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Divergent Thinking and Convergent Thinking: Two Paths to Problem Solving

By June 29, 2020April 18th, 2022Innovation
A person examines a bulletin board full of project elements

Life is a balancing act. We strive to balance our professional and personal lives. We search for balance between our family’s needs and our own needs. We are always trying to find a healthy balance between using technology and personal human interaction.

When you think about it, balance looks different for everyone because everyone’s needs vary. Since the end result is different for everyone, perhaps balance is a process and not a destination.

How to Find Balance When Problem Solving

Creative problem solving, like everything else in life, requires balance. We’re trying to solve for challenges while meeting all of our success criteria. If you’ve attended an innovation session and worked on starter ideas, you know how rewarding it can be. But you also likely know how overwhelming it can feel. You leave the session with all kinds of possibilities and a mountain of sticky notes.

You know you need to zero in on a solution and then ideate to improve on that one solution, but how do you get to that point? Finding balance in creative problem solving is possible by using two opposing approaches ― divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Reach a Solution Through Divergent and Convergent Thinking

In 1956, American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford coined the terms divergent thinking and convergent thinking. He described divergent thinking as a flexible, iterative, and open-ended type of problem solving. It’s the type that explores all possibilities and asks why not. Sound familiar? It’s how we build starter ideas!

Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is described as a linear, systematic, and analytical type of problem solving. This type is focused on not losing sight of your goal, narrowing down to the optimal solution, and asking the question why. If you find yourself working on a business challenge with some time or budget constraints, exploring the convergent thinking approach may be a good idea.

You can use these four steps to guide you to reach an optimal solution:

  1. Identify your success criteria. Think cost, timeline, scalability, and ease of implementation.
  2. Use a scale of 1–3 to measure each criterion.
  3. Assess which ideas best meet your criteria.
  4. For those ideas that didn’t make the cut, how can you modify them to help meet your goal? How do you find the balance between the two? Where do you start?

Stick with One Approach for Your Goals

Everyone approaches problem solving differently. Maybe you start by taking multiple ideas, eliminating some of them, and then bringing the remaining ones together into a laser-focused solution ― all while not losing sight of your success criteria.

Or maybe you start by thinking analytically to produce one optimal solution, and then split it into iterations of that single idea. Either way, there is no right or wrong starting point!

You have to find the approach and the right balance for creative problem-solving that works for your specific goals. Decide on a starting approach and stick with that approach. Using both approaches simultaneously can be counterproductive.

Keeping these tools in mind will help you find your creative problem-solving balance and will increase your chances of producing better solutions.

Lori Radford

Working more than a decade alongside executives at the C-suite level, Lori managed client-centric needs, facilitated all aspects of internal and external communications, aligned business objectives with comprehensive knowledge to achieve maximum operational impact, created ideas and turned them into working solutions despite resource constraints associated with a support role. Advancing through a series of four promotions has led Lori to her current role as an innovation consultant where she is currently responsible for project management and facilitation, instructing groups on design thinking methods and practices to enhance understanding and practical application through workshops, innovation sessions, and conducting and synthesizing design research.