What if? Asking this simple question to spark a brainstorming session can be one of the most powerful exercises you use in the workplace. This technique involves the process of divergent thinking, a fluid, non-linear approach to problem-solving where many ideas are created and explored.
Divergent thinking was first introduced in 1956 by J.P. Guilford, a psychologist who was studying the nature of intelligence and creativity. He coined the terms ‘divergent’ and ‘convergent’ thinking to mark clear distinctions. Guilford characterized divergent thinking as the ability to produce fresh, original ideas and varied solutions to an existing problem.
According to Indeed, a worldwide employment website, “Divergent thinkers are often independent, curious, and risk-takers.” For Tim Madison of Raven Sun Creative, examples of divergent thinkers include, “Buddha. Socrates. Leonardo da Vinci. Nikola Tesla. Marie Curie. Steve Jobs. The average five-year-old child.”
Madison’s last example is funny, but on point. He argues that as we grow up, we “trade our ability to think divergently for the ability to efficiently arrive at ‘correct’ answers.'” This type of problem-solving seeks one solution by using a linear, logical line of thought based in known facts and information. Most organizations rely heavily on convergent thinking because they engage in the same types of activities and deliver the same types of products and services daily.
However, convergent thinking can lead to complacency and group think. Even worse, it can become detrimental to organizations when faced with unforeseen obstacles or challenges.
See Further. Think Deeper. Imagine More.
According to Madison, it’s best to “lead with divergence and follow through with convergence.” The divergent stage pushes you to explore all possible options. The convergent stage ensures you’ve chosen the most appropriate solutions given the context.
Regularly using divergent thinking can keep organizations and managers nimble and proactive by fostering a learning mindset that widens views and understanding. Divergent thinking also generates innovation and breakthroughs because it places no limits on creativity.
To encourage and fuel divergent thinking, Madison encourages organizations to create a “collective genius through team composition. By ensuring a diversity of voices, perspectives, and disciplines,” you can “build a shared brain capable of seeing further, thinking deeper, and imagining more.”
Expand Your Team’s Divergent Thinking Skills
During brainstorming sessions, Chisel Glossary recommends releasing the first and most basic idea to “make room and invite ideas out of the box. The divergent thinking team makes sure that everyone’s ideas are heard and not dismissed without giving an unmistakable thought of comparison.” This helps “enhance collaboration and team morale.”
In addition to brainstorming sessions and ‘what if’ questions, Indeed’s editorial team offers up several activities to hone your divergent thinking skills.
- Keep a Daily Journal – Write down your ideas “to help promote creative thinking and the exploration of different points of view.”
- Practice Free-writing – This exercise involves writing about one topic for a specified period without proofing, editing or judging your work.
- Try Subject Mapping – Visual learners rejoice. This activity involves organizing “groups of ideas visually so you can identify their relationships.”
- Conduct Bubble Mapping – Start with a central topic drawn in the middle and “draw ideas or solutions as bubbles around the topic.”
- Use Collaboration Tools – These will “encourage frequent communication and support the exchange of ideas between team members.” ASPHN offers a broad range of collaboration resources you can tap into.