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Solving complex problems with divergent thinking 8 min read
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Anyone that’s ever worked on or managed a project knows full well the challenges involved. Many of those obstacles are operational — keeping team members focused, managing deliverables, remedying scheduling conflicts, and so on. But most projects come up against problems where the solution isn’t linear or even obvious. These challenges require a little more creativity to overcome. Put another way, they require divergent thinking.

Down below, we’ll take a deep dive into the concept of divergent thinking and show you how to use it to tackle challenging problems. We’ll see a few examples of divergent thinking and show you how you can systemize it on to give your team a boost in creative problem-solving.

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What is divergent thinking?

In the broadest sense and simplest terms, divergent thinking describes a way of looking at problems and solutions unconventionally. It’s about coming up with a novel way to solve a problem when the usual answers don’t work. And in many cases, it’s about seeing a solution to a problem that no one knew existed.

In project management and product development, thinking divergently is a necessary component of brainstorming, collaboration, and any form of creativity. But while this all captures the essence of divergent thinking, let’s see what thinking divergently produces by way of example.

Examples of divergent thinking 

There’s a good chance you’re reading this on the most successful example of divergent thinking in history.

The first smartphones were little more than miniaturized computers — small screens, physical keyboards, and operating systems not unlike the ones on a desktop or laptop. And given their success, almost no one saw a problem with the linear manner of shrinking a computer into a handheld device. That is until Steve Jobs of Apple unveiled the iPhone.

While modern smartphones are the latest and greatest result of divergent thinking, you can look throughout recorded history for endless examples. Cultural shifts and changes in entire societies are the results of divergent thinkers.

But divergent thinking isn’t reserved for famous inventors or revolutionaries. If you’ve ever turned a screw using a coin, made a paper airplane, or otherwise used something in a way it wasn’t intended, you were thinking divergently. With that in mind, let’s explore ways you can use divergent thinking to become a better and more creative problem solver.

How to use divergent thinking to become a better problem solver

Whether you’re finding a solution to a problem with no clear cause or you’re searching for an innovative way of doing something, divergent thinking techniques can lead you to new and surprising solutions. And like any other skill or way of thinking, you can improve creative thinking by practicing divergent thinking.

Here are a few ways you can think more divergently when faced with a complex or challenging problem:

  • Let ideas fly: The key to thinking divergently is to let your ideas flow freely. Don’t judge them as they come — instead, let them fly out freely and worry about quality control later.
  • Switch sides: In other words, empathize. Empathy requires the ability to disconnect from yourself and look at a problem from another person’s perspective.
  • Mind map: Mind mapping is an excellent organizational tool for discovering new connections between disparate ideas. You can use a mind map for subject mapping, making it a powerful canvas for innovation.
  • Pose the problem as a question: For challenging problems, try reframing the challenge as a question. Instead of, “users aren’t engaging with the new feature,” ask your team, “how might we make the new feature more engaging?”

Now that you know how to start boosting your creative problem solving, let’s explore how your new skills fit into project management.

Divergent thinking in project management

Most projects have some degree of divergent thinking already built in. Brainstorming sessions, for example, are divergent thinking in action. But just about every project could do with a few more creative ideas. In addition to the obvious benefits you’ve no doubt surmised, divergent thinking also boosts morale and team collaboration.

That said, it’s important to consider both sides of the coin when it comes to managing projects. While we’ve only discussed divergent thinking so far, it’s important to consider its counterpart, convergent thinking. Divergent thinking and convergent thinking are two sides to the same coin. Where divergent thinking is free-flowing ideation, convergent thinking is about selecting the right ideas and making them happen. As such, it’s not enough to know how to think divergently — it’s equally as important to know when to.

When to use the divergent thinking method

Successful projects are governed by concrete metrics. Scope, schedules, deadlines, deliverables, budgets — these are the constraints that all projects operate under. Viewed from this perspective, the very idea of divergent thinking can seem counterintuitive. But by embracing and planning for divergent thinking in specific circumstances, projects can benefit from a range of perspectives that were otherwise unobtainable.

Divergent thinking is especially valuable during the ideation stage of a project. When team members are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild, not every idea will be a gold nugget, but it might be an idea that leads to a veritable treasure chest.

Unexpected challenges are also great opportunities to leverage divergent thinking. If you’re facing a complex problem with no apparent solution, why not invent your own? These are the moments that spark true innovation. In short, every project should have systems in place that allow for moments of divergent thinking and free-flowing creativity.

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Systemize divergent thinking on

As a fully-featured WorkOS, enables you to systemize divergent thinking and integrate the creativity that’s necessary for real innovation.

With one of our newest tools, Canvas, you can kick off new projects with a fully-collaborative, real-time online whiteboard. Intuitive tools let you and your team create diagrams, add sticky notes, and express thoughts, ideas, and information that lead to novel solutions.

Then you can converge those solutions in Workdocs — a collaborative free writing document editor that lets every team member write their ideas simultaneously, adding comments, rearranging thoughts, and creating tasks — all in real-time. And since you can embed dashboards, images, and videos, you can turn a creativity session into an actionable document. also has dozens of integrations for all your freeform, creative, and planning needs. From Adobe Creative Cloud and Google Docs to Slack and Zoom, collaboration on any tool is front and center.

Finally, any sort of creative endeavor requires fuel in the form of feedback and data. With WorkForms, you can provide your divergent thinkers with all the fuel they need by creating forms you can embed just about anywhere, including websites and emails. Or just send them as a link.

From end to end, is the place where creative thinking and project efficiency converge.

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Frequently asked questions

If the concept of divergent thinking has piqued your curiosity, here are a few answers to some common questions regarding the topic.

What is divergent?

Divergent describes something that develops in a different direction relative to another thing, often unexpectedly. You can use it to describe paths, journeys, ideas, products, and even people.

What is a divergent thinker?

Divergent thinkers are creative problem solvers. They use methods or thought processes to explore different paths that can lead to novel solutions. These processes occur in a spontaneous, free-flowing, emergent cognitive fashion. As such, a divergent thinker can often look at a problem from many angles and perspectives and imagine several possible solutions.

What does divergent thinking mean?

In essence, divergent thinking means imagining other possibilities without rational or reasonable constraints. When unique ideas are generated divergently, they’re neither good nor bad — they’re simply ideas. Creative thinking, examining a problem from different perspectives, and reframing a problem are all forms of divergent thinking.

What is the difference between a convergent thinker and a divergent thinker?

A convergent thinker is typically more organized and structured in their thought. They use reason and logic to deduce the best solution to a problem or the best idea to pursue. A divergent thinker is one who thinks creatively and without judgment. They use their imagination to come up with many possible solutions to a problem. Taken together, you could say the difference between the two is that a divergent thinker is an idea generator while a convergent thinker is an idea selector.

Turn problems into opportunities with divergent thinking

Much of the responsibility of a project manager involves structuring, planning, and organizing. Business is still business, after all — we’re all working under a deadline and within a budget. But that doesn’t necessitate tossing novel thinking and creativity out the proverbial window. There’s a reason creative industries have faster job growth and slower job loss.

It all comes down to balance. By systemizing creativity into your project workflow with a WorkOS like, you can create opportunities for collaborative, convergent thinking that just might lead to the next big innovation.

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