Divergent Thinking: What It Is, How It Works

Weird or out of the box thoughts can yield a cornucopia of good ideas.

Written by Lisa Bertagnoli
Published on Jul. 28, 2022
Divergent Thinking: What It Is, How It Works
Image: Shutterstock / Built In

“Bring Your Weird,” is one of the values at Panzura, a cloud-management software company based in San Jose, California. “We believe that different thinking is what makes us awesome, and we encourage everyone to be their authentic self at all times,” said Ed Peters, chief innovation officer. 

What Is Divergent Thinking?

Divergent thinking is a non-linear way of thinking that results in multiple solutions to a single problem. Some hallmarks of divergent thinking are creativity, collaboration, attention to detail, strategy and open-mindedness.

This “different thinking,” also known as divergent thinking, has resulted in many effective decisions for Panzura, including moving the company’s entire product-development and quality-assurance efforts to its Mexican nearshore unit, rather than nearshoring only parts of the process. 

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What Is Divergent Thinking?

In the 1950s, psychologist J.P. Guildford came up with the concept of convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is organized and linear, following certain steps to reach a single solution to a problem. Divergent thinking is more free-flowing and spontaneous, and it produces lots of ideas. Guilford considered divergent thinking more creative because of its ability to yield many solutions to problems. 

“Divergent thinking is the ability to generate alternatives,” said Spencer Harrison, associate professor of organizational behavior at management school Insead. Divergent thinkers question the status quo. They reject “we’ve always done it this way” as a reason, he said. 

Divergent thinking can and should involve convergent thinking, said Peters of Panzura. The two ways of thinking “are a yin and yang that can become a virtuous cycle and a source of great pride for the team members that create ideas, products and moments.”

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Characteristics of Divergent Thinking 

“All true thinking is divergent,” said Chris Nicholson, team lead at San Francisco-based Clipboard Health, which matches nurses with open shifts at healthcare facilities. “Everything else is imitation and doesn’t require thinking at all.” 

Divergent thinking encompasses creativity, collaboration, open mindedness, attention to detail and other qualities. 



Divergent thinking is creative, but it’s not creative thinking, which requires a complicated set of skills, Harrison said. Designers need to be empathetic to create suitable, organic solutions. That empathetic aspect of thinking is, in a way, divergent thinking because it leads to ideas, but it is not the sum and substance of divergent thinking, Harrison said. 

“Engaging in divergent thinking while problem solving tends to result in more creative solutions.”

Divergent thinking and creativity are intertwined, said Taylor Sullivan, senior staff industrial-organizational psychologist at Codility, an HR tech company based in San Francisco. “Engaging in divergent thinking while problem solving tends to result in more creative solutions,” she said. “This is important because leader creativity has been shown to promote positive change and inspire followers,” she said. Creative problem-solving also enhances team performance, particularly when it involves brainstorming, Sullivan added.


Open Mind 

“One of the key life lessons my father taught me was the importance of being willing to change your mind,” Sullivan said. Open-mindedness — the willingness to to consider new or different perspectives and ideas — is a hallmark of divergent thinking and is critical for effective leadership, she said. 



Idea creation at Donut involves cross-department collaboration, said Arielle Shipper, vice president of operations at the New York-based company, which makes office communication tools. “We always pull in people from across the organization, even if the problem we’re working on doesn’t touch their direct role,” Shipper said. Representatives from product and engineering especially bring a perspective that helps tie products and the solutions, she said. 

This collaboration involves getting input from everyone, even those who are reluctant to share thoughts, she said. “It’s important to me that everyone knows that their ideas are crucial for our work, even if they contradict what a more senior person is saying,” Shipper said. To spark conversation, she asks “is there anything you disagree with?” rather than “what do you think?” Asking the more tightly focused question, which Shipper calls a “simple but mindful shift in language” promotes a culture of acceptance and ideation. 


Rethink Language 

Along similar lines, Chris Nicholson and his team at Clipboard Health think divergently by escaping what he calls language traps, “when you realize that what’s happening is being obscured by the way people talk about it,” Nicholson said. 

To illustrate: Clipboard Health believes that new hires should “raise the median” on the team they’re joining. That belief, though, led to rejecting people for the wrong reasons, for example not having a Ph.D on a team filled with Ph.Ds. 

To get out of that language trap, the company settled on a multi-dimensional median for teams, meaning that candidates could excel in coding ability, humility or other skills.


Detail Oriented

“The devil is in the details,” said Leslie Ryan, managing director in cybersecurity and technology controls at JPMorgan Chase. “I have always thought outside the career and it has helped my career advance,” said Ryan, who has six direct reports and a team of 40. 

Earlier in her career, Ryan’s employer wanted to outsource functions that many people thought couldn’t be outsourced. Trade support was one such function. “It typically required a person to be in proximity to the trader and details of the trade,” Ryan explained. By dissecting a trading assistant’s job, she was able to pinpoint certain functions, such as reconciliations and reporting, that could be outsourced. 



“I tend to see the bigger picture — strategically and long term,” said Chris Noble, CEO of New York-based cloud-tech company Cirrus Nexus, who considers himself a divergent thinker. “I look at things from a perspective of not what we can’t do, but imagining what can be and where we need to go,” he said. The quality, which Noble attributes in part to his dyslexia, helps him visualize unique and forward-thinking products for Cirrus Nexus. 

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Build Divergent Thinking Skills

Chris Nicholson of Clipboard Health honed his ability to think divergently when he was young; his family of six debated at the dinner table and his father enjoyed playing devil’s advocate. “That led us to see different perspectives,” he said. Nicholson thinks many people are able to think divergently, but perhaps are not in environments that foster it. Divergent thinking is “creative, reality focused, and persistent,” he said.


Ask Questions 

When faced with a problem, Nicholson asks questions: “Why do we think this is a problem? What do we achieve if we solve it? What data, experience and customer interactions do we have that backs up our hypotheses?” This “discovery stage,” he said, helps management understand a problem before it builds solutions. “Explore the mystery first and relish the discomfort of not knowing, rather than building a plan based on misguided beliefs,” he said. 


Let Thoughts Flow Freely

Free-flowing thought is a necessary step in divergent thinking, agreed Christine Andrukonis, founder and senior partner at leadership consultancy Notion Consulting, who considers divergent thinking a hallmark of leadership. “A great leader’s superpower is to be able to see into the future and anticipate what’s next, which requires divergent thinking,” she said. 

“A great leader’s superpower is to be able to see into the future and anticipate what’s next, which requires divergent thinking.” 

When presented with a problem, Andrukonis lets her thoughts flow freely and writes them down. Then she steps away to think about what she’s written down and perhaps identify patterns among the thoughts. She circles those patterns, steps away again, and then connects them to the bigger picture. 

“My step-away moments are literally that — going for a walk, spending time with my family, or doing something creative like painting,” Andrukonis said. Stepping away does not involve a meeting or work-related task, she said.


Listen Actively 

“When I face a problem, I innately begin thinking of different ways the problem can be solved,” said Daryl Hammett, general manager, global demand generation and operations at AWS, based in Seattle, Washington. 

Soon after, though, Hammett starts tapping his team for feedback. “We always start with working back from the customers’ needs, so I actively seek the advice and viewpoints of a diverse range of people, listening to their thoughts about the problems, goals, and challenges they face,” he said. 

By actively listening, he practices divergent thinking skills and builds solutions with his teams. “Problems are not linear,” he said. “They’re multi-dimensional and should be addressed from a variety of angles before the best solutions appear.”

To nurture divergent thinking, Hammett encourages his team to challenge him without fear of judgment. “I am always open to feedback and change,” he said. “Having two-way conversations helps me cut through the noise and put my people first.” 

He also considers divergent thinking a mark of effective leadership — it helped him navigate the management challenges of the pandemic and helps lead his team with flexibility. 

Both divergent and convergent thinking have their place in a leader’s skillset, said Spencer Harrison of Insead. Leaders who deal with stable and settled situations might benefit more from convergent thinking, while leaders with unstable, volatile environments might do well to think only divergently. 

“What research suggests is that divergent thinking might help you see new possibilities, but you would still need convergent thinking to realize and execute on those possibilities,” he said. “That said, because education and organizations tend to over-reward conformity, divergent thinking is probably a bit more rare and therefore likely more valuable especially in the long run over the course of a career,” Harrison said. 

Peters at Panzura has his own opinion. “Sometimes the divergent thinking path wins, much of the time it doesn’t,” he said. “We create more opportunities for divergence by repeating the saying: ‘You never lose. You win or you learn.’

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