Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Value of Divergent Thinking

Assume that you are a manager and you assemble your team for an important meeting to solve an existing problem. In this meeting, the moment you describe the problem, there will be one or two persons who will come up with a possible solution and the rest of the team members agree with one solution or the other, and finally the team votes or builds a consensus on the proposed solution. The meeting is over and every one come out happy with the quick result.

An alternate scenario will be that, the moment the manager describes the problem, everyone agrees with the problem statement, and the manager immediately explains his solution to the problem & every team member agrees with the manager and the meeting is over.

Another possible scenario will be that, once you have described the problem, there will be two or three possible solutions being proposed by the senior/experienced staff members - and the rest of the team takes sides with one person (and the associated idea) and the meeting breaks down into a fierce debate - being fought on political grounds, where each party wants to prove that their solution is better than the other group’s solution. Often times the political battle rages on till one side wins or till the problem disappears.

In most cases( ~99%) the standard response to the problem being posed will fall in the above categories. Only in a rare case, the group will come out of the meeting with the idea that they need to think for more possible solutions. And in the rarest of circumstances, the team will come out with hundreds of possible solutions - this is almost a one in a million case.

In my experience, I have always seen that most people are happy with one or two satisfying solutions to any given problems. Many a times managers, who are responsible for problem solving, limit the ideas to a small set and then encourage people to discuss the merits/demerits of the limited set of ideas. Even when managers are presented with a complex problem and the manager calls for a brainstorming session, the final set of ideas/solutions taken out from the session will be very few - mostly one or two ideas.

This type of behavior is called convergent thinking - i.e., people tend to converge and select on a small set of possible solutions - which are then analyzed in great detail before implementing it. People want to find a solution to the stated problem at the earliest and the first solution which satisfies the need becomes the final solution.

Convergent thinking is a natural process for all adults. People are often forced to think that there is only one correct answer, thus when they find the fist answer, they stop thinking. It is also influenced by our ability to carry multiple ideas in our heads and think through all the possibilities. This behavior is also seen in sports: Only in a few sports such as chess, Golf, & poker players tend to work on multiple options while in rest of the sports the response is immediate - almost done on instinct or with very little thought.

Divergent Thinking

The term "Divergent Thinking" was coined by Joy Guilford. Divergent thinking refers to the ability to generate several ideas from a single input. It is the ability to produce many ideas, to produce unusual and original ideas, and to take an idea and spin out elaborate variants of the idea. Not all ideas generated by divergent thinking need not be necessary correct or even workable; the ideas may be fanciful, outlandish, impractical and even absolutely wrong.

Divergent thinking is an innate human ability to think of several ideas or possibilities - all ideas generated by the human brain. Human brain has the ability to imagine things and come up with ideas; even when we are aware that such an idea may not be practical or viable. Most often, people do not express such ideas; instead people tend to express what is perceived as feasible ideas only.

To illustrate, think about traveling from your home to your workplace. The moment you read the sentence, you would have thought of one most common route, and then a few alternative routes. This is typical convergent thinking. If I were to ask you to chart out 100’s of different route to travel from your home to workplace, then you will take time and think of all possible ways, and many of them will be wild & absurd ideas(eg. San Jose to San Francisco via New York), but a few will be practical options ( Can I use BART, Caltrains or take a bus? Or look up the map for what other alternates I can use to drive) This is divergent thinking.

Benefits of Divergent Thinking

The value of divergent thinking lies in making people think, making people think deliberately and in that process, people come up with some great ideas.

In a typical business scenario, the normal practice is jump into a final solution at the earliest. This is almost an instinctive behavior. But this limits the options and it often relies on past experience and almost never considers the new & untested ideas. Divergent thinking on the other hand, forces people to think of all possibilities and in that process generate new ideas or solutions.

Take a look at all the successful products that are out there: Starbucks Coffee, Tivo, iPod, Google, Pentium, etc. These were not the first in the market, they were late comers to the market and they succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of their creators.

A common factor among them is that the success of the products relies on a new idea - a new way to sell coffee, a new way to enjoy music, most effective information gathering in Internet, a new way to market CPUs.

These ideas are the products of divergent thinking.

Another way to look at the value of divergent thinking is to look at the competitive markets. When two companies are competing, their product lines will be very similar, so if one wants to outsmart the competition, then one has to think of ideas that are dramatically different that that of the competition.

Pepsi & Coca Cola are fierce competitors, and Pepsi was able to surpass Coca Cola by entering into enegry/sports drinks, fruit juices etc.

Success is fully dependent on execution of radical ideas - but radical ideas is the starting point - One can get these radical ideas only by divergent thinking.

How to do divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is not a natural process for the human mind. One has to deliberately work it out. The most common way to do divergent thinking is to brain storm. Brain storm for 10-15 minutes, document all the ideas that came out and discard the first 10-15 ideas. The ideas that come out in first few minutes are all based on past experiences and there will be nothing radical in it.

The next step is the true divergent thinking - Continue to brain storm for next one hour and capture all these ideas. The ideas that flow in this stage are truly the products of divergent thinking. At this stage, people will come out with new, untried, untested, bold, radical, crazy, impractical-at-the-first-sight ideas. These ideas will be tough to act on and often people in the room have no clue as to how they can execute these ideas. This leads to the next stage - the stage of critical thinking.

Divergent thinking requires a new way of working. This is best illustrated by the following figure:

The first step is to clearly define the problem statement or the task at hand and then describe the desired end state, i.e., describe what is that we want to achieve. Next, indulge in brain storming for few hours, capture all ideas generated. Note: During brain storming, do not juge the ideas or do any analysis of the idea, just generate ideas and document the ideas.

The next step is the critical thinking or critical analysis. In this step, people will collectively analyze all the ideas generated and look at the merits/demertis of the ideas, combine different ideas, select few ideas for further analysis or converge on few ideas for implementation.
Critical thinking is quite a challenge. The ideas generated during the divergent thinking phase often looks impractical but in the critical thinking phase we need to extract practical ideas out of new, untried, untested, bold, radical, crazy, impractical-at-the-first-sight ideas. This process is what I call "Ideas to concept".

There are tools and methods for developing ideas into concepts and I will write about it in future. For now, lets just say that during the critical thinking process, we have to analyze all the ideas generated and select few ideas for further analysis or converge on few ideas for implementation.

This process will give richer and more distinguishing ideas for implementation and will almost certainly give you a competitive edge.

However, I must warn you that there are great dangers in divergent thinking. Firstly the stake holders (& the organization) must be open to new/radical ideas, else all efforts are bound to fail. Secondly, it takes courage to present and implement a bold/radical/new idea - often times, people have natural tendency to confirm with the surroundings and not to be an odd-man-out.

Closing Thoughts

Divergent thinking is a very powerful way of thinking up new ideas. In recent times, several leading thinkers and practitioners have successfully demonstrated it: Starting with Leonard DaVinci, General Rommel, Field Marshall Montgomery, Steve Jobs, Steven Spilberg, Ophra Wenfrey, Mahatma Gandhi and lot more.

Also read:

1 comment:

Coralie said...

Very clearly written, good examples.
You might say more about how convergent thinkers often seem threatened by divergent thinkers, or perceive them as off-topic. If the concept of divergent thinking becomes more widespread, people will appreciate it more.
I will refer to this post in my critical thinking blog at