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Simply put, divergent thinking applies non-traditional, creative ideas to problems and progress in all areas of life. These techniques provide a novel approach that can result in profound positive change for your association. Here’s how. 

What Is Divergent Thinking?

Divergent thinking is one of two mental processes required for creative problem-solving. 

Convergent thinking, the first and most common problem-solving technique, relies on existing knowledge to come to one single solution. This is also referred to as “spotlight” thinking and is often a primary tool in traditional problem-solving exercises. Convergent thinking poses one “correct” answer to a problem — a solution based on what is already known. 

But sometimes convergent thinking is not broad enough or does not have a large enough body of knowledge to draw upon. When this occurs, another way to approach a problem is by generating a variety of solutions that are not bound by traditional thinking. Divergent thinking poses a question that generates ideas, some of which may be novel. Also known as “floodlight” thinking, it casts a wide net to solve a problem, calling upon creative imagination instead of previously worn paths.

Divergent thinkers are the innovators, the people who are not afraid to, as Steve Jobs put it, “think different.”  

The Benefits of Divergent Thinking

If you want your association to evolve and innovate to meet the challenges posed by an ever-changing world, divergent thinking can help you do just that.

Divergent thinking is open to new perspectives

The theoretical conversations that arise from divergent thinking open seemingly limitless options. These options can be turned over and evaluated, made sense of and weighed in terms of what works best for the association. Frequently, this close analysis results in innovative solutions to underlying issues that were not seen as “solvable” before.

Divergent thinking does not limit the answer

While convergent thinking is centered around a right or wrong answer, divergent thinking allows associations to go deeper into the question. This deep dive results in significant learning for the individuals, the team, and the association.

Related: 5 Change Management Best Practices for Maximum Success Learn More >

3 Divergent Thinking Techniques

If your team is new to divergent thinking, there are three ideation techniques to introduce and provide a framework for discussions.

1. Mind mapping

Tony Buzan used the journals of Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison to create this technique. Mind mapping poses a central theme and generates ideas around it. This can be used as a structured type of brainstorm to get ideas flowing.

Here’s how:

  • Use a whiteboard, flip chart paper, or sticky notes in different colors. If meeting virtually, software such as iMindMap and MindMeister are great tools.
  • Ask the question, pose the problem, or set the theme. Write it on one color of sticky note.
  • Begin generating related questions, complications, or connected smaller themes on different color notes.
  • Take one section and start to create more branches of answers, strategies, or ideas.
  • Continue until the team has exhausted their ideas.

This format puts all ideas in a color-coded format that makes it easier to see connections. It can also generate solutions to other issues or answers to questions that weren’t obvious before.

 For example, if your association is struggling with retaining members, a mind map might generate a variety of strategies (i.e., discounts, extra benefits). Teams could then take each strategy and focus on implementation (such as discounted classes or more access to exclusive website content).

The brainstorming format is familiar to many people and is a good way to get started with divergent thinking.


SCAMPER is an acronym that stands for:

  • Substitute: What could be swapped in/out?
  • Combine: What pairs well with something else?
  • Adapt: How can elements be changed to work better?
  • Minimize/Magnify: What can be focused on (or hidden)?
  • Put to another use: Is there anything that works in another context?
  • Eliminate: What is unnecessary?
  • Reverse: Are there processes or products that can be delivered in the opposite order?

It was created when Alex F. Osborn, an advertising wiz, created a checklist of 83 questions to help teams who didn’t know they were stuck to get moving on problem solving. Bob Eberle, an education expert, refined the technique and assigned it the acronym.

So how does it work?

Moving slowly through the acronym and looking at different perspectives forces your teams to consider new solutions to old issues. It can identify areas of stuck habitual thinking that your association didn’t even know it was experiencing.

Virtual meeting scan uses apps like Miro and Mural with pre-set SCAMPER templates in-person meetings are most effective when the groups are small and assigned a part of the acronym to work on.

3. Business model canvas

The business model canvas considers every element along the ”supply chain” of the association. It includes nine specific areas of potential creative thinking, including:

  • Customer segments: Identifying potential members 
  • Value proposition: Adding value to members’ needs and wants
  • Customer relationship: Strengthening the relationship to retain members
  • Channels: Improving communication through diverse channels
  • Revenue streams: Building up new revenue streams from existing and potential members
  • Key resources: Better utilization of existing resources
  • Key activities: Increasing the quality of offerings
  • Key partnerships: Building relationships with quality partners
  • Cost structure: Optimizing expenditures to add value and expand

This technique may not work for all associations in all areas, but it can be a powerful tool when it comes to better-utilizing resources and growing membership with high-quality benefits.

How Associations Can Encourage Divergent Thinking

Allow time and space for thought

As with most creative processes, divergent thinking requires time and space. It’s the difference between answering a multiple choice question and writing a personal essay. Once can be done in less than a minute, while the other requires time, space for revision, and more time to consider the final collection of ideas.

Diverge to converge

If your association has built a culture of trust and collaboration, the best way to encourage Innovative breakthrough ideas is to begin with divergent thinking, followed by convergent action. This means that teams and individuals have space and time to generate big ideas and the structure to put those ideas into play when the time comes.

Encourage diversity

Diversity is more than skin deep. There are four basic types of diversity.

  • Internal: Unchangeable things a person is born into, such as race, age, and cultural identity
  • External: Characteristics that are deeply held but ultimately changeable, including education, familial status, and location
  • Functional diversity: The differences created by an organizational assignment, such as job function, pay type, and seniority
  • Worldview: A combination of the three previous types of diversity that creates the lens through which we view the world (for example, political beliefs, morals, and general outlook)
Related: Empowering diversity is more than just checking boxes Learn More >

Associations that include everyone from the custodial staff to the C-suite in decision-making are embracing the diversity that exists within the organization. This deepens the well from which brilliant ideas and groundbreaking solutions springs.

When teams are stuck, divergent thinking can be just the thing your association needs to keep moving forward. It takes practice and space, but it’s time well spent.

Suzannah Kolbeck
Post by Suzannah Kolbeck
October 2, 2022
Suzannah Kolbeck writes, paints, and rides horses in Baltimore, MD. She is the author of Healing Where You Are: An Introduction to Urban Foraging.