Productivity Coach’s Corner: Divergent and Convergent Thinking

As you consider building innovation this year and beyond, practice thinking up and out (divergent), as well as down and in (convergent).

In the book, “Creating Innovation Navigators,” Sabra Horne wrote, “Innovation is anything new that helps an organization accomplish its mission…” From those 11 words—not even a complete sentence—we can embark on a divergent and convergent year.

In a class I took last month taught by Mike Peng (founder and managing director of IDEO Tokyo), and Heather Currier Hunt (head of IDEO’s Global L&D Team), my cohort members and I spent about five hours of asynchronous and synchronous time exploring these two aspects of the innovative process: thinking that expands AND contracts. As I reflect on my interpretation of the first four words of Horne’s definition above, I’m confident there is more to explore.

Think Up and Down

Open your calendar with me. I have my Microsoft Outlook calendar up on the screen to my right as I write this article. Now, let’s push out 60 or maybe even 90 days. Now, we ask, “What will be ‘new’ between now and then?” You’ll notice I put quotes around the word, new. I did that on purpose. For this exercise, I need to identify what I mean by “unique.” Is it something that already exists? Am I making it up on my own? Has someone on my team brought me this idea before, but we were not yet ready? If innovation means we’re doing something new (or different), I need to ensure I cage our development in a way that gets us results, outcomes, or some impact—and a positive one at that!

As you consider building YOUR new things this year and beyond, practice thinking up and out (divergent), as well as down and in (convergent). While it may be comfortable, or perhaps feel more normal, for you to start from one reference point more than another, it is essential to include them both in your quest to innovate. Divergent thinkers often practice thinking in a way we might call “outside the box.” Convergent thinkers, conversely, might look at something and wonder how it will or even cannot work. While both kinds of thinking are ultimately beneficial to most innovation efforts, there is a specific time and place for each.

Techniques to Try

Granted, the time and location will be unique to your particular mission, so for now, I will spend just a bit of time sharing some benefits and techniques of each.

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

—“Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

No doubt you have seen that quote before. It is especially appropriate to the conversation on innovation efforts. While we have documented stories of divergent thinking causing innovations that were not expected (microwave cooking and Post-it notes, for example), most of us will more likely innovate on and toward a purpose. This is why focusing on a direction is important and why divergent thinking is challenging. While the goal in divergence is to come up with a few more ideas about how to get after a project or movement, the real benefit of practicing this is that it can help you think bigger and more creatively on any topic, issue, meeting, event, etc., that is coming your way.

Want to practice divergent thinking? Ask a few colleagues to meet you for 25 minutes in person or on video. After a couple of minutes to see one another, put a pen (any kind you choose) on the table. Give each person a stack of 10 sticky notes and say, “On each page, please write down a different use for a pen like that on the table. Please write six ideas that are easy to imagine and four that are a stretch of the imagination.”

In the beginning, most people will look at you and wonder what to write. Model the action you need to see. Write your ideas.

With five people in the room, you will quickly have 35 to 50 ideas. So put them on the table. But ask the group to organize them into natural categories. Here, you begin a process that ultimately might lead to convergence. In the IDEO class I mentioned above, I learned that convergence differs from combining or organizing. My takeaway (and what I am working on this year) is that to converge means to bring things together to form a new whole. So while you and your team initially will find themes for your sticky notes, that is just the warm-up exercise.

Once you have put the notes on the table (or wall) in front of you, give everyone three more notes. Tell them you want to focus all attention on a specific project—maybe the project you thought about when you looked at your calendar 60 or 90 days from now. Describe in a few sentences what you see when you see the project in your mind. Then ask the group, “On each note, please write down a unique idea you have that we could apply to that project we are working on.”

If everyone does this, you will quickly have 15 ideas. Some will be old, some new, a few different, and one or two genuinely innovative!

As you prepare for a new year of doing new things, practice thinking in new ways. And please drop me a line via e-mail to let me know how that activity served you and what you learned!

Dr. Jason Womack
Dr. Jason ‘JW' Womack is currently an instructor at Air University's Leadership Development Course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He is a Nationally Board-Certified Coach (BCC), co-author of "Get Momentum: How to Start When You're Stuck," and author of "Your Best Just Got Better: Think Bigger, Work Smarter, Make More."