Three thinking modes – no, they don’t exclude each other

With the development of problem-solving techniques and methodologies, some simple and known concepts are getting their revamped life. So now, especially working in design thinking, when I approach something in an A->B->C way, I hear: „oh, but you need to apply divergent thinking!” or „don’t think in such a convergent way.” Ugh. No! DO BOTH! Actually, do three, but let me explain step by step.




Convergent thinking is a term given to a fact-focused thinking approach by Joy Paul Guilford, an American psychologist most known for his psychometric study of human intelligence.

Convergent thinking focuses on coming up with a single, well-established answer to a problem (like on standardized tests). It occurs when an answer already exists somewhere in your mind, and just needs to be recalled, or figured out through decision-making. It emphasizes speed, accuracy, linear thinking, and logic.



Divergent thinking is a term given to a stimulation-focused thinking approach by Joy Paul Guilford, an American psychologist most known for his psychometric study of human intelligence.

It usually happens in unplanned, free-flowing, and „non-linear” way (what is usually characterized as creative way); lots of various ideas are explored, seemingly unconnected, but by trying out unusual connections, unexpected solutions are created. The mind generates ideas beyond proscribed expectations and standard/stereotypical thinking (the phrase „thinking outside the box”).



And here ve go, to the third thinking mode which encompasses both convergent or divergent thinking! YES! To have the full experience, you need to use both. The beauty of lateral thinking is that sometimes you can „use lateral thinking” and not come up with anything useful, because it’s specifically concerned with the generation of new perceptions and new ideas, and flexibility.

Convergent thinking (i.e. the process of logical reasoning to follow a well-defined path) and divergent thinking (i.e. using imagination, freedom of expression, looking elsewhere than the well-defined path) come together to join in lateral thinking, where the path exists, but you still deviate sideways to try and arrive at the solution from a different perspective.

The brain is generally a pattern-making system, reverting to routines and typical, dinned into our heads. Lateral thinking means trying to move across from one pattern of thought to another, purposefully breaking out of a particular way of reasoning to see things in a new way and from this hopefully develop new solutions. As such lateral thinking methods are designed to provide a deliberate, systematic process that will result in innovative thinking.

Here is the best explanation that I would be able to put into better words, it comes from this inconspicuous website about management, called 12manage: „Lateral thinking is about reasoning that is not immediately obvious and about ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. With logic, you start out with certain ingredients just as in playing chess you start out with given pieces. But what are those pieces? In most real-life situations the pieces are not given, we just assume they are there. We assume certain perceptions, certain concepts, and certain boundaries. LT is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but by seeking to change the pieces. It is concerned with the perception part of thinking. This is where we organize the external world into the pieces we can then 'process’.

Edward de De Bono, the father of lateral thinking, identifies four critical factors associated with lateral thinking:
+ Recognize dominant ideas that polarize the perception of a problem.
+ Searching for different ways of looking at things.
+ Relaxation of rigid control of thinking.
+ Use of chance to encourage other ideas.



According to de Bono, lateral thinking is not a gift; it is a skill that can be learned. And if you practice, you will get better at:

  • Finding alternative solutions and ideas.
  • Building on the ideas of others to extend their use.
  • Drawing inspiration for anywhere.
  • Looking at technology as a means to do things differently.
  • Turning problems to opportunities.
  • Finding alternative and unique ways to solve problems.
  • Creating ideas „on demand.”
  • Gaining a competitive advantage by being vastly more innovative.



Awesome, huh? Who wouldn’t want to explore such superpowers! And if you’re still with me, here are some easy ways to help you acquire the superpower of lateral thinking yourself!


  1. Engage in thinking puzzles. Explore sideway solutions to problems that seem trivial at first glance. Exercise unlogical, or non-obvious stories and ideas.
  2. Write flash fiction. Or generally, write. Explore imaginary worlds with seemingly illogical adventures. Create crazy characters.
  3. Roleplay your life. Pretend to be someone else and try to figure out what they would do in your life. Imagine them in your shoes, making a choice for you in their fashion.
  4. Puzzle out some crosswords or sudoku. Keep your mind in a thinking phrase for a while, especially in a domain that is not your forte.
  5. Switch the hobbies – if you write, then sketch something. If you draw – write something. E.g. choose a recipe and illustrate it using a different domain.