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The Power of Divergent and Convergent Thinking: Guide Your Group's Thinking Process to New Heights of Productivity
One of the simplest, most valuable skills a brainstorm facilitator can develop is the ability to “read the direction” in which their group’s thoughts are flowing. Just like the ebbing and flowing tides of an ocean or river, collaborative thinking flows in one of two distinct directions: 1) it can diverge outward, in a broad, multidirectional, expansive exploration of ideas; or 2) it can converge inward, narrowing focus in an effort to judge, select and eliminate ideas.
Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Divergent thinking opens the imagination to all possibilities, while convergent thinking analyzes and chooses from among those possibilities. In a sense, divergent and convergent thinking are the Yin and Yang of creative problem solving. Neither is superior to the other – simply more appropriate for the task at hand. And both processes are essential to the ultimate success of any group idea generation session. So it’s important to understand their relative benefits, to identify when and under what circumstances each type of thinking is taking place, and to learn how to guide the group back to the most appropriate and effective method of thinking.
The Benefits of Divergent Thinking
Divergent thinking allows a group to generate as many fresh, new ideas as possible in a short timeframe. During this process all judgment is suspended, the group is encouraged to go for quantity of ideas, not quality, spontaneously build on one another’s ideas, and push the boundaries of the imagination…even wild, crazy, audacious ideas are welcome. In fact, the motto for divergent thinking is, “Everything is possible!” All ideas are equally embraced and recorded. In divergent thinking there really is no such thing as a bad idea. The goal is to simply achieve the largest creative yield of ideas and new connections possible. Look at divergent thinking as “big picture,” unencumbered by any practical or logistical constrains, limitations, or judgments.
The Benefits of Convergent Thinking
If divergent thinking is casting the widest net possible to capture new ideas, then convergent thinking can be thought of as harvesting of the very best of catch. Just as a funnel decreases the scope of a substance, so that it fits through a narrow opening, convergent thinking narrows down a large number of ideas through the process of analyzing, judging, eliminating and selecting. Convergent thinking is ideally suited for thoroughly evaluating the merits of an idea, or seeing how well it holds up to scrutiny based on pre-established criteria. We use convergent thinking to gain clarity, consider practical constraints, draw conclusions, determine the bottom-line, and select the best ideas.
When Thinking Processes Collide
As we mentioned earlier, each of the two thinking processes has an essential role to play in an effective brainstorm. However, if they take place simultaneously, or at the inappropriate time, they will quickly become an obstacle to success. Like matter and antimatter, one will neutralize the benefits of the other and create potentially “explosive” situations.
For example, imagine your group is in the middle of a spirited “blue sky” exploration of new, inventive ways to promote your product or service in light of new competition (divergent thinking). Suddenly a participant begins to judge or shoot down fledgling ideas they feel aren’t worthy of consideration (convergent thinking). What happens? The spontaneous outflow of idea sharing comes to a grinding halt. People clam up, become defensive and withhold their thoughts in fear of being judged or ridiculed. It takes a vigilant and skilled facilitator to spot convergent thinking when it seeps into the divergent ideation process. To get the session back on track, the facilitator must quickly stop the judgment and shift the group back in the direction of productive, divergent thinking.
Conversely if your group is in the selection process of narrowing down an abundance of ideas, convergent thinking is just the method you need. By assessing and judging ideas according to an established list of objective criteria, you can quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. However, if divergent thinking enters your evaluation process, your group will start free-associating ways to save an impractical idea… or worse, spontaneously begin a whole new round of unnecessary idea-generation. When this occurs, the objective selection process gets hijacked; sessions run overtime, and usually end without closure.
The Best of Both Worlds
An awareness and understanding of both these types of collaborative thinking can have a profound impact on the ultimate effectiveness of your idea generation sessions. Learn to identify them quickly. Develop skills for guiding or redirecting your group’s attention in the most productive direction. Then watch, not just as the ideas flow – but as the very best rise to the top.