Don't Rush to Judgment

Looking for the Best Ideas to Solve Problems, Understand the Difference between Divergent and Convergent Thinking

By Teresa Lawrence, PMP

Every project presents problems. In order to find the best solution, project managers need to use two types of thinking: divergent and convergent. Generating ideas is divergent thinking; evaluating and selecting them is convergent thinking. But just as a driver cannot accomplish anything by accelerating and braking at the same time, project managers cannot find ideal solutions by coming up with ideas and judging them at the same time.

For example, I was once part of a team working on a capital improvement project for a school district. The school was interested in constructing an athletic field with lights. While the community was largely in favor of the field, neighbors worried about their backyards being lit up late into the night. It was a problem the team might not have solved if we had jumped straight to judging between the two obvious options: installing lights versus not installing them. Instead, to encourage divergent thinking, the project manager asked us, “What might be alternative uses or benefits of field lights for the neighbors?”

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During the resulting discussion, several great concepts came up: the safety provided by lights at night, retractable lights and lights at typical streetlight level. Eventually, the team agreed to explore the idea of installing adjustable lights to serve both as field lights during games and streetlights after them.

By introducing challenges such as “What might,” “How might” or “What are all the ways,” project managers can shift the focus away from premature convergent thinking. Instead, we open up the problem to possibility. This reframing sets up teams to arrive at solutions that otherwise might be unrealized.

First: A Storm of Ideas

When your project team embarks on its brainstorming, make sure it keeps these guidelines in mind:

1. Suspend judgment of the ideas.

2. Strive for quantity. The more ideas, the better chance of a great one.

3. Build on other ideas. Build, improve or combine ideas to generate new ones.

4. Go big. It is easier to scale back ideas than to add on.

One brainstorming technique I have found effective is called “stick ’em up brainstorming.” This tool asks each project team member to share his or her idea out loud, then write it on a note to be posted where everyone can see. Saying the idea aloud triggers new ideas and encourages others to immediately expand or contribute to that idea.

We used this technique once when adding a new member to the project team. Naturally, everyone wanted to hire a top-notch candidate, but what would that mean, exactly? We invited stakeholders to a divergent thinking activity to generate and capture all the desired traits. At the end of the session, we had more than 100 notes posted, featuring responses like: is a team player, has a sense of humor, focuses on the big picture, needs little direction, will fit in and thinks on their feet.

Next: The Judgment

After a team has ideated, its work shifts to convergent thinking. Four tips can boost this process:

1. Ask yourself, “What is good about this idea?”

2. Be open to novelty.

3. Keep the objective in mind. Does the idea you are exploring solve the problem?

4. Invest time to ensure ideas are developed.

One technique I like for convergent thinking is called highlighting. It features three steps: stick, cluster and restate the cluster. Team members place stickers on the ideas that pique their interest and have the potential to solve the problem. Next, the group organizes the related stickered ideas into clusters. Finally, the team is asked to synthesize ideas in the clusters and to restate them into a new overarching challenge.

We used this as the next step in our hiring project as well. Group members were given five stickers to put on the idea notes they liked best. Then the group “clustered” similar stickered notes together, so that ideas like “has a sense of humor” and “will fit in” were together, and “big picture thinker,” “thinks on their feet” and “needs little direction” were grouped together. Next, participants restated each cluster into one statement that captured its essence, such as “fosters community” and “self-sufficient.” Our restated clusters became the agreed-upon list of the characteristics stakeholders sought in the new team member. We then used the dynamic balance of divergent and convergent thinking to determine the ways candidates could display or convey these skills during the interview process.


Keep the objective in mind. Does the idea you are exploring solve the problem?

In less than 90 minutes, using divergent and convergent thinking tools, we were able to get wide-ranging input on the ideal characteristics of the new team member, agree on ways to have candidates showcase these desired skills and reach criteria for assessing the candidates.

In my experience, the bottom line to all this is clear: When project managers take time to separate divergent and convergent thinking, the chance of arriving at a novel and useful solution increases dramatically. PM

img Teresa Lawrence, PhD, PMP, is president of International Deliverables LLC, East Amherst, New York, USA.



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