You’re overseeing a project and have all the pieces in place.
Your detailed timeline is mapped out. You’ve set expectations with leaders and team members. You’re prepared to keep all the deliverables organized.
Halfway through the project, a team comes to you with a suggestion—they think they’ve found a better way to handle a piece of the process.
Your stomach drops into your shoes. You’re the taskmaster. The organizer. The keeper of the schedule. This change in direction will only throw a wrench into the flawless plan you spent hours agonizing over. Even if it is a better way to go, you’re cringing at the idea of straying from your beloved system.
Sound familiar? It’s a common scenario for project managers. When you’re the one who’s solely responsible for keeping everything on track, it’s understandable that you’ll white-knuckle your tried and true processes.
But, think about this: You may be limiting the wiggle room team members need to take that project to the next level. By planning away every last inch of flexibility, you’re making it that much tougher to adapt to new information and evolving demands.
So, what do you do? It’s time for project management professionals to not only think of themselves as the keepers of plans, but also the ones responsible for pulling the very best out of teams.
To do so, they need to encourage and enable both pieces of the creative problem-solving process: divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
What is the Difference Between Divergent and Convergent Thinking?
“Divergent thinking is the process of coming up with new ideas and possibilities—without judgment, without analysis, without discussion. It is the type of thinking that allows you to free-associate, to ‘go big’ and to discuss possible new ways to solve difficult challenges that have no single/right/known answer,” explains Anne Manning, Founding Partner of Drumcircle LLC and Instructor at Harvard University.
Think about a brainstorming session, where you sit down to discuss what company problem needs to be solved next. People are throwing out all sorts of suggestions—even ones you know at first glance are unfeasible. That’s divergent thinking. You’re spitballing ideas without any rules or restrictions.
Now that you have that long list of lofty ambitions, what happens next? In an ideal world, it’s convergent thinking.
What Is Convergent Thinking?
“Convergent thinking is associated with analysis, judgment, and decision-making. It is the process of taking a lot of ideas and sorting them, evaluating them, analyzing the pros and cons, and making decisions,” Manning explains.
Some of those ideas will get tossed out because they’re too expensive, too time-consuming, require too many resources, or are just too far outside the box. Put simply, convergent thinking is the process of strategically weeding through those ideas to find your solution.
Check out this exercise that Anne Manning does with her class that illustrates the difference between these two types of thinking:
Convergent Thinkers vs. Divergent Thinkers: Is One Better Than the Other?
Everybody is capable of both convergent and divergent thinking, depending on the situation. However, it’s natural to lean more toward one or the other when approaching problems and projects.
“Some people have a natural preference for divergent thinking. They are the people in organizations who love to come up with new ideas,” says Manning, “They are also the people who are most useful when solving daunting, complex challenges because they are more likely to articulate ideas that are new and useful.”
The real issue lies in becoming too reliant on one method of thinking. “Too much divergent thinking can lead to endless ideation and no solutions. Too much convergent thinking can lead to no new ideas and ‘analysis paralysis,’” adds Manning.
Project Management and the Lure of Convergent Thinking
That’s a trap that project management professionals—who are notoriously married to their plans and processes—can fall into easily.
Let’s break this all down with some examples. Divergent thinking starts with an objective—perhaps you need to generate 1,000 new leads within a month. You start by brainstorming creative ideas and solutions to satisfy that goal: happy hours with famous speakers, direct mailers including $100 gift cards, a man in a gorilla suit on the corner of Times Square.
From there, you move into evaluating those options and settling on the one(s) that works best. This is an example of convergent thinking.
That’s how successful projects should progress, but too often project managers skip that first piece. They’re so eager to pin down a plan they don’t allot time to let imaginations run wild. They point to a tried and tested solution, tie it back to a goal, and move onward.
This approach is dangerous for a few reasons. For starters, you’ll rely on the same ideas over and over again—not necessarily because they’re the best, but because you’re comfortable with them.
Secondly, it limits your success. Competitive organizations need to be flexible, agile, and adaptable. They should explore what’s possible, rather than diving straight into a planning process or relying on that dreaded “we’ve always done it this way” philosophy.
“The issue isn’t plans—plans are fine, in and of themselves,” writes software manager, Kris Gage, in her article for Medium, “The issue is people who can’t do anything without plans, whose knee-jerk, default response to any unknown is to compulsively ‘figure out a plan’—to get ‘certainty.’ News flash: there is no certainty. And when you obsess over perfecting something that’s inherently imperfect, you immobilize yourself.”
How to Enable More Divergent Thinking
While project management professionals should empower teams to think divergently, managing timelines and efficiencies is still critical. So where’s the balance?
How can you incorporate divergent thinking into your project planning processes and be creative—yet not disorganized? Here are a few tips to remain nimble enough to meet evolving business goals and demands—without letting things run off the rails.
1. Bank Ample Time for Both Types of Thinking
Both convergent and divergent thinking are important for creative problem solving and project planning—which means you should have time set aside for each of them.
“We already do that!” you’re thinking to yourself, “We’ve had so many brainstorming sessions, you wouldn’t believe it.”
But, really think about that for a moment: Were those brainstorming sessions true opportunities for divergent thinking—where any and all ideas were jotted down to be considered and evaluated at a later point? Or, did you and other team members jump in immediately to write ideas off as impossible or irrelevant?
The latter—trying to think both divergently and convergently at the same time—is counterproductive. “In other words, mixing divergent and convergent thinking is like putting your foot on the gas and then the brakes. You end up going nowhere,” says Manning.
While both types of thinking are necessary for success, it’s smarter to separate them. Start by educating your project team members on these two different types of thinking. What is a divergent thinker? What is a convergent thinker? Why does it matter and how can people do both well?
When you kick off a brainstorming session, emphasize that this time is reserved for true divergent thinking. No idea is too big or crazy—every single one will be considered. Remind team members this isn’t the time to poke holes in others’ suggestions.
This ensures you’re giving people the breathing room to think divergently—before you jump right into planning. 38% of employees say leaders dismissing ideas without exploring them is a key reason why they don’t take initiative, so divergent thinking not only improves project results, but also boosts morale!
2. Implement a Collaborative Work Management System
Wait.… a work management system? Isn’t this just another way to document your plan and stick to your process?
True. A collaborative project management platform (like Wrike!) is a great way to provide ongoing visibility into project planning and progress. However, the best platforms also provide the flexibility necessary to support divergent thinking.
Real-time @mentions and comments make it easy to collaborate around big ideas without having to schedule tons of meetings or consolidate information across email threads. Flexible folder structures and custom fields allow project managers to quickly spin up new project templates and process workflows.
Put simply, a good collaborative work management platform makes it easy for you to repeat what works, but also gives you the flexibility to think divergently and adapt to changing goals and demands.
3. Free Yourself (and Others) From the Minutiae
Who has time to think outside the box when there are status updates to be sent, tasks to assign, and project plans to build? Project managers often save time by skipping straight to convergent thinking and knocking out tasks like these.
However, technology is emerging that can free project managers and teams from painstaking administrative work. For example, workflow automation eliminates the need to manually assign task owners, create project templates, or send status update notifications.
Solutions like Zapier and Azuqua make it easy to connect software systems and seamlessly pass information between platforms—no copy and paste required! Many leading platforms even offer native integrations.
Minimizing repetitive busy work leaves teams more time for divergent thinking that might have previously been pushed to the backburner. Offload a little planning and process to machines and focus on doing what they can’t!
Planning to Be Creative: It’s Possible
Planning and creativity sound like they’re mutually exclusive. But, when you understand the ins and outs of divergent and convergent thinking, you realize the two can actually play nice together.
There’s a time and place for both, and the most effective project managers understand when and how to effectively leverage them. Use the tips we’ve outlined here, and you’ll keep projects on track—while still being flexible, agile, and supportive of change and new ideas.
Interested in trying a collaborative work management system that supports both divergent and convergent thinking? Sign up for Wrike’s 14-day free trial!