When it comes to creative thinking, I identify as divergent.
I can practice convergent thinking, which is to say that I am capable of analyzing practical alternatives and choosing one that seems best. If I lacked this skill, I’d never know what to eat for dinner.
But, as my husband will attest, I would rather list all our possible dinner options than be forced to choose. For me, making a decision can be stressful work, but imagining possibilities feels like joyous play!
These terms—convergent and divergent thinking—set off all kinds of “aha” and “oh, I see!” when I began reading Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. In the book’s introduction, “Messy Minds,” I learned that creative people practice both divergent and convergent thinking.
Opposite methods, both important.
Here’s how the American Psychological Association defines the terms:
Convergent thinking is “critical thinking in which an individual uses linear, logical steps to analyze a number of already formulated solutions to a problem to determine the correct one or the one that is most likely to be successful.”
Divergent thinking is “creative thinking in which an individual solves a problem or reaches a decision using strategies that deviate from commonly used or previously taught strategies.”
Here’s how I’ve come to think of them:
Convergent thinking starts from a set of known options and methodically evaluates them to choose the best one.
Divergent thinking starts from a single point and pursues many possible paths, including those never before considered.
Though I haven’t read any research to back this up (my science-obsessed partner Jill will hunt that down, I’m sure), my gut tells me that many of us favor one of these styles over the other. Like I said, I lean divergent. I love exploring options, pursuing tangents, and following unpredictable paths. If you identify as convergent, you may be rolling your eyes, because my process sounds a little inefficient and unnecessary to you.
Well, we need each other.
We divergent thinkers do need to know when to call it quits and converge on an answer. If we’re going to get dinner on the table, I have to stop asking “what if” and just make some grilled cheese sandwiches already.
As for you, convergent thinkers, now and then you’d do well to consider a few side trips or detours on your path to a decision. You just might find a more suitable route that wasn’t on your roadmap.
At work—as individuals and as teams—we need to make room for both types of creative thinking.
We divergent thinkers need to insist on time and space to imagine alternatives and then courageously share our ideas. We also need to create ideas that will actually work by staying grounded to a sense of purpose. We must generate not just opportunities, but actions and results.
At the same time, those of you who crave convergence need to welcome new ideas, possibilities, and perspectives. Open your mind to consider new alternatives, acknowledging that the best option might be one you’ve never analyzed before—because maybe it never existed.
Creativity expert Kathryn Haydon cautions that convergence is “an almost irresistible force that tends to dominate our lives and the world.” We’re so well-versed in and reliant on convergent thinking—the type that helps you ace a multiple-choice test—that our divergent strengths begin to atrophy from lack of use.
Build your creative muscle by practicing divergent thinking.
One form of divergent thinking is brainstorming—the classic exercise that asks, “what if?” and then welcomes a torrent of ideas. In that feels too squishy for you, think of the task as ideation or problem solving.
And if you crave structure, try the SCAMPER technique.
SCAMPER stands for:
Put to another use
Product developers SCAMPER innovations by considering a solution that already exists, then applying one or more of these tactics to envision something new or better.
What material could we use instead of plastic to make this item more earth-friendly? Substitution begets a biodegradable straw made from plant materials.
What if we combine a head shaver and a vacuum cleaner? Combination gets you the Flowbee.
You get the idea.
Jill and I help clients SCAMPER to communications that are clear, concise, compelling, and—of course—creative. And we don’t just work with “communicators” and “creatives” who feel at home in a divergent world. These methods work just as well for convergent thinkers: analytical, pragmatic, efficient, action-oriented, no-nonsense people who just want a message that works.
SCAMPER your way to better communication.
Try this. List three things you need to communicate in the coming week. Choose one and see if any of the following tactics push you in a new direction:
Substitute. You know that word you keep using even though it’s so vague no one knows quite what you mean? (Solution? World-class? Impact?) Yeah, that’s the one. Brainstorm 39 words or phrases that say it better.
Combine. For that training conference you’re planning, liven up the presentations by putting speakers in pairs instead of having them go solo. Think of it as a mash-up, bringing topics and talents together to create a more captivating session.
Adapt. Your social media team is pumping out killer posts that have generated so much buzz, your concept is #trending! How could you convert those brilliant hashtags into headlines for your next sales presentation?
Modify. Your CEO read a 2,500-word script during last week’s earnings call. That script is in the public domain, but let’s face it … precious few employees know it’s out there or care to read it. How can you distill that message down to talking points your factory managers can share at shift meetings?
Put to another use. Instead of throwing “extra” video footage on the cutting room floor, choose bloopers and behind-the-scenes bits for a warm-up reel to air before execs take the stage at your upcoming customer conference.
Eliminate. The classic editing challenge: how low can you go? How many words can you cut and still keep the essence of your message? Our workshop participants routinely cut 30, 40, or 50 percent of their first drafts. Sometimes they can compress an entire email, report, or white paper into a single sentence. The results are always stronger.
Reverse. Your quarterly meetings always follow the same order. What if you turn the next one upside down, or at least jumble the elements? Take some Q&A while people are filtering into the room. Start on a high note by recognizing employee accomplishments and milestones. Save the corporate vision and performance talk for last, using those topics to send people away with a strong call to action.
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Alrighty, then. While you experiment with SCAMPER technique, I’ll be over here making a grilled cheese sandwich. I wonder if I should use Cheddar, American, Provolone, Colby-Jack, Swiss, Muenster, Havarti, or …