becoming more accepting of those who aren't neurotypical. Being a divergent thinker doesn't mean you're less capable than anyone else - just different.

And with a little more understanding of our cognitive differences, we can all live happier, healthier, and more creative lives.

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