Creative Loops

The mental loops of diverge-converge-diverge

Most don’t realize this: but creativity requires incredible mental dexterity.

Creative thinking happens through loops of alternating between generative brainstorming (diverge) and problem-solving (converge). Here’s a framework I find useful: first, focus on exploration, then hone in on a direction, then explore again before narrowing down.

The pillars of human intelligence was studied and distilled by American psychologist JP Guildford in the 1950s, who started his research during World War II. He was tasked with the psychological evaluation of airforce pilots, and the cognitive abilities crucial to flying a plane.

His published papers on the six key operations in human intelligence — cognition, memory recording, memory retention, divergent production, convergent production, and evaluation — inspired ad man Alex Osborn. The cofounder of legendary ad agency BBDO described the creative thinking process as a series of alternate loops of diverging-converging-diverging, in his seminal book, “Applied Imagination” (1953).

This method, argued Osborn, allows one to think beyond the “obvious” and “top of mind” ideas during the generative brainstorm, and then switch to a mode of down-selection and focus. Going straight into convergence —without first, casting the net wide with divergence— is limiting.

Here are some great tips on how you can use it in your day-today:

  1. When in divergence mode:

  • Defer judgment

  • Combine and build

  • Seek wild ideas

  • Go for quantity

  1. When in convergence mode:

  • Be deliberate

  • Check the objectives

  • Be affirmative

  • Consider novelty


Converge-diverge applies to technology cycles too. With all the hype around generative AI, I sense the ecosystem moving towards more of a convergence mode after the Cambrian explosion in the past 18 months. While I think we will still see creative and exploratory endeavors, we are entering a phase with founders approaching the space with more of a keen and critical eye — and asking pertinent questions about true value in its application and impact. This part of the cycle tends to be where generational companies are born.