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Sometimes laser, sometimes blind: How natural converge/diverge cycles explain progress

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As I continue developing my consulting practice and simultaneously move my Think, Try, Learn (TTL) philosophy ahead, I've seen an important cycle I want to share with you. This comes up because sometimes during projects I'm frustrated when I don't feel like I'm getting traction. Some examples of when this happened/is happening: Writing the TTL book, creating new workshops, building the TTL platform, getting a handle on productivity metrics (see How Do You Measure Personal Productivity?), defining my blog's topics and style, and deciding my consulting market. What was going on?

After observing this multiple times I realized there's a natural cycle when doing something new, and I've come to think of it in two stages - divergence and convergence. I don't have all the answers, but I'll give it a go.

Divergent thinking happens when you're getting your head around the thing - groping in the dark, if you will. Indicators: Feeling of no clear direction, trying wildly different approaches, taking (appropriate!) risks, making lots of mis-starts, and generally learning a hell of a lot.

Convergent thinking is when you've got enough from the divergent phase to laser in. This is when it clicks, you have an insight, and your energy changes from discovery to direction.

Have you experienced this yourself? For me, a few questions came up:

  1. How do I know when I'm in one?
  2. How can I enjoy my time in each?
  3. When is it time to move between?
My thinking follows.

How do I know when I'm in one?

To identify where you are in the cycle, I've identified some characteristics of each. (A tip of the hat to Anne McGee-Cooper's Time Management for Unmanageable People. Her ideas about divergent and convergent personalities with respect to productivity have been influential.)




Learning curve
Tangible output
Attention type
Radio telescope
One to many
Many to one

How can I enjoy my time in each?

While you may be different, what's hardest for me is gracefully manage divergence. My urge to know the answer overwhelms enjoying the process, and I despair. I found it helps to be gentle with myself, to capture everything I try and learn, and to realize that this is something that cannot be skipped. It's the ticket that gets you in the door of originality. Can it be frustrating? Absolutely. But you can get relief by letting go of expectations (where you think you should be instead of where you are) and by appreciating how much you are learning. Finally, realize by definition that you probably weren't ready to do something different.

For the convergent phase, this is a time to focus and bring it into being. Use good self-management tools (I can help) and keep in mind that ideation is relatively easy, but fewer people have the skills and determination to make it real.

Both phases take courage, so be proud that you've put yourself into this position. Remember, when you're doing something original there are no shortcuts.

When is it time to move between?

The cheap answer is "You'll know when the time is right." But like any cliche, it is meaningful when you experience it, but unfortunately it's descriptive, not procedural. Here are a few tips: Converge when you've seen just enough - don't be a perfectionist and think you need to know it all. Ask whether you've grabbed ahold of the big pieces, and trust that the rest will come when necessary.

Diverge when you're stuck or need inspiration. Don't push, get broad. Do not worry, you'll be back.

Note that in the same project you can have a back-and-forth between the two. It's why in TTL we talk about "Iterations, recursions, interleavings, and orderings" (see How Do You Treat Life As An Experiment?)

I'm really curious:

  • What do you think about this?
  • Where else have you seen this described?
  • Have you experienced times in your life when you were more comfortable with one over the other?
  • Where else does this natural cycle come into play?

Reader Comments (8)

I keep on noticing this almost always. Thanks for making us aware of it by naming it! I think the first part usually hard and long (or at least feels long). Resistance is more likely to kick in during this particular part. The second part is when usually people would feel being in the state of "flow": things naturally follow each other. We meet this couple at all the times and at all the levels! Even while writing a particularly nasty introductory paragraph in a document.

The takeaway message for me from your post: Divergence is also work!

Personally the timing of the post is perfect for me!


May 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbhay Parvate

Thanks for putting words to this process, Matt!

This is the traditional educational process, isn't it? We used to write term papers this way: readings and lectures, distilled into notes, starting with a broad base and then narrowing down to basic central ideas; then, at the end of the semester, sitting down with all your source material and notes and distilling it down to its essence.

I am very, very comfortable learning this way. And, as an adult, I live happily in the world of Divergent thinking, in which I take in lots of input and allow insight to come when its ready. It's a satisfying life.

But learning to use software and apps has blown this model out of the water for me. When I first started using Word in 1995, I assumed it would be like any other learning project. I went to the bookstore, bought a big textbook, and sat down to start to study. That process broke down almost immediately, and has never worked for me; I'm only now, 15 years later, coming to grasp that there's another way of learning, far less intuitive for people like me, but which seems to come naturally to other people, particularly young people. Software and web apps seem to be written with this learning style in mind. Call it the Help Page method, or the Tutorial method.

This intuitive learning style involves experimenting with information, taking it in in little sips, practicing with it, searching out specific pieces of information to answer specific questions outside the broader context of a subject, adding to your knowledge in layers without necessarily coming to any grand conclusions or grasping an underlying structure or an overarching structure. Putting knowledge to work without or before a larger understanding comes to you. I'm definitely frustrated by this method of learning, but I don't feel it's a bad thing, just deeply unfamiliar and requiring a kind of attention I don't have a lot of.

I think that some of the Death of Books, Decline of Reading kinds of criticism of the Internet that you hear from Old People comes from a confrontation between a learning (and teaching) style that's rooted in the process you describe here and the sort of disaggregation of information that's built into the very structure of the Web. The Web is a kind of pre-Divergent environment, well-suited to the dissemination of bits, and tending always toward increasing Divergence.

By the way, your blog style is very Divergent: starting with questions, laying out data sources, different ways of considering a topic, and ending with more questions. Your posts are excited by curiosity, which is the hallmark of Divergence.

Great topic!

May 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Great to hear from you, Abhay. Excellent points about resistance. Re: flow, how can we make divergence flow? For me, acknowledging that I'm IN the process helps, e.g., "OK, I'm in divergent mode, so it's supposed to feel like this, and it's necessary for my process." ?

> The takeaway message for me from your post: Divergence is also work!

That's right!

> Personally the timing of the post is perfect for me!

Glad to hear it. Good luck finishing your work - working at TIFR must be amazing.

May 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I do recognize this pattern. This want happened when I found out about the GTD for a first time. And I think many people go through this in similar way.
I was trying to gather and absorb all possible information about the tools, approaches, best practices etc. But once the "hunger" has been filled I backed up and focused on my personal implementation, on finding what really works for me.
I think that's what happens with any new things that we do in our lives.

I really like the bit "you probably weren't ready". There are times when we want something but not gettig and can't figure out why.


May 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

Good one, Rafal.

> I think that's what happens with any new things that we do in our lives.

Yes - that's what I'm aiming to capture.

> I really like the bit "you probably weren't ready"

Glad you liked it!

May 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks for connecting personally!

> For me, acknowledging that I'm IN the process helps.

You said it! I think we don't feel in flow because we are "not getting anywhere". But the awareness that this "not getting anywhere" is because we are yet in the process of finding a good way to "get there" can surely make it a part of the game, and give us the confidence that we are working. Thanks to your post, I am already bubbling to diverge on some of the issues that I was "stuck up", in spite of having "brainstorm" next actions on those issues!

Yes, TIFR would be a great place to work; I will find that out soon.


May 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbhay Parvate

I like your moving yourself back into necessary divergence. Cool!

May 19, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I love both phases - exploring new ideas, and executing on decisions. What I struggle with is when to re-open divergence when new information or ideas come in. If I stay with the old decision, I risk continuing down the wrong path. But strategy changes are disruptive, and even just questioning the current strategy I find mentally taxing.

June 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPatri Friedman

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