Divergence and Convergence

Divergence and convergence are modes of thinking, mostly used by design thinkers as a creative process to define and solve problems in a business/real-world context.

I first learned about them as part of learning process skills in design school. More specifically, I learned about two primary process skills — active divergence (includes deferring judgement) and active convergence. These were the fundamental skills for leading a meeting. These process skills included attitudes, behaviors, and thinking skills. The key was to make them actionable in our team process.

The practical application of these process skills is not just restricted to the domain of design, but also accessible to the rest of us. As artists, we need a process for doing creative work. Without such a process, we won’t be able to make anything worthwhile. You’ll find that these process skills can be applied to many areas in your daily life, both personal and professional.

Before we go an further, let’s talk about what “divergence and convergence” actually means. Divergence is a mode of thinking where you’re using your right brain to explore things without judging them. You’re deferring your judgement until later. Divergence is about quantity; it’s about freedom to express your ideas without having to worry about what to do with them or what others might think of them in the moment.

Convergence, on the other hand, is a mode of thinking where you’re using your left brain to analyze things and think them through logically, so to speak. Convergence is about quality. This is the mode in which you’re evaluating ideas for what they are.

Convergence is about analysis, critique, judgement, and feedback. Ideas that might seem ridiculous at the start (in the divergent phase) become more realistic when you spend a few minutes in each phase, and this works for any creative process.

Divergence is purely a right-brained activity. Convergence is left-brained. When you’re diverging, you’re giving yourself the space to create with or without constraints. You’re making something and deferring judgement for later. In that moment, you’re just focused on making that thing.

Divergence is about creating choices. Convergence is about making decisions.

More than anything, divergence is about seeing the options or possibilities, while convergence is about evaluating those possibilities with a given set of criteria (defined by you), deciding what the “right” choices are based on those criteria, and executing those choices. Because you can’t do it all (nor do you want to), you must practice less, but better.

The process skills of divergence and convergence also serve as the foundation of the Explore, Evaluate, Execute approach towards solving problems creatively. Diverge = Explore, Converge = Evaluate + Execute.

Divergence can often feel exploratory, abstract, experimental, and optimistic. Some may even find practicing this skill feels foggy since they may be more accustomed to operating on a plan.

You can also think of divergence and convergence as a more abstract way of looking at problems, while Explore, Evaluate, Execute is a more tangible way of solving them. This is not to say that the former is any less worthwhile. If anything, it’s more worthwhile since it forms the foundation on which Explore, Evaluate, Execute is based.

So why are the principles of divergence and convergence important?

Here’s the thing: unless you’re prepared to be wrong (divergence), you’ll never come up with anything original (convergence). You can’t have a good idea unless you have a lot of bad ideas. By practicing divergent thinking, you give yourself the permission to be wrong. You say to yourself that it’s okay to be wrong, and you’re required to be wrong. How else will you come up with anything worthwhile? You won’t.

When we practice these process skills of divergent and convergent thinking, we let the process of doing the work determine the outcome of that work. Unless we know what problem to solve, how can we solve it? We can’t.

Solving the right problem is more important than solving them the right way. This process helps us solve, and more importantly, define problems in the first place. These “problems” can, of course, vary from personal to organizational level.

The Canadian designer, Bruce Mau wrote:

Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process, we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

Practicing these principles in organizations helps drive innovation in the form of groundbreaking products/services. Why do you think organizations have Research & Development as one of the key departments? Because they know they can’t come up with anything great in public; they must give themselves the permission to be wrong in private. Of course, how most organizations run their R&D is an entirely different matter.

How can we practice the process skills of divergence and convergence in our daily work life?

Let’s learn by way of example how we can practice these process skills:

Let’s take the example of a writer. A writer writes (without judgement) everything he knows about a topic. This would be an example of active divergence. The focus is just on writing and nothing else. He is not passing judgement; he is simply writing from his ready stream-of-consciousness until he’s exhausted his creative energies.

When he’s finished writing, he can then review what he has written. In other words, he can then edit his writing, or he can do more research to fill in the gaps in his writing. The problem occurs when he tries to write (diverge) and edit (converge) at the same time, which never works.

When you’re making something, make. When you’re critiquing it, critique. Just don’t do them both at the same time. It’s counterproductive and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it follows the principles of divergent and convergent thinking, which in turn is aligned with the way our right and left brains naturally work, but you can’t do something and be critical of it at the same time.

I also don’t mean to suggest that we diverge once, and then we converge, and that’s all there is to it. It’s a series of interplay between the two. You’re intermittently shifting from one to the other. It is non-linear. The important thing to remember is to keep them separate. When you’re diverging, you’re just doing that. When you’re converging, that’s your only focus.

Show up every day. Give yourself the permission to be divergent and exploratory. Unless you do that, you can’t make anything great. One way to do that is to write Morning Pages every day for 25 minutes. Then, figure out later what you want to do with it. The point is our minds are for having ideas and not for keeping them. The problem occurs when we try to think and do at the same time.

Gordon MacKenzie wrote in Orbiting the Giant Hairball:

Allow time — without immediate, concrete evidence of productivity — for the miracle of creativity to occur.

You can also use these skills to do things that matter to you on a weekly basis. For instance, before the start of the week, you can do a “brain dump” of sorts to make a list of everything that has your attention (diverge). Once you’ve written such a list, then figure out what each thing means to you. Once you have a final list of things you want to do for the week, then prioritize and do them during the week (converge). Having a Trusted System can help you organize and act on this data.

I wrote about tools that facilitate divergent thinking in Tools for Knowledge Workers. These would be considered as “emotional tools”.

Ideation tools (such as mind mapping, visual thinking): These are what I call “divergence” tools. They are also your “thinking” tools. They’re great for project planning, idea generation and discovery, and getting clarity on ideas. These tools also help you understand ideas/concepts, help you understand the relationships between those ideas/concepts, and help you see those ideas as part of a larger system.

The tools you can use to facilitate convergent thinking (logical/analytical tools) may vary widely. The only criteria for a convergent tool would be that it has to help you evaluate your choices objectively in some way. Here’re a couple examples:

  • Any tool that you can use to rank or to give a rating of some kind can be used to evaluate your choices. Using selective criteria with grid is an example of such a tool.

  • Your list manager is another example of a convergent tool. You’ve previously captured things that had your attention (diverge) to figure out what they mean to you and what to do with them later (converge). In fact, you’re practicing both of these process skills with your list manager.

Here’s how you can use these process skills in your knowledge work:

  • You can’t “prioritize” (converge) until you know everything you have on your plate (diverge); the reverse doesn’t work.

  • Capture things on the go in your list manager first (diverge), and decide later what to do with it (converge).

  • For weekly planning: at the end of the week, diverge on a list of things you want to work on by the end of next week, then converge by deciding which ones to work on and schedule them in your calendar.

  • How do you decide what you’re doing today (if you don’t already have a running list of things you need to do at some point)? You make a list of everything you have on your mind that you think needs to be done today, then you figure out what you actually want to do from this list, and skip the rest. Unless you actually know everything you have on your plate, how can you do anything at all?

  • Run effective meetings: start out by creating an agenda by involving members to participate to figure out what you want to discuss, then prioritize the list and figure out how you want to set it up (with constraints).

  • Process email quickly from the inbox (diverge), then batch-process all emails in relevant folders, such as Action, Hold, etc. (converge).

  • Use a mind map to explore anything by way of ideation (diverge). This is also a great way to plan your projects.

Here are some examples from our daily lives:

  • Writing Morning Pages is a great example of practicing these process skills. When you write Morning Pages (diverge) to find out what has your attention, you can later decide what to do with it (converge).

  • Listen to others (diverge) before giving them solicited feedback (converge).

  • Flip through TV channels to figure out what you want to watch (diverge) before settling on a channel (converge).

  • Develop your own taste in art, whether it be films, music, books, or what have you. You need to explore a variety of media in order to figure out your own tastes. For instance, you have to listen to a lot of different music (diverge) to find the ones you like (converge); ditto with books, films…anything of interest, really.

  • See all the food choices at a dinner party before picking and choosing what you want to eat. You can’t eat it all, so pick and choose by exploring your options first, and then decide on what to eat.

  • When you reflect in the evening, ask yourself: what did I do today? What’s the best thing that happened today? You’ll see that unless you ask the first question (diverge), you’ll have trouble coming up with an answer to the second question (converge).

Practicing these process skills in your personal and work life can help you change the way you see things. Anyone in any discipline can get better at creative problem-solving from practicing these skills when striving to solve challenges.

Understanding how you use these skills gives you an insight into how your mind works. As a result, you’re better able to work through any creative process.

Once you understand and practice the process skills of divergence and convergence, you’ll see countless practical uses of its application in your everyday life.

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