Divergent and convergent thinking describe two stages within the creative thinking process. Divergent thinking involves the creation of a diversity of new ideas; it is a method or thought process used to experiment and explore many new possible solutions. Convergent thinking is the opposite process whereby we start with a variety of previously generated ideas and try to filter, integrate, condense or select a subset of those as the finished product.
Divergent thinking is typically associated with creative thinking in that it involves making new connections while convergence is selecting and developing the most promising connections. Both stages are important to the generation of new ideas in that the divergent stage makes sure that we have explored all the possible options, and the convergent stage ensures that we have chosen from those options the most appropriate solutions given the context.
The Creative Education Foundation – based on the work of Sidney Parnes and Osborn – define four central factors which are often cited elements to the divergent thinking process.1 Firstly seek wild ideas – get outside the box and allow for the space to discover extraordinary ideas. Second, combine and build – combine diverse ideas; build, connect and improve ideas. Third, defer judgment – avoid judging ideas as either bad or good in the divergent-thinking phase. Fourth go for quantity – production of many ideas is often a good strategy for finally ending up with a few good ones.
Diversity of Ideas
The central aim to divergent thinking is to explore all of the possibilities within a given context. Part of the challenge of divergent thinking is to break away from the concrete reality within which something will take place and that will put constraints and impossibilities upon many options. Divergent thinking requires imagination to forget about the difficulties presented by the particular context and conceive of a condition where anything is possible; similar to dreaming. With divergent thinking, we are purposefully ignoring the constraints of reality to truly explore the space of all possibilities.
Alex Osborn often called the father of brainstorming, once said, “It’s easier to tame down a wild idea than it is to invigorate a weak idea.” These “wild ideas” are the product of true unconstrained, out of the box thinking. They require connections drawn between diverse concepts. Diverse ideas do not come naturally, they require one actively seeking out novelty and exploring new ideas. They need new ways of looking at things, new activities, people or experiences that put one in a new situation where one can see the world from a different perspective. Travelling is a good example of this; people often go traveling when they have run out of ideas as to what they want to do with their lives. The experience of traveling is a form of divergent thinking, an open exploration that puts one in different places, gives one different experiences and new frames of reference.
These diverse perspectives also need to be combined to create something new, and this requires making connections. The greater the diversity of the ideas and the greater the connections between them, the greater the emergence. Making connections means putting things together in new ways, like a fashion designer after having selected materials that she likes will then spend lots of time playing with them, arranging them one way, then another and then another, continuously trying different configurations to see how they work.
This can look like a form of playing, and play is often noted as an important part of creativity, just spending time arranging and rearranging things through prototypes and mock-ups. Often it is not possible to tell what will emerge until things are put together, as things can interact in totally novel ways when combined which we would not have expected just by considering them in isolation, this is why experimentation or play is important, to test what may emerge out of the different connections.
Psychologists have found that a high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, personality traits that promote divergent thinking are more important. Divergent thinking is found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, experiment, and persist.2
Deferral of Judgment
Often with divergent thinking judgment is deferred from this stage in the process, which means temporarily suspending one’s evaluation so as to enhance the production of different ideas. There is research to demonstrate the benefits of deferred judgment. One of the earliest studies of the creative process was conducted by Sid Parnes. Parnes conducted a simple yet effective study that involved two groups of students. They were each given a challenge to solve and were asked to produce ideas, but they were each given different instructions. One set was told to suspend judgment; to not evaluate their ideas as they were generating them. The second group was told to come up with good ideas. “Good ideas” implying the need to evaluate. When they evaluated the different ideas generated by these students, the researchers found that those who deferred judgment ended up generating twice as many good ideas as those who were told to generate good ideas.
Although in some instances production of ideas and evaluation of them may happen at the same time.3 What is critical is that evaluation does not inhibit the expansive exploration of possibilities through criticism or people’s egos getting damaged.4 This form of critique can halt creative momentum and thus a liberal, tolerant environment is more conducive.
Frequently the capacity to create lots of options to a challenge is identified as another key attribute to successful divergent thinking; a higher fluency implies more options to choose from when it comes to the convergent process.5 For example, Nobel Prize scientists publish two times as many papers on average as non-winners. Mozart had over 600 compositions. J. S. Bach had 1,000 compositions. Einstein had 248 publications. Edison had 1,093 patents. Picasso completed more than 20,000 works in his life. This need for volume is also applicable to business innovations. IDEO, a famous design company based in California, have a toy unit, and in just one year, this toy unit generated 4,000 new ideas—230 of which were deemed to be viable and went to the prototype stage. Of those 230, eventually, 12 were considered to have commercial potential and were sold to clients. When it comes to a successful product, innovation, or service— one that makes it to the marketplace and becomes adopted—a recent study showed that, on average, it took 3,000 initial ideas to get to that one successful new product or service.6
The convergent stage of the process is one of refinement and synthesis, to take an idea from a world where anything is possible to the final outcome where only a very limited amount of options are possible. Convergence is about the fact that for anything to come out of the creative thinking process it has to be implemented within some real context and that context places real constraints upon it. Whether we are trying to create a new mode of transportation, a new business model or a new type of solar panel, whatever it is it will take some real form and exist within some real context and this will place constraints on what is possible in reality.
For the fruits of the divergent process to be successful, they have to be able to resolve the limitations. To take a possibility or idea and make it real it has to be rationalized; that is to say, reduced or combined into a single form that will resolve the constraints efficiently. Convergent thinking is about extracting real value out of novel ideas; exposing these ideas to the real world to see which will work in practice. Thus this stage means bringing judgment back into the equation to discern and select between options. With convergent thinking we are bringing our ideas back into reality, we need to be conscious of the context within which the system will exist and the constraints within that environment.
Convergent thinking is essentially a process of refinement, where we are trying to synthesize all the different parts into a final solution. It requires us to stay focused on delivering the outcome. It demands close scrutiny and persistence to understand the final requirements and ensure the solutions will meet them.
Keeping the initial vision alive is important. Being very passionate and imaginary in the divergent stage and then coming in and being over critical in the convergent stage does not help to deliver an effective final outcome. What is needed is a balance between an understanding of the original vision and the final requirements, to maintain the original vision but gradually refine and structure it so that it will fit the needs of the end context.
During the convergent process, there may be substantial pressure to deliver a stable finished outcome; this can drive one too rapidly towards conformity and convergence. Thus losing the novel ideas by ignoring original concepts and immediately moving to the safe and not very risky solutions. To perform the convergent stage properly it is necessary to stay open and stay going over the possibilities until they are correctly synthesized; which takes time and commitment.
Creative Problem Solving
The creative thinking process through divergence and convergence is very similar to the process of evolution whereby new variants are created and selection is performed upon them by their environment The Creative Problem Solving process has, perhaps, been the most widely researched deliberate creative process model, and it has been found to be one of the most effective methods used in creativity training. In the Creative Problem Solving model, there are four steps that we move through.7 The first is called clarify, in which we are identifying the challenge or challenges that need to be worked on. The second step is called ideate, in which we begin to generate ideas. These are tentative solutions. In the third step of the process, called develop, we take those initial concepts and ideas, and we turn them from good, promising ideas into deliverable solutions. Finally, in the fourth step, called implement, we have to move our solutions from ideas into reality.
Peter Carruthers,8 who has looked at evaluation and creativity, posits that this divergent and convergent process is the universal cognitive underpinning of ordinary, everyday human creativity. He describes it as being similar to the process of evolution. Evolution is a combination of novel variation, the search for and the generation of variation, and then the selective retention of those novel variations that are most adaptable or “fit.”
Gabora and Kaufman talk about contextual focus as a breakthrough in human evolution. They say that the fruits of one mode of thought provide the ingredients for another.9 And it is not just applicable to individuals; we see this in organizations as well. Successful companies try a lot of possibilities and keep what may work; they experiment and accept a degree of failure. Organizations have to experiment constantly, testing new ideas. The conditions in our environment are always changing, and companies need to vary. Otherwise, they run the risk of extinction.