The Psychologist J.P. Guilford introduced the concept of ‘divergent’ and ‘convergent’ thinking in 1956 as part of developing his ideas on the nature of intelligence and creativity.
Guilford made a distinction between divergent and convergent thinking in the way we approach the solving of problems.
Guilford associated divergent thinking with creativity and innovation and described it as the ability to generate multiple solutions to a situation or problem . He saw divergent thinking as having several key traits:
- Fluency – the ability to produce a great number of ideas or problem solutions
- Flexibility – the ability to simultaneously propose a variety of approaches to a specific problem
- Originality – the ability to produce new, original ideas
- Elaboration – the ability to systematise and organise the details of an idea and carry it out
In comparison, convergent thinking is the ability to deduce a single solution to a situation or problem. Convergent thinking emphasises speed and logic, based on recognising the familiar, the reapplication of known techniques and accumulated information and knowledge.
Divergent and convergent thinking are frequently used in combination. In the field of design, the concept permeates much of design thinking and can be found more explicitly in many design methods and techniques, such as the Design Council’s well known “Double Diamond design Innovation Framework”.
In general terms, divergent thinking typically occurs in a free-flowing, ‘non-linear’ manner, where many ideas are generated and explored. It is the form of thinking we apply in sense making and when we research, observe, probe, hypothesise and experiment. Following divergent thinking, the ideas and information that we have generated are organised and structured using convergent thinking, using a set of logical steps to arrive at a single solution, or response.
The concept of divergent and convergent thinking also has an important role to play in assessing and creating a capability for design within an organisation.
The routine, regular nature of running a business means that most organisations, and the people in them, have a bias towards convergent thinking. This can have a detrimental impact when the organisation is looking to make significant changes to the business. Everyone will have stories of working on business change initiatives where there was huge pressure to cut to the chase, define the solution, start the procurement process and/or develop and deliver.
People with a bias towards convergent thinking can be uncomfortable with divergent thinking, seeing it even as a waste of time and unnecessary. They already know what the solution is, what the customer’s needs are. And of course, there are plenty of suppliers waiting in the wings who are more than happy to exploit this.
This bias can lead to any time spent on divergent thinking being heavily curtailed, or bypassed altogether. The result is that innovation and creativity can suffer and ultimately the future success of the organisation.
Assessing your organisation’s ‘organisational capability‘ for divergent thinking and taking steps to improve this capability is therefore an important step in improving the overall design capability of your organisation.
Within a design team, weaving between divergent and convergent thinking should be viewed as an emergent property, that the team actively looks for and seeks to enhance as part of its development.
 Guilford, “The Nature of Human Intelligence”, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967
David Bowie BBC Paxman Interview, 1999
The distinction between convergent and divergence thinking personified. Just wonderful.
First Published: 03/09/2020 Last Updated: 30/10/2020