What is divergent thinking, and why should nonprofits practice it?

In the nonprofit world, where resources are often shared, limited, and sometimes even restrictive, one phrase is common in boardrooms and project meetings: let’s get creative. However, creativity sometimes seems to be a gift that some people have, and others don’t. The phrase “let’s get creative” never really answers how to get creative and practice it for what it is: a valuable skill in every workplace. 

At NNSI, many of our conversations revolve around solving problems through divergent thinking. But what is divergent thinking, why do we use it, and what problems can it help solve? In this Defining the Jargon post, we define and explore divergent thinking, when it’s helpful (or not), how to practice it, and why it is essential to our research––and you.


What is divergent thinking?

In his 2018 article “My Quest to Understand Human Intelligence,” psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman defines divergent thinking as “the ability to generate several solutions to a problem.” Divergent thinking looks at a problem from different directions and maps out many ways to solve it, even if those ways are not perfect. What takes practice with this method is accepting bad ideas. In a map of these ideas, there very well may be a diamond sitting in the rough. 

Our experience working with nonprofits and networks has given us insight into when and how to use divergent thinking practices. What seems like a daunting task just requires a few key practices. Any organizational leader can implement these practices at their next meeting. 


When to use divergent thinking (and when not to)

Divergent thinking is helpful in many collaborative situations but may not be appropriate for every situation. So, when is it best used in an organization? While the best practices may be up to your leadership and culture, the most critical driver of strategy is data. 

Convergent thinking is what we traditionally view as strategy. In this thinking process, we view problems with specific regard to context, data, and history. This process is vital because it reaches one definite solution to a problem instead of many. So, in data-driven situations (e.g., finance), there are benefits to looking at the facts first. 

In contrast, divergent thinking is important when you do not have a clear answer or direction based on the data in hand. It allows you to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders, identify creative ideas, and open new opportunities for nonprofit and networks. However, divergent thinking isn’t just brainstorming. In fact, research demonstrates that most brainstorming techniques don’t work. Instead, we offer some concrete, research-based techniques that you can use at your next meeting. 


How do I practice divergent thinking for social impact?

Setting expectations. According to Jaskyte et al., “individuals produce more creative outcomes when their organizations facilitate their creative efforts.” This means that to change an organization’s culture from convergent to divergent (and any mix of the two), leaders must first encourage creativity, celebrate new ideas, and take some risks. Encouraging leaders can lead to motivated individuals. Creativity can then be born.

Democracy in the workplace is essential for divergent thinking because of the brainstorming process. With many ideas in one room, the chances of finding that diamond in the rough later are much higher. Nonprofits can achieve brainstorming by setting community expectations, such as the room’s formality, how much sharing is oversharing, and communicating judgment without creating a bad mood. 

However, nonprofits can avoid bad moods in the boardroom with leaders’ acceptance of failure and encouragement to follow suit. When leaders promote risk-taking and are transparent in their failures, others may feel comfortable doing the same. This is key to creativity: knowing that there is no right answer..


Use an activity. One of the best ways to create divergent thinking in a room is to use techniques that allow people space to express their individual thinking, without being swayed by the discussion in the group.. Richard Chit, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor, in their book on generative board governance, recommend several key activities to generate more ideas at your next meeting.

  • Use silent starts, where everyone spends time thinking and independently writing about questions before the conversation gets going. By using silent starts, individuals will generate more unique ideas because the conversation hasn’t shaped their thinking before they’ve gotten their ideas down.
  • Have individuals submit five ideas about the topic in advance. Similar to silent starts, this encourages individuals to think independently. You can present these ideas to the group without attribution. Separating ideas from people can promote good ideas, even when they don’t come from the most powerful person in the room.
  • Assign individuals to offer counterpoints to key proposals. In doing so, you can help keep “groupthink” from leading your nonprofit toward a half-baked idea. In our experience, some individuals love to play devil’s advocate.
  • Have the group write one-minute memos at the end of the meeting. These memos should identify the things the individual would have said if there was more time. 


Why is NNSI interested in divergent thinking?

Nonprofit organizations face a lot of challenges. From limited resources to constant shifts in leadership, sometimes the future of nonprofits is not clear. At NNSI, we recognize these challenges and believe that to unlock their potential, both nonprofits and networks need to harness the collective intelligence of all of their members. 

Divergent thinking helps keep nonprofits and networks from just going along with the dominant view. In networks, it can be a key element of enhancing the collective’s inclusivity. Enhancing opportunities for meaningful participation is important for community empowerment and effective coalition functioning. These are essential pathways to creating a social impact. 


Where can I learn more about divergent thinking?

Many researchers and scholars have published relevant texts regarding divergent thinking, including three cited in this post: 


Jaskyte, Kristina, Christina Byerly, Amanda Bryant, and Julianna Koksarova. “Transforming a
Nonprofit Work Environment for Creativity.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership 21,
no. 1 (2010): 77–92. https://doi.org/10.1002/nml.20013.

Kaufman, Scott Barry. “My Quest to Understand Human Intelligence.” The Nature of Human
Intelligence, 2018, 215–29. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316817049.015.

Taylor, Barbara E., William P. Ryan, and Richard P. Chait. Governance as Leadership:
Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013. 


Additionally, psychologist Nick Wignall discusses tips to be more creative in his article:

Wignall, Nick. “Divergent Thinking: The Mental Muscle Behind Consistent Creativity.” Nick
Wignall, June 9, 2020. https://nickwignall.com/divergent-thinking/. 


Toni Bernhard, J.D. also discusses how to discover your thinking style here:

Bernhard, Toni. “What Type of Thinker Are You? When You Get Stuck in Convergent Thinking, You Miss Possibilities Open to You.” Web log. Psychology Today (blog), February 28, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/turning-straw-gold/201302/what-type-thinker-are-you.