Leadership, if anything, is a creative way to think and engage with people and situations, while guiding and setting an example for others. This, of course, requires high-stakes decisions, and the way you think can greatly impact your team, your company and your career.
To stay creative and remain open to new ideas as a leader, it helps to know about divergent thinking. It’s another arrow in your quiver on the way to becoming the best leader possible, as there are great benefits to leaders who adopt a divergent way of thinking.
A Definition of Divergent Thinking
Divergent thinking is a method that is used to come up with creative ideas. It is usually a spontaneous, free-flowing and nonlinear process, where many ideas are generated and explored over a short time. This is done with little criticism and judgment to discover unexpected connections.
Psychologist J.P. Guilford first came up with the idea of divergent production, which is the ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem through creative thinking. Divergent thinking is not linked to intelligence or a high IQ as much as personality traits. People who excel at divergent thinking tend to be nonconformists, curious, risk-takers and have persistence.
While there might be types of people who are more likely to think divergently, promoting divergent thinking is possible through various creative exercises. Making lists of questions, setting aside time to think or contemplate, brainstorming, subject mapping, bubble mapping, keeping a journal, role-playing games, free writing and artwork are all ways to work the divergent thinking muscle.
How Divergent and Convergent Thinking Complement One Another
If divergent thinking is like spontaneous brainstorming, where imagination is set free and ideas are freely flowing and quickly collected, then convergent thinking is the next step, where ideas are organized and structured.
Convergent thinking is a way to organize the ideas that have come from a less restrictive, creative burst. It structures them and makes them understandable in context and format. The idea of a divergent leader is not one who is always off on flights of fancy, but one who can generate those ideas and then use a more practical approach to implement them with the help of action plans and work management tools.
The divergent thinking leader is one who might put off a decision as they muse on the problem in order to approach it from all angles and get a holistic view of solutions. The convergent thinking leader will approach the issue critically, working on problem-solving, with standards to make their judgement. The divergent thinker comes up with many answers, while the convergent lands on only one.
The difference between the two is obvious, one diverges and the other converges on the issue at hand. One is open and nonjudgmental, the other criticizes and chooses to narrow the process to a select option. But that doesn’t mean that these seemingly opposite ways of thinking cannot work together.
There is value is having the lens open wide at first, and then focusing during the decision-making process. Whether that can be achieved by the same person or not is dependent on the individual. Some can move fluidly from one way of thinking to another, but more are of one mindset. We’re exploring divergent thinking here, of course, but it’s important to understand that divergent and convergent thinking can coexist and thrive.
How to Foster Divergent Thinking
It’s more likely that people have experienced convergent thinking, rather than divergent thinking, in their workplace. Most businesses are more conservative and are solution-based. They might feel that allowing for divergent thinking is a luxury; time is money and divergent thinking is just not worth the investment.
But businesses don’t take risks are not going to advance. Yes, we live in a time of speedy changes, technological disruptions, interconnectivity and diverse workforces. All of that, however, calls for a new way of being able to look at things and think of ways to progress. That’s where divergent thinking comes in. It’s inherently creative and often innovative. That’s worth the investment.
How can we develop divergent thinkers in our leaders? The following are some ways to kickstart divergent thinking for better leadership.
- Think About Thinking: Take time out to just think, contemplate and muse on something. That doesn’t mean you approach a subject blindly; research it. Collect the data you need to understand the context of the problem, but then allow yourself time just to sit with it and see what arises. Furthermore, don’t be hesitant to brainstorm with the team. Remember, no idea is wrong, even if it appears contradictory. Challenge your established plan and previous decisions.
- Execute, Then Improve: Divergent thinking doesn’t mean being indecisive. It is more about experimentation, seeing what will happen, rather than being certain that the right path forward is the one that comes from traditional means. That means executing with caution but not conservatively.
- Get Feedback: Don’t work in a vacuum. Divergent thinking is a group activity. But this concept goes beyond brainstorming. Train, coach and collaborate with your team in order to facilitate an environment where new ideas can flourish without fear. Adopt an innovation culture.
- Invest in Yourself: But it’s not just the team that needs nourishment, so does the leader. Divergent thinkers are not complacent, but curious, and on an endless quest to improve. They seek to develop and keep learning by going to training sessions on a regular basis. There are online courses, self-help books, and well, the list is endless—as should be the commitment.
- Engage Your Team: More than asking for feedback and assisting in the continuing education of your team, a divergent leader is on board with a climate of full collaboration. This is done with keeping in frequent communication with your team, both formally and informally. Having a group of divergent thinkers and a leader who uses divergent thinking will expand the creativity and ideas exponentially. This can be facilitated with online collaboration tools.
Examples of Divergent Thinking
To get a better picture of what a divergent thinker is, let’s use an example by framing it as two questions. An easy way to understand the difference between divergent thinking and convergent thinking is to consider the differences between answering an essay prompt versus a multiple choice question.
The convergent thinker uses a more structured way of thought, like a multiple-choice question, where there are wrong answers that can be ruled out to leave that one answer which is correct.
However, a divergent thinker wouldn’t frame the question like that. The divergent thinker is going to answer the question more open-endedly. It’s more like an essay where there is not one right answer, and whatever the response, there is no constraint. The answer is found by taking the time to think before acting. It’s a more creative approach to a solution.
Another example is that when something is not working, the convergent thinker is more likely to decide that it’s time to replace it. That might be the right choice, but it’s made without giving credence to other possibilities. The divergent thinker will want to tinker and see if there’s something wrong that can be repaired.
Leadership is no different. If divergent thinking isn’t the preferred choice for a leader, it is at least a powerful tool that can help someone look outside of what they think they know. This can help them expand beyond their comfort zone to discover innovative solutions when necessary.
Divergent thinking leaders are curious and open to new ways of doing things. They’re constantly looking for new tools to help them work more creatively. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that has innovative features. From its kanban boards to its collaborative online Gantt charts to real-time dashboards, there’s a tool for everything you need to manage a project. Try it today with this free 30-day trial.