The difference between divergent and convergent thinking is so integrated into what we do, that we never stop to think about the theories behind these two thinking methods.
According to Anne Manning, constructor of Creative Thinking: Innovative Solutions to Complex Challenges, the constant switch between modes of idea generation (divergent thinking) and idea analysis (convergent thinking) prevents many teams from succeeding in the creative thinking process. To understand how creativity works in the brain, we must first understand the difference between convergent and divergent thinking.
What is divergent thinking?
The divergent phase of thinking is about managing the messy process of accessing each other’s intuition to gain fresh perspectives and insights from which options can be generated. This is an iterative process. It is misleading to think of these phases as sequential.
The Blue/Thinking Phases of Divergent Thinking
Problem Sensing and Definition – This is where it all starts. This phase ends when you have a clear definition of the issue. Successful problem-sensing requires people to be tuned in to both your market environment and your internal organization, coupled with good processes. The diversity of people and experiences adds significantly to the potential power of the divergent phase. It’s always a good idea to have one or two people in the group who are natural questioners and perpetually restless about the status quo.
Incubating Ideas – Innovations flow from people seeing the same reality differently. In the phase of incubating ideas, you want to expand your zone of intuition to better access your life experience and surface insights that lie below. When you access your intuition it’s messy and you often struggle to find the right words to express what you are sensing. A supportive, empathetic atmosphere is essential. You want people to talk openly about ways in which a problem might be tackled. Avoid the ‘I am right. You are wrong’ debate. Excessive judgment in this delicate phase can kill creative conversation yet debating and exploring differences of opinion is vital.
Challenging Assumptions – As options for action take shape, it becomes important to identify the assumptions that have been made. In high risk decisions we want as few unconscious and unqualified assumptions as possible.
This is the phase of critical thinking. Invariably people are passionate about their ideas and get attached to them. If you are hearing excessive advocacy in the conversation it may be a sign that the quality of the process is slipping. The unconscious assumptions behind decisions are one of the most significant causes of failure.
Tips for successfully facilitating divergent phase conversations
Location counts – Even for regular meetings, apply some variety to your meeting location and format. Human beings have habitual patterns unconsciously linked to habitual locations. Choose a different meeting room in an alternative area or meet outdoors on a sunny day. As you become confident with using different spaces and locations, you will learn how much this impacts how people show up.
Have the right people in the room – Creative insights emerge from seeing the same reality differently. Having a diversity of life experience in the room relevant to the issue is more likely to generate multiple perspectives.
Create the right atmosphere – People only tend to share differences of opinion in a non-judgmental manner when they are in a safe and trusted environment. Start your session with a Trust Builder to help you do this.
Facilitator tool kit – Make sure you have your tool kit to hand so you can run various processes effectively. Essential items include post-it notes, marker pens, flip charts and modelling kits.
What is convergent thinking?
Once you have managed to achieve a clear divergent process, it becomes a lot easier to move into the convergent phase of thinking. The convergent phase will typically be faster paced. It is action oriented and very focused on outcomes, timescales and reviewing. The focus on action in this phase means that ‘doing’ is often prioritized above the people. In the pressure and excitement to get things done, you will need to pay attention to your energy and energy of others.
The Green/Doing Phases of Convergent Thinking
Defining Options – As we share differences of opinion and catalyze further ideas, a few preferred options are likely to emerge. At this point one or two people from the group need to take time-out to fully define an option for the group to evaluate at a further date.
Making Decisions – We pursue our purpose by the iterative process of decisions and action and learning from outcomes. A group that is paralysed or slow in its decision-making will likely fail; one which is fast in deciding, yet based on poor option generation, is likely to also fail. Be explicit that you are getting together to make a decision. In more formal settings the agenda may flag in advance ‘issues for decision’ and a summary of the problem, preferred option, other factors to consider and how to mobilise for action. Once a decision is made, inform the people who need to know so the group can move swiftly into mobilizing for action.
Mobilizing for Action – If the preceding steps through the Divergent and Convergent phases have been done well, then mobilizing for action should be fast. Factors to potentially slow down this phase may include identifying and appointing a leader, access to specialist expertise or releasing funds to make mobilization happen.
Action and Review – Most people’s energy is on taking action and so habits and practices are strong in the Convergence Phase. Success in this phase depends on the quality of team effectiveness. The review process can also be the start of a major re-think and back into more strategic problem-solving.
Remember that how well you run the Divergent Phase defines your upside. Good solutions implemented well and continuously improved is what you should be seeking. A poorly managed Divergent Phase leading to an OK solution, even if well implemented, can only deliver an OK outcome.