Mental Models - Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking ↔️
It’s a bit of a mouthful. But these two different modes of thinking are an extremely useful way to think about your work.
What is it?
It is most interesting for knowledge workers, which most of you are.
[A knowledge worker is someone] whose main capital is knowledge. Examples include programmers, physicians, engineers, scientists ... etc [anyone] whose job is to "think for a living".
Knowledge work include stages of divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
What is divergent thinking?
The simplest way to describe divergent thinking is as using imagination. You might have heard of brainstorming, blue sky thinking, or ideation? All of these things involve divergent thinking.
In this mode of thinking you “diverge” in your ideas, meaning you can go in different directions without constraints.
Tiago Forte explained it well:
A creative endeavor begins with an act of divergence. You open the space of possibilities and consider as many options as possible.
The purpose of divergence is to generate new ideas, so the process is necessarily spontaneous, chaotic, and messy. You can’t fully plan or organize what you’re doing in divergence mode, and you shouldn’t try. This is the time to wander.
What is convergent thinking?
As important as divergence is, if we only diverge then we never get anywhere or finish anything! At some point we must narrow our focus and “converge” on a result of some kind. The result might be shipping the product feature or publishing the post.
Again from Tiago Forte:
Convergence forces us to eliminate options, make trade-offs, and decide what is truly essential. It is about narrowing the range of possibilities so that you can make forward progress and end up with a final result
In this mode of thinking we stop wandering, and add constraints. We need to make choices so we can execute the project and get to the finish line.
Why is this interesting?
Most work benefits from stages of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
Early on it is generally worth encouraging divergent thinking - having time to think in an unconstrained way. This allows valuable options to be generated.
But just as crucial is making a clear transition to convergent thinking, so you can delivery the finished work item.
Being aware of these two modes, and being able to frame conversations and “signpost” them - for yourself and collaborators - is very powerful.
Want to go deeper?
📌 Managers at Apple are said to run two meetings:
One is a free for all – a meeting to innovate with no constraints….totally blue sky.
… [The second] is a meeting that is more structured, and where constraints are considered…..where the how and the feasibility is really worked out.
Sounds a lot like a divergent thinking meeting then a convergent thinking one.
🤔 So what about lateral thinking vs. vertical thinking?
🔖 IDEO is a good resource if you want to learn more about design thinking.
📖 Building a Second Brain is a good read if you want to improve your personal information systems.
🧠 Build your latticework! Revisit related mental models: