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Divergent and convergent thinking

In this section we'll explore the nature of divergent and convergent thinking: two ways we can expand our choices and ideas, and then refine them.

Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is where you open your mind, change your thought process, and encourage creative thinking and wild ideas – nothing is off-limits. It’s considered a spontaneous, organic, and fluid process that supports the development of several ideas or possible solutions to highly complex problems.

Divergent thinking is generally undertaken in a team environment, and the goal is to first consider the quantity of ideas – think novelty. The reason for this is that, in general, people are better (or at least have more practice) at selecting from a series of ideas or items already conceptualised and presented to them than thinking of new ones. We select better than we create. Once we’ve completed the divergent state or phase, it’s time to employ a convergent thought process – a more structured one.

A diagram representing divergent and convergent thinking, see visual description in downloads

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking requires individuals or teams to focus on finding/selecting a single so-called ‘right’ answer from an already-established list of possibilities. It asks us to ‘make a choice’ (evaluate and select from alternatives), whereas, in divergent thinking, we were asked to ‘create choices’ (generate multiple ideas and possible solutions). In convergent thinking, teams are required to select the best answer from what is currently in front of them – the familiar. Teams draw on what they recognise using previously accumulated knowledge. Convergent thinking offers little room for ambiguity and encourages ideas to be categorised as yes or no, right or wrong. In the majority of cases, the answer or chosen idea is generally the best possible idea at that moment.

Share your thoughts

Can you think of a time when you may have used these thinking approaches before? You may not have even realised you were using design thinking, but reflecting back, what were the outcomes?

References

Liedtka J. Why design thinking works [webpage on the internet]. Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review; 2018 [updated September–October 2018; cited 6 December 2022]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-design-thinking-works
The power of design thinking [podcast]. The McKinsey Podcast. New York: McKinsey & Company. 1 March 2016.

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