What Is Divergent Thinking? Divergent Thinking In A Nutshell

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring multiple possible solutions to a problem. Divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. These ideas are generated and explored in a relatively short space of time. 

Understanding divergent thinking

Experienced divergent thinkers tend to be curious, independent, and spontaneous.

They can readily generate creative ideas and have the ability to develop and improve them where necessary.

In business, divergent thinking can result in endless ideation and very few solutions if not used correctly.

In brainstorming and indeed most other ideation strategies, divergent thinking should be paired with convergent thinking.

This enables the organization to explore all possible options and then choose the one worth pursuing. 

Ultimately, divergent thinking encourages decision-makers to break from the status quo by considering multiple perspectives.

For best results, the approach must be incorporated into project design with respect to time allocation, discussion formats, and specific interventions.

The four lenses of divergent thinking

To help teams think outside the box using divergent thinking, the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) developed a four-lens framework.

1 – Two-directional approach 

This approach, which comprises core-forward and future-back thinking, helps break the incremental mindset prevalent in many companies today.

Core-forward thinking incorporates operational efficiency, short-term KPI achievement, and maintaining market share. 

But this strategy in isolation is limiting and must be combined with the future-back approach.

That is, where is the company headed in the long term? Does the company have ambitions that aren’t related to financials? How will the business be fundamentally different in five years?

2 – Purpose

Purpose is the reason a company exists, shaping what it does and why it does it. When the purpose of an organization is aligned with its actions, growth and profitability result. 

Purpose and divergent thinking are closely related.

Decision-makers who buy into a purpose are motivated to alter the behavior and consider novel ideas despite the risks of acting on them.

3 – Outside-in

The outside-in lens asks one fundamental question: “What will the ecosystem of the future look like in which companies must play and win?”

Too many companies look at trends to define their business models, defining the world and their industry based on what has occurred in the past.

Divergent thinking helps organizations consider the future impact or benefit that current trends may have. 

4 – Disruption

Disruptive innovation from new players is a constant threat to incumbent market leaders, yet many of these firms through a combination of complacency and arrogance have no strategy to deal with it. 

Indeed, innovation in market leaders tends to be based on large budgets, large teams, and long timeframes. It is not based on divergent thinking, which new and innovative companies employ to disrupt the market seemingly overnight.

Techniques that stimulate divergent thinking

Here are some of the techniques known to stimulate divergent thinking:


Synonymous with divergent thinking since it involves generating many ideas in an unstructured manner and in the shortest time possible.

Central to most brainstorming techniques is the ability for one idea to stimulate other idea with no idea discarded during the initial ideation stage.

The SCAMPER model and Business Model Canvas are two brainstorming techniques that favor divergent thinking.

Eighteen years later, it was adapted by psychologist Bob Eberle in his book SCAMPER: Games for Imagination Development. The SCAMPER method was first described by advertising executive Alex Osborne in 1953. The SCAMPER method is a form of creative thinking or problem solving based on evaluating ideas or groups of ideas.


This is a brilliant way to record spontaneous ideas that occur during the day.

Many individuals have brilliant flashes of insight while taking a shower or washing the dishes, but they are usually forgotten before they can be written down.

Journals help capture these seemingly random pieces of information where they can be synthesized later. 


Where an individual focuses on one topic and writes continuously on it for a predetermined period of time.

The central premise of freewriting is to write whatever comes to mind without stopping to make edits or revisions.

Similar to journaling, the somewhat random thought process is first recorded and then reorganized later.

Mind or subject mapping

Impact mapping is a product development technique based on user design, mind mapping, and outcome-driven planning. Impact mapping is an agile technique intended to help teams connect individual product features that can impact the user behaviors while connecting to the key, guiding metrics for the business.

This process involves mapping brainstormed ideas visually to show the relationship between them.

The practitioner starts with a central theme and then links it with various topics and sub-topics using lines and circles.

The result is a map of each theme which can be used to creatively develop them further.

Key takeaways

  • Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring multiple possible solutions to a problem. Ultimately, it encourages decision-makers to break from the status quo by considering multiple perspectives.
  • The four lenses of divergent thinking in business are a two-directional approach, organizational purpose, forward-thinking, and disruption.
  • Divergent thinking can be stimulated by various techniques, including the SCAMPER and Business Model Canvas brainstorming approaches. For individuals, journaling and freewriting are effective.

Other Brainstorming Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciate Inquiry (AI) is an organizational change methodology that focuses on strengths and not on weaknesses. Appreciate Inquiry was created by management professors David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the 1980s. The Appreciate Inquiry is also known as the 5-D Cycle, an iterative cycle describing five distinct phases, made of define, discover, dream, design, and destiny.

Round-robin Brainstorming

Round-robin brainstorming is a collective and iterative approach to brainstorming. Brainstorming is an effective way of generating fresh ideas for an organization. Round-robin brainstorming is a balanced approach, employing an iterative, circular process that builds on the previous contribution of each participant.

Constructive Controversy

Constructive controversy is a theory arguing that controversial discussions create a good starting point for understanding complex problems. A constructive controversy discussion is performed by following six steps: organize information and derive conclusions; presenting and advocating decisions; being challenged by opposing views; conceptual conflict and uncertainty; epistemic curiosity and perspective-taking; and reconceptualization, synthesis, and integration.

Affinity Grouping

Affinity grouping is a collaborative prioritization process where group participants brainstorm ideas and opportunities according to their similarities. Affinity grouping is a broad and versatile process based on simple but highly effective ideas. It helps teams generate and then organize teams according to their similarity or likeness.

The Fishbone Diagram

The Fishbone Diagram is a diagram-based technique used in brainstorming to identify potential causes for a problem, thus it is a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish. Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish. This encourages problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternatives.


Rolestorming as a term was first mentioned by personal development guru Rick Griggs in the 1980s.  Rolestorming is a brainstorming technique where participants pretend they are other people when sharing their thoughts and ideas.

Reverse Brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming takes advantage of the natural human tendency to more easily see problems than solutions. What’s more, many individuals when placed in a traditional brainstorming environment will find it difficult to become creative on command. Reverse brainstorming is an approach where individuals brainstorm the various ways a plan could fail. 

Lotus Diagram

A lotus diagram is a creative tool for ideation and brainstorming. The diagram identifies the key concepts from a broad topic for simple analysis or prioritization.

Futures Wheel

The futures wheel was invented in 1971 by Jerome C. Glenn while he was studying at the Antioch Graduate School of Education.  The futures wheel is a brainstorming framework for visualizing the future consequences of a particular trend or event.

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