Convergent and Divergent Creativity

There are two very different types of creativity: convergent and divergent.

Convergent creativity is the kind of creativity that is the type we see today. Convergent creativity is coming up with creative ways to solve problem. This is the type of creativity that organizations are willing to reward people for. Convergent creativity is creativity that brings short-term benefits.

Virtually all engineering creativity is convergent creativity. Here is something that needs creating in order to satisfy some immediate need or problem. This is not to dismiss convergent creativity as not being necessary, but it is not the kind of creativity that brings about new ideas. It solves problems.

A good example of this is the Post-it® Note. Dr. Spencer Silver was trying to solve a problem – come up with a super-strong adhesive. In the process, he came up with a super-weak adhesive. A super-weak adhesive that led to the emergence of the sticky-note six years later when a different problem was looking for a solution – how to make bookmarks that didn’t fall out.

Another example of convergent creativity is the invention of the tank in WWI. With the advent of dug-in defensive entrenchment positions of the soldiers, a machine was invented to cross trenches. Although the tank served its immediate purpose, the use of tanks as a new offensive cavalry came about in WWII and was developed in Germany. Not quite the same as a sticky-note, but similar. Something invented that found its fullest expression years later as something that hadn’t been thought of yet.

Convergent creativity solves problems or results in short-term gains. When we talk about creativity in fine arts, it is virtually all convergent. People know what they want to see, experience, or hear and when something comes along that does not meet these expectations, the results are pseudo-riots in the Spring, album works that get no airtime, dances that are never really performed, works that are never seen. Fine arts are as closely attuned to fickle public opinion as any product that is produced for consumption.

Divergent creativity is not something that is ever really paid for. Organizations are responsible to whoever provides the reward – government, consumers, patrons… There are few, if any organizations that pay engineers to come up with solutions for problems that do not need solving for some immediate need.

Education is virtually all convergent. The right answer is always the right answer. Even creativity or originality in education is convergent creativity – find a different way of stating something or solving an existing problem.

Divergent creativity is not valued in our market driven world. For every great masterpiece – something different enough to be called divergent – in any field of endeavour, there are tens of thousands of mediocre innovations that are sought after for immediate returns. Brilliant creativity today is when a new business comes along that fills a niche market – a problem looking for a solution.

Not only is divergent creativity not valued in our society, divergent creativity is discouraged or even punishes. Divergent creativity is threatening because it has the potential to upset the status quo. Students are punished for failing to produce the right answer. Fine arts don’t sell if patrons don’t get what they are expecting to get. Line managers feel threatened if a different way of thinking emerges from the ranks. Divergent creativity is frightening.

When organizations state that they are looking for “creative people” and value that as an ability, they are not talking about divergent creativity. Nobody pays for blue-sky thinking. Even blue-sky organizations are established within a specific paradigm of thinking.

Is convergent creativity going to make our world a better place or will it take divergent creativity to even define something different than better?

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