Cognitive Flexibility

Nora Guerrera
4 min readMar 5, 2024

Recognizing and accessing different modes of thought for creative problem-solving

This is Part 2 of our 5-part series on Creative Problem Solving from graphic designer, brand strategist, and innovation consultant turned EMT, Andrew Lebowitz.

The human brain is one of the most complex and fascinating organs on the planet. Within its maze of folds, lobes, and neurons is shaped our perception of the world. This experience of life is an emergent phenomenon that we call the mind. Our minds are the collective sensory experience of our brains interpreting not just the outside world but our brains themselves. It is this ability for “meta-cognition” — or thinking about thinking — that allows for our higher forms of creative thought.

Creativity Means Embracing Tension

In his 2007 book, “The Opposable Mind,” Roger Martin writes about the human brain’s amazing “ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

Several modes of thought allow us to tap into this “opposable mindset.” Each allows us to look at both challenges and solutions with equal parts curiosity and possibility until we can define the optimal solution given the circumstances. Remember, when we are dealing with creative problem-solving, we are working on problems that are ill-defined, novel, complex, demanding, and exploitable. These problems may not just require new solutions, but totally new ways of thinking to arrive at those solutions.

Modes of Creative Thoughts

There are five modes of thought that create the foundation for a creative mindset. They are divergent, convergent, lateral, emergent, and analogous. We have probably all had experience with these mindsets independently — and perhaps subconsciously — throughout our lives. The concepts are easy to understand and easy to apply, but the ability to apply and alternate between them at will is a skill that can be difficult to master.

  1. Divergent Thinking “Out of one, many”

Divergent thinking is essentially the ability to generate a multitude of options or ideas from a single problem, challenge, or idea. There is immense value in being able to generate multiple potential solutions to a challenge.

2. Convergent Thinking “Out of many, one”

Convergent thinking is all about taking a multitude of ideas and materials and picking the optimal choice. Divergent and convergent thinking are often deployed together and form the basis of many creative frameworks.

3. Lateral Thinking “The best route isn’t always the direct route”

Lateral thinking, or “outside the box” thinking, is the ability to look beyond the “obvious”, typical, or traditional approach to find viable alternatives. Sometimes, we experience problems where the solution is known, but we don’t have the tools, personnel, or other resources to implement said solution. This is where lateral thinking comes in. We have the principles of the solution but not the materials. If you can’t go over, can you go under? Around? Through?

4. Emergent Thinking “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”

Emergent thinking is the ability to see the possibility in the unrelated. It is the ability to see potential in the latent. Emergent thinking requires a certain level of expertise and experience in a given area. One typically does not accidentally invent a combustion engine. It takes mechanical and chemical knowledge to combine the necessary pieces in just such a way as to make things work. Much in the same way a musical composer can combine various instruments into a singular work.

5. Analogous Thinking “Different, but the same”

Analogous thinking allows us to draw lessons from one area and apply them to another. Like how architects may draw inspiration from termite mounds, or urban planners may learn from slime mold. Lessons come from anywhere if we are willing to pay attention.

Thought Starters

  • How might you practice holding conflicting ideas in your mind?
  • Do you find you often go straight for an answer or entertain multiple possible solutions? How do you arrive at the chosen solution?
  • How might you enable your opposable mind?
  • How might you tap into your own modes of creative thought?

Related Resources and References:

Andrew is a graphic designer, brand strategist, and innovation consultant turned EMT. Now, he is applying his own creativity to help those in their moments of greatest need.

If you are interested in discussing or developing your creative problem skills further, Andrew is available for training, coaching, and consulting for individuals and teams. You can message him directly here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/witzcreative/

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Nora Guerrera

Strategist, Leader, Coach, Teacher. I help clients explore, create and use digital to bring game-changing experiences to their businesses and their customers.