Convergent and divergent thinking: how to master the right one for your problem

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

What’s the question you ask yourself most?

What’s the best solution to this problem?

Or

What ideas do I have about how to solve this problem?

You almost certainly use both kinds of question, but deciding which is right for your current situation can make a big difference to what you achieve.

As I’ve been launching Brilliant Hiring over the past few weeks, I’ve had to pin myself down to ‘best solutions’ so that I could get things done. However, by nature, I love brainstorming and possibilities. It’s led me to reflect on the nature of the questions we like to ask ourselves.

Asking ‘what’s the best solution?’ is called convergent thinking. This is the process of reducing possibilities to a single, best answer. We use it all the time when we refer to facts, or choices, from buying a house to looking at our finances. Taking any action requires convergent thinking, so we can refine our options down to one path.

Asking ‘what ideas do I have?’ is divergent thinking. This takes a question as a starting point and works outwards to uncover possibilities. Divergent thinking allows us to solve problems that are new – or new to us, at least – or without one predetermined solution. It’s often regarded as the thinking that’s required in creativity, since it makes new connections in the brain to create new outcomes.

The dangers of convergent and divergent thinking

We need both ways of approaching problems to be successful. But we need to be conscious of when to use them, or we can find ourselves tripped up.

Here’s how it can get in our way.

  • The executive gets stuck in her job, because she’s using convergent thinking to only accept the perfect next role in a linear progression from where she is
  • A writer doesn’t finish anything, because his continually divergent thinking means he won’t commit to one plotline
  • A divergent-thinking photographer won’t admit that her business has no area of expertise – and few clients – because she doesn’t want to close down possibilities by focusing on one thing
  • The engineer-turned-entrepreneur is determined his struggling business will succeed because his product is an invention he’s proud of, but instead of facing the possibility that the market may not need it, he thinks convergently about how he needs to hire a better salesperson.

How the wrong question leads to getting stuck

Stuckness often comes from asking ourselves the wrong kind of question. We look for certainty where it’s not there, or we take refuge in creativity when we need to take action.

Trying to find one answer doesn’t work where there isn’t a single path. It leads to delay until that answer appears (it often doesn’t), or a short-lived, false sense of security by landing on one answer without deeper consideration. That can mean taking a path that’s a dead end, or missing opportunities by not being open to them.

Alternatively, focusing only on opportunities or possibilities leads to a permanent state of creative thinking without action. When there’s always another way that might be better, it’s hard to get started and even harder to stay focused.

How to reverse your thinking to get unstuck

If you’re stuck on something, try asking yourself what kind of thinking you’re using.

  • Are you convinced there’s one right answer, and you just need to know it?
  • Or are you caught up in creative thinking and exploration of an even better way to do something?

Whichever you’re using, try the other one.

  • If you’re using convergent thinking, try brainstorming 10 different solutions.
  • If you’re thinking divergently, articulate what you want to achieve, put your options in writing (this helps to make them real), and ask yourself which single one you can take action on.

Don’t change your problem. Change your question.

 

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