How to think divergently

by | May 30, 2024

Do you ever feel like all your ideas are boring? It happens to everyone, regardless of creative expertise or the deadlines currently staring you down from your calendar. However, introducing more divergent thinking into our process is a challenge.

When we need new ideas, we usually:

  1. Google how everyone else is solving the problem or search social for inspo
  2. Plan a traditional brainstorm on Zoom (or in a drab conference room)

This gives us something to do but doesn’t inspire creative thinking. When all your ideas feel uninspired, you need divergence—something new to break the mold.

Divergent thinking is exploring unexpected paths. Letting yourself explore unfamiliar places. It’s the opposite of convergent thinking, which seeks a single correct answer.

Divergent thinking is challenging because it requires us to do something new. 

I created a resource, the Better Brainstorming Guide, to help you in these moments. It’s a free list of interventions to help you think divergently.

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Here are 3 things from the guide you can try today:

1. Don’t Overprepare

Prepare, but don’t overdo it. A brainstorm brief should be one page, max. Over-explaining limits a team’s ability to escape groupthink.

When brainstorming solo, set time limits. For a blog post, I use a quick outline, 30-60 minutes of research, and 1-3 hours of writing. 

Minimal prep keeps divergent thinking on the table.

2. Introduce Novelty

In 2005, a study on Broadway musicals showed the power of diverse groups. Teams with a mix of familiar and new members produced the most successful shows. For example, the hit show “West Side Story” combined the experienced pair of composer Leonard Bernstein and director Jerome Robbins, who had worked together before, with fresh talents like the lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents.

For solo brainstorming, use writing prompts, random word generators, or ask how different people might solve your problem (e.g., a scientist or an abstract painter).

3. The 3 Horse Rule

For every winning idea, generate two strong alternatives (the thoroughbreds) and one “favorite bad idea” (the unicorn). This maintains diversity in your creative process by preventing fixation on a single concept.

For example, imagine you’re redesigning a video agency’s website. Your 3 horses might look like this: 

  • Thoroughbred: A retro site celebrating the history of film 
  • Thoroughbred: Focus on highlighting team expertise using UGC vertical videos 
  • Unicorn: Use a series of linked YouTube videos as the agency’s website

Instead of converging on one winning idea, this process keeps each idea in discussion longer, giving you more options and unexpected insights.

We think of brainstorming as a standard process, but without disrupting how we normally work, divergent thinking typically escapes us. 

Break patterns. 

These tips and the Better Brainstorming Guide will help you go in new directions. Grab the full guide here.





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