Divergent thinking is problem-solving that involves generating unusual or unconventional solutions to problems. This is a type of thinking that is flexible, adaptive, and novel.
By looking at a situation from a unique perspective we may experience a “light-bulb” moment that inspires a unique solution. It is the opposite of convergent thinking, which involves finding one solution that is usually based on logic and linear thinking.
This can lead to amazing inventions such as the mobile phone or a simple fix to a simple problem like using a coin to tighten a screw.
Definition of Divergent Thinking
The term divergent thinking was first coined by J.P. Guilford in 1956. In many ways, divergent thinking is synonymous with creative problem-solving.
Guilford was interested in testing for divergent thinking skills, so he designed the Alternative Uses Task, sometimes also called Guilford’s Test of Divergent Thinking.
The test is quite simple. Present a person with a normal, everyday object, and ask them to generate as many uses for that object as possible within a certain period of time. Although the testing process is fairly straightforward, the scoring is more complicated. Each answer is awarded points on four dimensions: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration.
Examples of Divergent Thinking
1. Using a Coin as a Flathead Screwdriver
Sometimes we might not have the right size screwdriver to tighten the screw of a shelf or cupboard door. We could call a neighbor and ask to borrow one of their tools, or we could just reach into our pocket and pull out some coins. One of them is bound to work.
This is an example of using a coin in an unusual and creative way. That fits the definition of divergent thinking quite well. It may not seem like the most profound example of creativity, but it does the trick. It solves the problem in a unique way and that’s the very definition of divergent thinking.
2. Digging with a Fork
A fork is used to eat. However, if you were to think of new ways to use it, you would be engaging in divergent thinking.
One alternative way you might use a fork is to dig a hole. By using the fork as a shovel, you have found a creative solution to your lack of a shovel. Another person might get the fork and decide to use it as an engraving tool and start writing words into the side of a tree. Here, again, they have used divergent thinking.
Teachers will often use everyday implements like this and ask students to think of as many ways as they can to use the implements. By doing this task, teachers are encouraging students to think creatively and avoid the trap of functional fixedness.
3. Influencer Marketing
Central to divergent thinking is brainstorming. This is the process through which you come to new solutions to old problems.
For example, a brainstorming session might lead someone in a workplace to come up with a new way to market their old product. Instead of using traditional marketing techniques, they might go against the grain by giving their product to influencers and ask influencers to show the product to their Instagram or Tik Tok audience.
In fact, marketing is a job that requires divergent thinking all the time. Marketing is a saturated field with every company wanting to get their products in front of your eyes. If you can come up with a new type of television ad or marketing method that stands out from the crowd, you’ve probably been a very successful divergent thinker.
4. The Folding Bike
In 1887, the folding bike was invented by Emmit Latta as a way to make bikes more mobile.
While bicycles are great for getting us from Point A to Point B quickly, what do we do once we have arrived? They are quite clunky, can’t be taken onto public transport, and take up a lot of space when they’re stored.
Latta’s intelligent invention solved a lot of the problems we have with storing and moving bikes around. Now, there are even bikes you can carry on your back then unpack when it’s time to speed from Point A to Point B!
5. The Little Black Dress
Is there a woman alive today in the Western world that does not have an LBD? It is a black evening or cocktail dress made with a simple cut and is usually a bit short. The creator of the little black dress is none other than Coco Channel (Steele, 1988).
Although today it is considered an essential part of any walk-in closet, there was a time when it took the fashion world by storm. Back in the 1920s, Coco wanted to create something that was versatile and affordable to all. Those were concepts in the fashion world that were completely unheard of, and hence, represented divergent thinking at its finest.
Divergent thinking doesn’t have to involve complexity or high-tech inventions; a nice fabric, cut the right way, will do just fine.
Synectics may sound like an odd term, but it is actually a very useful way of fostering divergent thinking. The procedure is quite simple. Select a page on the internet at random. It doesn’t matter what type of website it is, just as long as it has a fair amount of text.
Then, close your eyes, take your index finger, move it in a circle a few times and then point it to a spot on the page. Write down the word your finger lands on. Repeat the process from the beginning one more time so that you end up with two words.
Now, try to think of things that could be described by those two words. Or, put them together to form a new word. For instance, if you have “purveyor” and “exception”, what objects or concepts could have connections to both? If you formed a new word, what could it mean?
7. The Smartphone
Although most people think the smartphone was invented by Steve Jobs, that would be incorrect. The first iteration of the smartphone was by IBM in 1994. It was huge and bulky, but it had a touchscreen and even a few apps.
Since then, the smartphone has evolved into an amazing device that can do just about anything: it can take photos, be used to play games with incredible graphics, track your movements wherever you go, and soon, be able to conduct various medical diagnostic tests. Oh, and it can make phone calls as well.
Each of those features represent another milestone in the smartphone’s evolution and another example of divergent thinking.
Brainstorming just may be the most frequently exercised form of divergent thinking. The basic idea is to gather a group of people together, pencil and paper in hand, and for everyone to just write down as many ideas as they can related to a specific topic.
No one is to speak out loud for a few minutes until time is up. Everyone is instructed to just write whatever comes to mind, without fear of sounding foolish or having their ideas rejected by others.
It has become a common practice in most R&D departments of corporations around the world. It is so vital to the creation of new products and inventions, that there is a small niche market of boutique consulting enterprises that specialize in helping companies utilize divergent thinking to their advantage.
9. Children’s Creative Play
Watching young children at play is like witnessing a continuous flow of divergent thinking. A cardboard box is a house, a plane, a bulldozer and a cave where you can hide from dinosaurs.
Simply following a young child throughout their day will provide plenty more examples of children’s amazing abilities to imagine and create. They’re thinking is not constrained by reality and the narrowly defined functions of the objects they encounter. Any thing can become anything.
There is no doubt about it, children are the masters of divergent thinking. And then, they grow up. Surprisingly, some research indicates that developing executive control, a sign of cognitive development, actually inhibits divergent thinking (Vaisarova & Carlson, 2021).
10. Coffee Coke
There is probably no industry that attempts divergent thinking more than the modern-day beverage industry. For decades, there were basically a handful of carbonated beverages to choose from: Coke, Pepsi, and a few others.
However, today, if you go to the refrigerated section of a supermarket or convenience store, you will literally see a hundred different options. There are juices, teas, coffees, sodas, caffeine-infused drinks, vitamin-infused drinks, caffeine drinks infused with vitamins, and the list goes on, and on. The number of choices can be overwhelming.
Maybe one of the most unique iterations of the cold-beverage offerings is Coffee Coke. It’s a can of cold coke infused with Brazilian coffee. So, if the caffeine from Coke isn’t enough, you can add a jolt of coffee too.
11. Thinking of Ways to Make Money
If a teenager asks their parents to buy them a car, one response they might get is “to get a job”. Learning to be independent is a goal that most parents have for their children; nothing wrong with that.
One obvious solution that represents convergent thinking is to start applying at local stores and restaurants. Nothing wrong with that either. However, if the teenager is a bit creative then they may think of other, less conventional methods to raise cash.
Brainstorming other ways to make money could lead to starting a small lawn-care business, washing and waxing cars, pressure-washing patios, or editing videos for your friends’ vlogs and Tik Tok posts.
12. Using a Hot Glue Stick
Believe it or not, a glue stick is a very handy household tool. It can fix a variety of problems that may crop up from time to time. For example, after a while, the rubber insulation that lines the inside of the refrigerator’s doors may come loose. This means the doors won’t close properly and all of your favorite cold-storage foods will spoil.
No need to throw away the frig and buy a new one. Just break-out the trusty hot glue stick and apply the hot glue between the door and rubber lining. Hold the lining firmly in place for 30-seconds, and mission accomplished.
13. Internalizing Pluralism
If you spend the first 30 years of your life in one country, most likely you will adopt the customs and ways of thinking of that culture. It’s natural. We live around people that think and act in certain ways, so we do too. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But, of course, there is more than one perspective on life out there. If you move to another country that has a completely different culture, in a way, it’s like entering an entire world of divergent thinking.
To illustrate this point, consider the words of Bruce Lee: “The American life is like an Oak tree—he stands firm against the wind. If the wind is strong, he cracks. The Oriental stands like bamboo, bending with the wind and springing back when the wind ceases, stronger than ever before” (Little, 2017, p. 25).
This is an example of divergent thinking by internalizing a different culture.
14. Children’s Play
From about the age of 4, children start engaging in divergent thinking during playtime. They come up with creative storylines and plots that embrace fantasy and magic. During this playtime, children use the things around them and utilize them in ways entirely unexpected by adults.
For example, a child might use a block of wood and push it along the floor, pretending it’s a car. Here, a child found something that isn’t generally thought of as a toy, and turned it into a toy in order to entertain themselves. They used this block of wood in a way divergent from the norm to enhance their play!
Children can be particularly good at divergent thinking because social norms are not as solidified in their minds yet. They don’t see things as having clear-cut purposes until they have been socialized into it later in life.
15. Survival of the Fittest
Developing a unique and profound insight into the evolution of all living organisms must surely be considered an example of divergent thinking. The concept of survival of the fittest postulates that the living creature that is most capable of adapting to environmental demands has the highest likelihood of propagating the species.
Although made famous by Charles Darwin (1869), Herbert Spencer was the first to actually use the term survival of the fittest. He stated, “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life” (Spencer, 1864, pp. 444-445).
Divergent vs Convergent Thinking
Divergent thinking and convergent thinking are opposites. They represent two different types of thinking that are each valuable in different situations.
Divergent thinking is all about finding new ideas. The term ‘divergent’ comes from ‘diverge’, meaning to separate from the norm. It involves brainstorming, thinking outside of the norm, and thinking creatively to find solutions to problems. It also often involves finding new ways to tackle existing problems and use existing tools.
Convergent thinking is about gathering facts to come up with an answer or solution. It’s seen as the opposite of divergent thinking because you’re gathering information together to come up with one single solution rather than searching around and comparing multiple different solutions.
While convergent thinking is primarily analytical, divergent thinking is primarily creative.
Divergent thinking means generating a novel solution and avoiding simplistic or binary thinking on an issue. It is usually creative and unconventional because it does not conform to linear thinking processes. This can mean using an object in an usual way or seeing how two unrelated concepts can be combined to create something never before considered.
History is full of examples of divergent thinking, such as the numerous iterations of the smartphone that included adding a screen, Apps, internet access, and a camera. Other examples can be found in the world of fashion or observed in a children’s playroom and a magical cardboard box.
Human beings really are an amazing species. Now, if we could only invent something to ensure world peace.
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