Research shows that one’s ability to think creatively—called divergent thinking—is related to the levels of playfulness and creativity experienced as children. While being playful and creative as kids came easily for many, thinking creatively and playfully as adults can be challenging.
However, according to some experts, creativity is an essential professional skill, and 60% of CEOs value creativity in their teams. Therefore, having the ability to think divergently not only propels you in professional situations, such as with a job interview, but it also helps cultivate collaboration, innovation, and increased productivity.
As neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman explains, “Divergent thinking involves taking one simple, what we would call in neuroscience or psychology, stimulus, one image or sound, etc., and trying to radiate out from that as many different divergent situations, properties, characteristics, events, things, from that one specific element.”
By learning how to think creatively, new ideas and possibilities can begin to cultivate. This cultivation, in turn, facilitates new outcomes, nurtures relationships, builds trust, and enables your most authentic self to come forward.
- Divergent thinking requires creativity, patience, and openness.
- The opposite of divergent thinking is convergent thinking.
- Companies that cultivate divergent thinkers grow 2.3 times more.
- Several methods and techniques exist to help facilitate creative problem-solving.
What Is Divergent Thinking?
“If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”Henry Ford
Divergent thinking is the cognitive process of breaking a topic down into several diverse and novel ideas. Also called “lateral thinking,” divergent thinking leverages creativity and free-flowing ideation, or “brainstorming,” to generate new thoughts and solutions for problem-solving.
Rewards of Divergent Thinking:
- Facilitates and promotes a growth mindset.
- Leads to new, creative opportunities.
- Promotes thinkers to consider creative solutions.
- Encourages thinkers to see problems from new perspectives.
The term was first coined by psychologist and The Nature of Human Intelligence author J.P. Guildford in 1956. At that time, Guildford was researching the concepts of intelligence and creativity and consequently discovered a distinction between two different ways of solving problems. Today, these two ways are known as “convergent thinking” and “divergent thinking.”
Divergent Thinking: Generating a variety of answers to open-ended questions like, “How can wood be used to make decor?”
Convergent Thinking: Generating one single answer to a specific closed question, such as “Where does the wood come from?”
Divergent Thinking vs. Convergent Thinking
“Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”Sara Blakely
When you start with a relatively small idea, problem, or goal and begin branching outward with creative solutions, that is divergent thinking. It can almost be thought of as a tree, starting with a root and expanding tall and wide.
An example of this lateral thinking might be if a company’s quarterly sales were down, and the team began brainstorming ways to target new markets. The team may start considering prospective demographics, geography, and behaviors. In this scenario, the possible pathways are endless, and the team can consider all creative ideas to pursue the best one.
Professions that commonly rely on divergent thinking for problem-solving:
- Interior design
- Graphic design
- Sales and marketing
Conversely, when you begin identifying clear and defined solutions to more straightforward problems, that is convergent thinking. This type of thinking can be pictured as a funnel, starting wide and narrowing downward.
An example of this would be if a hospital patient tells their nurse that they are experiencing some mild pain. In this scenario, the nurse wouldn’t begin brainstorming all possible solutions for reducing their pain; they would just administer pain medication.
Ultimately, divergent thinking allows room for creativity, exploration, and ideation, while convergent thinking leads to linear, well-defined solutions.
Professions that commonly rely on convergent thinking for problem-solving:
How Divergent Thinking Facilitates Creative Thinking
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”Albert Einstein
Psychologist J.P. Guildford associated creativity with divergent thinking during his research on intellect in 1956. When he distinguished between the two ways of thinking, convergent and divergent, he concluded that creativity was fundamental to divergent thinking to produce multiple possible outcomes.
In his book, The Nature of Human Intelligence, Guildford explains the traits of divergent thinking that both rely on and cultivate creativity:
- Flexibility: This refers to being able to consider and propose multiple possibilities and ideas without getting stuck on just one.
- Fluency: Fluency is how well one can brainstorm many different pathways.
- Originality: For thinking to be divergent, the ideas considered must be original and novel. Ideas that are well-defined and traditional are reflective of convergent thinking.
- Elaboration: This trait refers to having the ability to elaborate and, ultimately, execute a proposed idea. Elaboration demonstrates the ability to organize new processes cognitively.
Benefits of Divergent Thinking at Work
“A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.”Richard Branson
One study found that working collaboratively increased intrinsic interest, attention, and performance, even for more mundane tasks. From this, it’s clear that divergent thinking creates a workplace culture of psychological safety, which drives overall engagement, investment, and retention.
Ways divergent thinking improves workplace culture:
- It facilitates adaptability: When problems arise, thinking outside the box is sometimes necessary to find solutions. Experts at McKinsey & Company say that adaptability is a critical factor that determines company success, particularly during challenging or transformative periods.
- It boosts productivity: Another McKinsey study showed companies that facilitated divergent thinkers grew 2.3 times more than those that didn’t. When employees are unhindered, and creativity is encouraged, they perform better.
- It sparks innovation: Novel and original ideas, which often lead to innovation, serve as the very premise of divergent thinking. For an idea to be novel, it must first be creative.
- It nurtures growth: Doing the same things, in the same way, produces the same outcomes. By thinking differently and creatively, a company can embrace change and consider new pathways, which nurtures many growth aspects.
4 Techniques for How to Become a Divergent Thinker
“Think different in order to change the rules. By definition, if you don’t change the rules you aren’t a revolutionary, and if you don’t think different, you won’t change the rules.”Guy Kawasaki
As Stefan Mumaw, author of Creative Boot Camp, says in an article for LinkedIn, “Creativity is a skill and any skill that you can undertake, the byproduct to it being a skill, is that you can get better at it . . . we’ve never really thought of creativity as being something that we can get better at. But you can.”
If divergent thinking is new to you, or you want to help facilitate more creative thinking amongst your team, there are fortunately several techniques for turning on the creativity engine.
1. The Starbusting Technique
The name “starbursting” comes from the visual representation of the technique. The central concept or topic is written in the center of a page or whiteboard, and questions are radiated from it like the rays of a star. This technique involves asking questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” about a central topic. By exploring various aspects, the starbursting technique encourages divergent thinking and prompts people to think beyond their initial assumptions or biases.
2. The Brainstorming Technique
The brainstorming technique is the most widely known, involving multiple mediums and resources to influence the creative process. It can be done using a whiteboard, post-it notes, a virtual workspace, or any other medium. Brainstorming encourages thinkers to be creative, openly share their ideas, and build upon each other’s suggestions to generate a wide range of potential solutions or concepts.
3. The Figure-Storming Technique
The figure-storming technique is an ideation method that uses visual representations or figures as prompts to stimulate new ideas and generate innovative solutions. It involves selecting a figure or object—such as an image, a piece of art, a toy, or some other object unrelated to a problem—and studying it carefully to generate new ideas that can be applied to the problem.
4. The Rapid Ideation Technique
Rapid ideation techniques are a series of creative methods used to generate many ideas in a short amount of time quickly. These techniques are often used in brainstorming sessions, mind mapping, and other problem-solving contexts where speed and quantity of ideas are prioritized over detailed analysis or evaluation. They’re also designed to overcome analysis paralysis and encourage free-flowing idea generation.
Out With the Old, In With the New
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”Peter F. Drucker
In psychology, divergent thinking is all about allowing your mind to think in a free, unstructured way. It’s about exploring all ideas, good and bad, to find the best one. However, this doesn’t mean it will always lead to a successful or desirable outcome.
Sometimes divergent thinkers have to engage in many rounds of ideation before the right creative ideas begin to surface. The key to creative problem-solving is to maintain an open and patient mind about what new ideas will come and when.
Additional resources for practicing divergent thinking:
- Take this free divergent thinking test.
- Read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.
- Watch Creative Ideas and Divergent Thinking by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman.
Continue refining your thinking processes by reading “First Principles Thinking: How to Think Like the World’s Best Leaders.”
Leaders Media has established sourcing guidelines and relies on relevant, and credible sources for the data, facts, and expert insights and analysis we reference. You can learn more about our mission, ethics, and how we cite sources in our editorial policy.
- Lieberman, J. Nina. “Playfulness and Divergent Thinking.” Taylor & Francis Online, Sept. 2012, pp. 219–24, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00221325.1965.10533661.
- Petrone, Authored. “Why Creativity Is the Most Important Skill in the World.” LinkedIn Logo, 31 Dec. 2018, https://www.linkedin.com/business/learning/blog/top-skills-and-courses/why-creativity-is-the-most-important-skill-in-the-world.
- Kapost, Team. “10 Stats about Creativity That Will Change the Way You Do Business.” Kapost, https://uplandsoftware.com/kapost/resources/blog/creativity-stats/. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
- “Creative Ideas & Divergent Thinking by Andrew Huberman.” YouTube, 27 Dec. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c59DpnCLpTg.
- Carroll, John B. “Reviews: Guilford, J. P. The Nature of Human Intelligence.” American Education Research Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/00028312005002249.
- Kyaga, Simon. “The Development of Modern Creativity Research.” Springer Link, pp. 43–74, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137345813_4
- Carr, Priyanka, and Gregory Walton. “Cues of Working Together Fuel Intrinsic Motivation.” ScienceDirect, vol. 53, July 2014, pp. 169–84, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103114000420?via=ihub.
- Healthcare, Center. “Future Proof: Solving the ‘Adaptability Paradox’ for the Long Term.” McKinsey & Company, https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/future-proof-solving-the-adaptability-paradox-for-the-long-term.
- Cvetanovski, Biljana. “The Growth Triple Play: Creativity, Analytics, and Purpose.” McKinsey & Company, 21 June 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-insights/the-growth-triple-play-creativity-analytics-and-purpose.
- Petrone, Authored. “Why Creativity Is the Most Important Skill in the World.” 31 Dec. 2018, https://www.linkedin.com/business/learning/blog/top-skills-and-courses/why-creativity-is-the-most-important-skill-in-the-world.