Help the old lady

Engineering Area
Analysis & problem definition, Ideation & Conceptual design
Group or Individual
Amount of People
Up to 15, 15-25, 25+
Type of Class
Duration of Activity
Half an hour or less
Type of Activity
On-line Classroom activity


What is this technique about

In creativity processes, both convergent and divergent thinking are important. Thus, to run an effective creativity process, it is Important that all participants are aware about the difference between these two phases and their potential outcomes (Cropley, 2006). The “Help the old lady” method makes students experience the difference between convergent and divergent thinking in ideation and need analysis. It helps students to develop ideas and solutions based on both thinking styles, and it is fun because it is organized as a competition.

Where does it come from 

In 1950 Joy Paul Guilford coined the terms convergent and divergent thinking to contrast two different thinking styles. Convergent thinking is oriented toward finding a single best solution and therefore relies on logic, argumentation, and information accumulation. In contrast, divergent thinking is geared towards producing several unique ideas or solutions in a spontaneous, explorative, and associative manner (Cropley, 2006).

For which purposes it is used (why in your engineering teaching)

This exercise is normally used for …

    • … introducing the difference between divergent and convergent thinking as two different but complementary ways that can be used in need analysis or ideation and bring about results with different characteristics, or
    • … sourcing and creating many different ideas on potential needs or ideas for solving a problem  

How to use it

This session is used in an online classroom, the groups will need breakout sessions.

How to implement this technique online

Preparation: Before the session

  • create material (e.g., a PowerPoint slide) that you will use later to explain the difference between the two thinking styles
  • set up a document (e.g., a word document) that outlines
    • the problem for which the need analysis or ideation exercise shall generate insights (“Imagine that you should help an old lady to…” / if you have another target group, just replace “old lady”), and
    • the below table with one row per group in your class:
    • GroupConvergent solutionsDivergent solutions
  • upload the document and make sure that all students can access it
  • (if necessary): pre-set the group rooms

During application, i.e., while giving the session

  • Introduce the students to the different thinking styles
  • Introduce them to the challenge and the rules: They will need to find solutions in groups and write them into a shared document, but it is not allowed to repeat solutions other groups have already written down (you will delete them), and they have only five minutes.
  • Tell them where the document is and make sure everybody has access to it.
  • Sent the groups to breakout rooms.
  • Delete any repetitive answers in the document while the groups are working.
  • Call the groups back in the online classroom after 5 minutes.

Follow-up, about what to do after the session

  • Review and discuss the quality of with the two creative thinking styles gained insights/ ideas. Relate them to the need analysis or problem solution development process.
  • If you want, you can ask participants to select the most useful/insightful/crazy idea by making “I” in the document.

Examples and/or testimonials

Patricia Wolf, Professor in Innovation Management at the University of Southern Denmark:

During the COVID pandemic, I used the method in a hybrid teaching setting in a class with Bachelor Engineering students in “Product Development and Innovation” (3rd semester) to explain the difference between convergent and divergent thinking. Some of the students were in class and others were online.

I used the following table published by Cropley (2006: 391) to give them some examples of divergent and convergent thinking.

Kind of thinkingConvergentDivergent
Typical Processes
  • Being logical
  • Recognizing the familiar
  • Combining what “belongs” together
  • Homing in on the single best answer
  • Reapplying set techniques
  • Preserving the already known
  • Achieving accuracy and correctness
  • Playing it safe
  • Sticking to a narrow range of obviously relevant information
  • Making associations from adjacent fields only
  • Being unconventional
  • Seeing the known in a new light
  • Combining the disparate
  • Producing multiple answers
  • Shifting perspective
  • Transforming the known
  • Seeing new possibilities
  • Taking risks
  • Retrieving a broad range of existing knowledge
  • Associating ideas from remote fields
Typical Results
for the Individual
  • Greater familiarity with what already exists
  • Better grasp of the facts
  • A quick, “correct” answer Development of a high level of skill
  • Closure on an issue
  • A feeling of security and safety
  • Alternative or multiple solutions
  • Deviation from the usual
  • A surprising answer
  • New lines of attack or ways of doing things
  • Exciting or risky possibilities
  • A feeling of uncertainty or excitement
We had pre-formed groups and MS Teams group rooms. I uploaded the word document below to the general folder of the MS Teams group. It contained the following very simple task sheet: 

Help the old lady! Come up with means on how she can transfer her food from the supermarket to her home.

You cannot repeat a solution that another group has already mentioned!

Group number 3 solutions resulting from convergent thinking 3 solutions resulting from divergent thinking

The students had a lot of fun, particularly in filling in the divergent thinking part, and a lot of funny suggestions were made (e.g., send the old lady and her food in a parcel with Post Nord). I needed to delete repetitive answers across the group, to ensure a wide variety in the answers – this was also the most stressful part.

Altogether, the exercise went well!

Tools needed

You will need a platform to share screens and communicate with the participants, such as: MS Teams, Zoom or similar. As well as access to a shared document (Google doc, Word etc.)

  • Miro
  • Mural
  • Concept board
  • Padlet



A link to a variation of the exercise in physical settings – if you want to do this online, you will need to send sets with material in advance to the participants or ask them to have material sets available at their places:

Convergent and divergent thinking in idea generation: Blog post by Martin Luenendonk (last updated on September 19, 2019):






Spencer, J. (2019, February 19). Convergent Thinking Versus Divergent Thinking. [Video]. YouTube.


Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5, 444–454.

Cropley, A. (2006). In Praise of Convergent Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 18(3), 391-404.