Managers: Recognize the Value of both Divergent and Convergent Thinking

“Who brings what to the table” in teams at work is actually more complicated than we might assume.

In the US, the rational thinking model rules in the business world. This means it is the assumed “right way” to approach a lot of important team activities including idea generation, process identification, goal formation and decision making. Articulate people who have a rational thinking approach are thought of as “smart”. The “creatives” are acknowledged, and we have learned to give lip service to what a creative process can bring to the table, but I’ve seen time and time again how the rational approach and its acolytes bump into and mow over other approaches.

What a loss. People (those creatives) who want to play games with words, mull things over, institute creative practices for decision making, or think broadly about option sets (and on and on) have a lot to offer. Psychologist J.P. Guilford quite a long time ago now, showed that our traditional ideas of smart – i.e., IQ - doesn’t actually measure creativity, at all.

Guilford separated divergent from convergent thinking (in shorthand, logical and creative thinking) to show us that “who brings what to the table” is actually more complicated than we might assume. Research to demonstrate the value of this divergent thinking to team and organizational success flowed from this break in assumption.

Anyone managing a team, either as a manager or a member, can benefit from knowing the thinking styles of its members. Akin to handedness, some people use one, some the other and some play both hands pretty well (we could have a lot more ambidextrous thinkers if we structured our practice to support its development). However – and this is critical – just knowing what diversity exists doesn’t get you to value creation as a result. The diversity has to be managed to be inclusive. That means new practices of day-to-day work – e.g, meeting agendas, informal brainstorming, and decision making routines -- have to be considered and adjusted to allow diversity to be acknowledged and welcomed in.

Good team diagnostics explore member thinking style, among other things. In general, three things in this domain are measured: the tendency for divergent thinking, artistic ability, and self-assessment of creative practice. All these things can and do matter for work.

Teams can think about these results individually and together. They can think through whether their team has a full enough range of thinking capabilities and they can design work processes to support their divergent and convergent thinkers. Silent, and even emotionally absent team members are a lost resource. Good teams engage everyone, not always, but consistently, and in the rhythm of the business.

LatestTeresa Nelson, PhD