The Zen of Thinking Differently.
The yin and yang of divergent and convergent thinking.
Oxford University’s All Souls fellow exam was once considered the hardest exam in the world. A handful of the brightest students are given an envelope that contains a card with a single word written on it. The word could be something like integrity, innocence, or novelty.
They would then have to write about this one idea for 3 hours. The goal of this seemingly strange exercise was to put the creative thinking abilities of students to the test. This kind of exploratory thinking about a certain idea or problem without a specific outcome in mind is called divergent thinking.
The terms divergent and convergent thinking was first coined by the psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1956. According to Dr. Guilford, our thinking processes can be broadly categorized into two buckets: divergent and convergent thinking. Let’s look at each one of these thinking modes.
Divergent thinking is open-ended and unstructured. It happens when you are exploring different ideas without a specific end goal. The purpose is simply to generate as many ideas as possible. In this mode of thinking, you are generating new ideas, spotting common patterns, and making unexpected connections to several ideas.
By nature, divergent thinking leads to a potentially unlimited number of outcomes. It’s mental gymnastics where you stretch the limit of your thinking. You only stop when you run out of ideas, time, or energy.
For e.g., When trying to solve the equation X + Y = 10, your mind will enter a divergent mode of thinking to generate the infinite number of possible solutions for X and Y.
Convergent thinking on the other hand is close-ended and performed with a specific outcome or solution in mind. In this mode, you are focused on filtering down the facts to the ones that can really solve the problem at hand. You select the facts that are useful to solve the problem and discard the irrelevant ones.
By nature, convergent thinking always leads to a limited number of outcomes. You stop when you have achieved the desired outcome, whether that be the solution to a problem or a satisfactory answer to a question.
For e.g., Trying to answer 5 + X = 10, your mind will enter a convergent mode of thinking and will arrive at a single choice, the number 5.
Innovation and Divergent Thinking.
Most innovative ideas start as random explorations by some crazy inventor. Once they accidentally strike upon an interesting application during their divergent exploration, they converge towards honing the technology to solve that specific problem.
The rest of the journey is focused on executing that solution and building systems to deliver it at scale.
However, truly innovative companies understand that you need to maintain a mix of divergent and convergent approaches. You need to organize people towards a convergent outcome and keep exploring new avenues through divergent thinking. This explains why Amazon is able to stay innovative even after they achieved a larger scale.
The Creator and Divergent Thinking.
If you are an individual creator, then divergent thinking can be very useful when you are starting out. You explore various domains, niches, and styles in a divergent manner. Once you identify an area where you see strong potential, you can converge down to focus on going deeper. The remaining journey is one that of gaining mastery in that selected domain.
Here are some of the ways we can practice more divergent thinking.
Use Tools for Divergent thinking: By using tools like mind-mapping and brainstorming, you can practice divergent thinking to explore facets of a problem that is impossible to uncover by looking at a spreadsheet.
You can also use networked thinking tools like Roam Research to create smart notes that could be linked without establishing top-down hierarchies. In this case, the tool enhances your own brain’s capacity to think divergently and generate new insights.
Find new ways to do things: Steve Jobs once said in an interview, “In most companies, if you're new, and you ask, you know, why is it done this way? The answer is because that's the way we do it here or because that's the way it's always been done”
Sometimes organizations can get stuck in a convergent mode of thinking where everyone defaults to the status quo without even exploring if there are any alternate ways.
By creating a culture that fosters divergent thinking, you can encourage people to explore new possibilities that can reveal new ways of doing business and getting things done.
Divergent and Convergent thinking is complementary. It would be a grave mistake for someone to think that one mode of thinking is better than the other. Both have their place in the mental toolkit depending upon the context of the problem.
Convergent thinking works best when the problems we are trying to solve is well defined and require a straightforward solution. On the other hand, when the problems we want to solve are complex or loosely defined, divergent thinking works way better.
Divergent and convergent thinking are like the yin and yang of effective thinking. The former lets you explore new ideas and the latter allows you to exploit existing facts.
They are like inhalation and exhalation. You can’t have one without the other.
Oxford has since dropped the one-word essay. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/may/14/oxford-university-all-souls-college-exam
I also read that in Ant colonies, a few ants are always involved in divergent exploration and it’s usually these ants that allow the group to survive in case their original habitat gets destroyed.
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