The ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking

I thought I would take the opportunity to return to an article I wrote a few days ago. My blog post outlined a few of the key issues for developing creative teams. The article that inspired it from HBR[1] gave a broad definition of innovation and creativity which resonated strongly with my own experience in schools.

According to the author, Roger Schwarz[2], researchers commonly make a distinction between the definition of creativity and innovation.

Innovation involves two stages—the generation of new ideas and the implementation of the ideas. Creativity is considered to be the first stage of innovation.

I would call implementing ideas Prototyping and this typically comes after a range of ideas have been sorted, filtered and judged in different ways during Ideation. I always see a change in the energy levels during Ideation as people begin to flex their creative muscles more intensely.

Later in the article Schwarz outlines a conflict in factors that affect innovation, explaining that a different type of thinking is needed.

Creativity and the second stage of innovation require different individual skills and team structures and processes. The idea generation stage is often referred to as divergent thinking or exploration. The implementation stage is often referred to as convergent thinking or exploitation. Unless you plan to have your team hand off its creative ideas, you will need to create a team that can operate in both modes, switching among them as appropriate.

This whole area is invariably complex and more research is needed. However even from my own experience the requirements on an individual are much more intricate. I agree that we need to be in a divergent thinking state when we generate ideas, but this changes when we have to decide on which ideas are worth investing further in. It changes to a convergent thinking state. In order to identify our choices we have to narrow our field, we have to purge the ideas that don’t make the cut. For us to successfully judge a set of ideas we have to be able to converge and begin to make choices. Thinking big (divergently) and generating ideas at this stage would certainly be counterintuitive.

The ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking at the ideation stage is quite important and much more frequent than is suggested in the article. Idea generation is but one part of Ideation. Of course we may identify Emergent thinking as well at this stage which is exploratory and helps when we want to develop our ideas further. I see Ideation being made up of the sequence below:

  1. Generate Ideas (Divergent or Open Thinking)
  2. Explore and develop ideas (Emergent or Exploratory Thinking)
  3. Judge and shortlist (Convergent or Closed Thinking)

It is extremely useful to have a language for the thinking state or mindset needed. I would highly recommend sharing the definitions and helping others understand them. Talking explicitly about the thinking that is needed to be most successful helps signpost people to such expectations, and has helped countless teams of adults and students I have worked with. Don’t let this be a wishy washy stage, identify a process, like the sequence above and stick to it. Trust in the process.[3]

Once ideas have been explored and narrowed down then a team would move on to implementation. Taking a concept into a working or minimal viable prototype phase. Again the type of thinking here is not simply convergent as Schwarz outlines, in my opinion it is equally fluid and perhaps also made up of the combination of divergent, emergent and convergent thinking states.


  1. Harvard Business Review  ↩
  2. Roger Schwarz is an organisational psychologist, find him on Twitter @LeadSmarter  ↩
  3. And the force.  ↩

1 Comment

  1. I’ve always been curious as to whether or not the design thinking process can be an approach to look more inwardly at ourselves and our growth, both personally and professionally. When we look at self-concept and mindset for example, is it possible to use the design thinking process to set our own growth goals and work toward achieving these goals using the different phases of the process.

    I personally believe it can be and I’ve tinkered with this process with my students when I was teaching and with the educators that I train. And as you say Tom, I do believe that that there is an ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking when going through this process, but the resulting prototypes and the ultimate product that comes about as a result are certain tools and skill sets that allow us to journey on the path toward self-actualization.

    There is tremendous value in the design thinking process and as I continue to tinker with it, I am convinced that it has enormous potential in creating approaches and strategies that allow as to look inward and ultimately define how best to move forward in our lives in meaningfully authentic ways. And in doing so, we not only become more productive from a professional point of view, but live more satisfyingly rich personal lives.

    Perhaps this only makes sense in my own mind, but I truly believe in it. Thanks for the post Tom. Wishing you a blessed 2016.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking | Georgina Ang
  2. 3 Activities to Help Your Team Generate, Develop and Judge Ideas - The Curious Creative
  3. 6 Emotional Barriers to Generating Ideas and How to Overcome Them - The Curious Creative
  4. 6 Emotional Barriers to Generating Ideas and How to Overcome Them | Georgina Ang

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