There are two modes of cognitive reasoning that are universally defined: convergent and divergent thinking.
Convergent thinking is the one that is more frequently employed at work, in schools, and often at home. It is a form of thinking employing deductive reasoning, which looks at bringing together information that is focussed on solving a problem. Often, convergent thinking is useful for situations where a single correct solution exists. Such modes of thinking are commonly employed in scientific, engineering, financial and other analytical fields (like much of Police work).
Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is a more freeflowing process of generating as many possibilities as possible from a common theme. It is closely associated with spontaneity, random thoughts, non-conformity, creativity and thinking “out-of-the-box”. Edward De Bono’s concept of Lateral Thinking falls into this area. The fields of artistic endeavours like visual art, dance, fictional writing, and music fall into this category.
If you look around you in the office, at school, in Church, or at home, it is apparent that convergent thinking is far more prevalent than divergent thinking. Most of the people that you meet prefer to adopt a logical, step-by-step approach in solving their daily dilemmas.
We are so hardwired to accept a standard, tried-and-tested path to life, love, academic and career success that we cannot accept anything different. Other than the 5 “Cs” – career, car, condominium, cash, and credit card – we also hanker after model answers and “Ten year series” to feed our need for certainty.
Unfortunately, the world is transforming at a remarkably quick pace, and the cliche that “the only constant is change” (by 500 BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus) is more true than ever before. Against such a backdrop, we cannot merely stick to the status quo and hope that textbook based solutions are good enough.
So what can we do to encourage more divergent thinking?
For individuals, find delight in experimentation and embrace divergent ways of solving personal issues. Walk to a different place for lunch each day, take a different route home, and pick up a book that is totally different from your regular fare. Pick up a new hobby, learn to draw, or embrace a new dance.
For families and groups of friends, adopt a “do a different thing each weekend” idea. Try exploring different places on all corners of the country, and tease your aesthetic senses with new colours, scents, sounds and tastes. Embark on new group projects that add value to others.
For organisations, create opportunities for innovation and spontaneity that transcend traditional divisional boundaries. Hire “left wingers” who are different from you, and encourage unconventional thinking. Encourage brainstorming sessions and freewheeling dialogues that are targeted at specific corporate challenges.
Entrepreneurial solutions and risk taking should not be unduly penalised. Instead, introduce safeguards that allow projects to “fail often, fail fast, and fail cheap” by minimising potential fallout.
To conclude, let me share this brilliant video by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based on Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on Changing Paradigms. Sir Robinson gave an excellent expose on what’s wrong with the education system in general, and why we need to embrace a different paradigm to encourage more divergent thinking.