What Is Divergent Thinking? (And How to Develop This Skill)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 26 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Divergent thinking is a thought process that creates multiple solutions for a single problem. This is a non-linear thinking process and helps to inspire creativity and innovation in group discussions. Understanding how to think divergently can help you identify effective solutions for problems in the workplace. In this article, we discuss the answer to the question 'What is divergent thinking?', explain why it's useful, provide a guide on developing this thought process and compare it to other thinking methods.

What is divergent thinking?

The answer to the question 'What is divergent thinking?' is that it's a thought process that analyses a solution on a broad scale and encourages multiple solutions. Compared to other thought processes, divergent thinking is a non-linear method. This means the ideas are relatively scattered and don't follow a linear structure. Professionals utilising divergent thinking usually implement visual representations, such as a tree graph, bubble graph and flow chart. Divergent thinking can involve many ideas, issues and solutions, so a visualisation method can help professionals organise their thoughts.

Why is divergent thinking useful?

Below, you can find several reasons to utilise divergent thinking in a professional setting:

Improves group collaboration

One of the main benefits of divergent thinking is that it encourages team members to contribute to group discussions. Divergent thinking is usually most effective when there are multiple contributions. People may feel inclined to contribute their ideas because they have more freedom of thought than other thinking methods. When group members want to contribute to discussions, it often stimulates their thinking processes and improves their creativity. Divergent thinking is essentially an inclusive brainstorming strategy that encourages everyone to participate.

Related: Top 10 Tips on How to Work Collaboratively In the Workplace

Highlights unexpected connections

Because divergent thinking involves an abundance of brainstorming, there is usually the potential to discover hidden connections between ideas, solutions and issues. For example, a group of developers discuss how to plan the footpaths for their development. They brainstorm multiple ideas, such as the vegetation they want to use and the number of pedestrian crossings. From this discussion, they realise their planning is subject to existing sewage systems. They investigate the systems and discover the need for extensive maintenance. By discussing one topic, they identify issues relating to another topic.

Fosters creativity

Divergent thinking involves stimulating thought processes to create innovative solutions and ideas. This type of thinking can help individuals develop their creativity because it allows them to think of solutions in a non-linear manner. When individuals and groups have freedom of thought, they typically think creatively and try to contribute alternative solutions that are new and potentially innovative.

Related: How to Show Creativity at Work (With Tips and Skills)

Creates multiple solutions

The fundamental reason for divergent thinking is to develop multiple solutions. Divergent thinking is usually most effective when people contribute many ideas to the discussion. This is because these contributions can branch into more ideas and potential solutions. When individuals and groups have many solutions to a problem, they can analyse them to determine which is most effective.

Related: Examples of Communication and Collaboration Skills

Encourages flexible problem solving

Divergent thinking can be beneficial in situations that require flexibility. Some issues may constantly develop or change, which can cause prior solutions to become futile. Divergent thinking can be a flexible problem-solving technique because it incorporates multiple solutions. The divergent thought method also has no strict structure for planning, so the process is flexible and can apply to unique problems.

How to develop your divergent thinking

Below, you can find a helpful guide on how to develop your divergent thinking:

1. Collaborate with colleagues

An excellent way to improve your divergent thinking is to increase the number of discussions with colleagues and team members. When you discuss topics and ideas with other people, they may have unique thought processes that can inspire you. Divergent thinking is usually more effective when multiple perspectives and minds contribute to a single topic. The more people involved in a discussion, the greater variety of contributions you can expect to gain.

2. Utilise data visualisation techniques

Divergent thinking is usually beneficial, but it might become disorganised and confusing. This is why professionals typically implement a data visualisation technique to display the thought processes. This can help everyone involved in the group discussion remember past topics, data connections and specific flows of information. In extensive discussions, there may be hundreds of branches and ideas that require a visual representation to interpret. Some data visualisation techniques you might consider include a bubble chart, flow chart and tree diagram.

3. Record past ideas

Recording the solutions and ideas from past issues and topics can be an excellent way of improving your ability to think divergently. You can often gain inspiration for solving current issues by reviewing past solutions. For example, a mine site is experiencing flooding, making its access and egress points inaccessible. They brainstorm methods of securing the entry and exit points but can't think of any feasible solutions. They decide to review past reports of flooding in the area and discover that previous management teams utilised gravel to limit the water flow.

4. Gain inspiration from other areas

Divergent thinking encourages you to think of alternative approaches to problems and topics. If you're struggling to engage your creativity, it can be a good idea to review other issues and the relative solutions implemented. You can investigate unrelated issues when trying to gain inspiration. This is because unrelated solutions can still inspire you in approaching a topic alternatively. To think divergently, it's usually important to expand your reference points and consider unconventional techniques.

5. Take time to relax

Relaxing may seem counter-productive, but it's usually an important part of fostering creativity and innovation. Specific parts of our brain are typically responsible for encouraging us to think alternatively. These areas of our mind can require rest to function efficiently. It can also be a good idea to have a break from your thought processes. If you're struggling to think of solutions, you can revisit the topic at a later stage. If you focus too much on a specific subject, you may struggle to think of alternative approaches.

6. Focus on the problems

If you're trying to think of a solution to a problem in the workplace, it can be a good idea to focus on the problem's causes and implications. By reviewing the problem in its entirety, you can expand your thought process and potentially identify unique solutions. Some solutions you develop may actually create more problems or a unique set of challenges to overcome. You can also review these additional sets of problems to help you refine your solution or develop alternative approaches.

How does divergent thinking differ from other thought processes?

It can be important to understand that many thought processes incorporate similar methods and procedures. Divergent thinking is essentially a combination of multiple thought processes, such as creative thinking, reflective thinking and associative thinking. The most different thought processes to divergent thinking are usually convergent thinking and lateral thinking. Below, you can find details on the convergent and lateral thought processes and how they differ from divergent thinking:

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking is essentially developing a single solution for a single problem. To develop the specific solution, you typically utilise established rules, logical reasoning and a method of deduction. For example, a multiple-choice question in a test has four solutions, but only one of them is correct. You would utilise convergent thinking to establish which answer is correct. This doesn't necessarily mean you don't utilise rules, logic and deduction methods when thinking divergently. You still incorporate those methods of reasoning, but divergent thinking provides multiple solutions, not just one.

Convergent thinking is essentially a thought process that doesn't require extensive amounts of creativity and innovation. Convergent thinking is typically for tasks and decisions that have rules established. For example, a carpenter is installing window frames in a home. They want to know the frame dimensions before they cut the wood. In this situation, the carpenter derives the answer from logic and rules. The logic is that the window frame requires specific dimensions to fit into the space. The rules refer to the dimensions specified in the blueprints by the client.

Related: 6 Examples of Strategic Thinking With Methods to Improve

Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking and divergent thinking are very similar principles of thought. They both involve creativity, innovation and alternative approaches to a problem. The primary difference is that divergent thinking values the number of contributions more than the quality of contributions. Lateral thinking focuses on providing quality solutions that indirectly relate to the problem. The purpose of lateral thinking is usually to identify alternative approaches to a problem.

It can be important to understand that, throughout developing solutions, individuals and groups may utilise more than one type of thought process. They may begin their discussions with divergent thinking to gain an abundance of ideas. They may then utilise lateral thinking to discover alternative approaches and unique solutions. To finalise a solution, they may utilise convergent thinking to compare solutions and identify the most effective choice.

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