The Thinker by Rodin (1840–1917), in the garden of the Musée Rodin

 Have you ever watched the show Jeopardy and been amazed by the volume of trivia the show’s contestants have stored in their minds? You might wonder how it would be to have all that information available to you without having to resort to our modern-day digital encyclopedia — Google.

But think for a second; what good is knowing all that information if you are not able to put it to good use? What good is knowing that the 17th President of the United States was Andrew Jackson unless you are able to understand the importance and impact that his presidency represented to the nation after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated?

 Being able to understand and compare that time period within the context of our nation’s history would seem infinitely more important. Taking all the information we are able to gather from that time in order to make proper political and governance decisions, would seem to be a more desirable outcome than merely knowing who the 17th President of the United States was.

What good is knowing the ingredients to making a great jar of lemonade and knowing exactly how much it will cost you to buy all the ingredients, unless you can figure out a way of selling your concoction and making a profit? Or better yet, comparing your cost, return on investment and sales potential of your ice-cold lemonade against a glass of orange juice in order to decide which of the two options is a more viable product to market.

The cognitive skill or mental process in which we analyze, examine, scrutinize and explore options in order to formulate an opinion or set of actions based on acquired knowledge is what we know as critical thinking. Basically, problem solving, creativity, decision making, organizational or personal planning, tactical endeavors, strategizing, innovativeness, etc., are best achieved through a proper critical thinking process.

Ultimately, critical thinking is the ability to see the world from a more objective perspective and not from someone else’s point of view.

There are different ways of achieving problem solving and critical thinking. Two of these are divergent and convergent thinking skills.

Convergent thinking is the process of bringing facts and data together from various sources in order to solve problems, achieve desired outcomes or make proper and informed decisions. It is the thinking process which focuses on developing the single best answer to a problem. It is a way of arriving at an answer that already exist through either a decision making process of elimination or of recall.

Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective used deductive reasoning — a perfect example of convergent thinking — in order to solve crimes in London. In fact he said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes was the master at gathering tidbits of facts and data from various sources in order to put together the pieces of the puzzle needed that would lead to the culprit of the crime he was trying to solve.

 Divergent thinking on the other hand is about outward thinking or idea generation more akin to creativity. It is a process in which unique ideas are developed in order to solve a problem or achieve an objective. Oftentimes the solutions are found through a process known as thought experiments which are imagined scenarios that allow us to understand the way things work. That understanding then leads to the solution to the problem.

Einstein had outstanding divergent thinking skills. In most, if not all of his notable accomplishments, he started out with a simple question which he would then try to solve by coming up with possible answers. He drove the importance of his divergent thinking skills when he said; “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

However, convergent and divergent thinking are not mutually exclusive. In fact each problem solving process should be used in conjunction with the other in order to obtain maximum results. As the adjacent chart illustrates the best approach is to come up with the type of big-picture ideas that generate many possibilities or alternatives. The obvious possibilities are detailed first, however they are followed by wild, random or outrageous ideas. At this point convergent thinking is employed to filter out the least desirable ideas in order to work with more viable ones.

In many cases the process of divergent and convergent thinking can continue through various cycles. As in the chart on the left, divergent choices get filtered down through the process of convergence to a handful of options. At this point each of these choices generate other divergent options, which can then be filtered down again to come up with a desired solution.

All of the thinking and problem solving techniques so far described work well individually or in a group setting. In fact it is well known that groups or teams often produce more and higher quality creative and innovative ideas than individuals working alone. Parallel thinking is perhaps the one problem solving method tailor-made for groups working on a specific problem, as it aids in creating lateral thinking and brainstorming.

The term parallel thinking was originated and implemented by Edward de Bono a Maltese physician, psychologist and author of forty-seven books and countless articles as a way of creating a constructive alternative to adversarial or debate thinking. In parallel thinking, all members of the group contribute ideas in parallel tracks which lead to the exploration and assessment of a subject in order to create a solution. When approaching a problem in a parallel fashion, multiple perspectives emerge helping teams achieve a more rounded and in-depth view of a situation and the potential solutions.

In order to facilitate the parallel thinking process, de Bono created a system he called Six Thinking Hats in which the group participants wear a symbolic colored hat that represents a particular direction or criteria to discuss at that point in time. The chart below shows what each of the six thinking hats represent and the colors used to identify them.

Since de Bono’s creation of the Six Thinking Hats system many corporations such as 3M, Boeing, Ford Motors and others, have used it in the development of new products, conflict resolution and the creation of new processes and services.

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