Convergent vs Divergent Thinking for Product Managers

To say that Product Managers are big thinkers is an understatement. Product Managers need to generate creative ideas, find the most efficient and feasible way to solve a problem, hold the product vision, and influence a wide pool of stakeholders.

With all of that going on, it’s amazing that they find the time to…think about thinking. But that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.

When you’re faced with solving a problem in product development, at any stage, it can be easy to get stuck. If you’re always racking your brain in the same way, or finding yourself stuck in the same thought loops, it might be time to try a new way of thinking. Looking at things in a different way can find answers to questions that you didn’t even know existed!

One of the newest ideas in psychology, which is rising in popularity in the tech industry, is the difference between divergent and convergent thinking, and how the two can be applied.

woman in gray top thinking

Where Did Divergent vs Convergent Come From?

First brought to the world’s attention in 1956, the idea of divergent vs convergent thinking is a relatively new concept. It was first introduced by an American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford (J.P. Guilford).

From there it was picked up by business leaders, and eventually tech leaders, as another cognitive approach to finding answers to customers problems. It’s no wonder that the link between these approaches and Product Management was eventually made, since that’s what PMs are all about!

In recent years, leaders in tech, design, business, and product, have proposed new ways in which these two types of thinking can lead to more creative idea generation, and how they can benefit a company’s efforts.

Check out: How Soft Skills Can Save a Business

Divergent Thinking: Thinking Outside of the Box

So what exactly is divergent thinking? Divergent thinking is pretty synonymous with that old cliche ‘think outside the box’ which by now we’ve all heard far too many times!

Divergent thinking is a multi-lensed cognitive approach which encourages teams to think in terms of all possibilities, and not just what sits in their comfort zone.

According to Professor Thomas W. Malnight, there are four main lenses of divergent thinking, which can be applied to encourage divergent thinking, without just going off on a tangent into the realm of the impossible!

Framework: Four Lenses to Power Up Divergent Thinking. Source: IMD

Outside In

Outside in thinking involves looking at external factors which influence what’s going on in your own company. It might mean looking at what competitors are doing, which disruptions in other industries may cross over to or influence yours, and trends in the marketplace.

For example in the sharing economy, brands like Uber and Airbnb, while major drivers of innovation, must look to what else is going on in that space in order to make good decisions.

It also means looking at consumer buying habits and user behaviour outside of your product/company. Besides your product, what else do they like to use? How else do they solve their other problems?

Two-directional: core-forward and future-back

arrow signs

Core-forward can in a way be thought of as ‘how we’ve always done things.’ It focuses on achieving short-term KPIs, achieving the overall business objectives, and protecting market-share.

This is then coupled with future-back thinking which will be familiar to many product people, as it’s similar to what we would call ‘north star thinking.’ You need to have a vision for where your product is going to be able to figure out how best to get there. These long-term goals may change as marketplaces and business landscapes shift, but having something to keep in mind will help you to make the right decisions on your way there.

Being innovative relies on being able to imagine the future of your product, company, and industry. By approaching future thinking with a core-forward approach, you help to drive your business towards that future in the right way. You’ll find the correct answers to your questions, without going off the rails and setting unrealistic expectations.

Disruption

Is there anyone in the tech world who hasn’t heard the word ‘disruption?’

According to TechCrunch, ‘a disruptive product addresses a market that previously couldn’t be served.’ Disruptive thinking doesn’t just ask ‘how can we play the game’, it asks ‘how can we change the game?’

To think disruptively is seen as risky, not in the least because disruption is so easily misunderstood. To some, disruption means ‘be the best as quickly as possible’ or ‘off-set costs and be cheaper than anyone thought possible.’ 

Really, disruption means solving a problem that hasn’t been solved before, or doing it in a way that threatens to render your competition obsolete. There’s no formula for it (if there was, everyone would be doing it!) but it’s the secret behind the success of many of the world’s top products.

Convergent Thinking: Thinking…Inside the Box?

Business leaders and entrepreneurs just love to talk about ‘thinking outside the box’, so why is convergent thinking growing in popularity? Convergent thinking does quite the opposite. Instead of using creativity to imagine possibilities, convergent thinking uses logic to find the ‘correct’ answer.

Comparable to Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually the right one. In business and product development, convergent thinkers are the ones who look at the small problems which bring everything grinding to a halt and say “here’s how we fix this, simply and quickly.”

Convergent thinking is the kind of thinking we use when taking standardized multiple choice tests. There is one clear answer to a problem, and it can be found through thinking logically.

This kind of thinking is absolutely necessary for the day to day running of a business. When software engineers encounter a bug, they don’t try to think about how to fix it in a way that has a wow factor. They want to get it fixed in the way that makes the most sense, as quickly as possible.

You might also be interested in: 3 Reasons Why Software Engineers Make Great Product Managers

Which is Better for Leadership?

The truth is that both are necessary for leadership, and are therefore both necessary for Product Managers.

Some problems require creativity, and to envision something completely new and – yes we’ll say it again – outside the box! The dream of solving a problem for millions of people and taking your product from idea to reality is in itself a divergent act.

On the other hand, convergent thinking is needed, particularly in Agile development, when you need to fix something fast, and with as few resources as possible. You need simple answers, and simple fixes, using things you already have to hand. That requires looking inwards, using convergent thinking.

If you’re stuck, one way or the other, trying to identify which type of thinking is best suited to the problem may be the key to solving your problem.

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