Divergent vs Convergent

The time for analog tools in a digital world


I’m generally a “digital” guy. I had palm pilots back in the day and loved getting the first blackberries. I’m often the first person I know to try any new service that comes out just to see how it works. But I still find that there are times when I love using a good, old-fashioned pencil and paper instead of an app — not to mention whiteboards and sticky notes!

But why? Despite my occasional musings about a digitial utopia with no more paper, why was I still drawn to old fashioned tools? The answer cam to me when I was reading an article on brainstorming (sadly I’ve forgotten which one). It explained the difference between convergent and divergent modes of thought — and they fit perfectly with the types of tasks where I prefer digital or analog tools.

Divergent thinking is about generating new ideas and possibilities. Brainstorming is the most typical example — but anytime you’re starting the process of creating an idea or product you usually start with divergent thinking. You just need to get a lot of ideas out there and “get the creative juices flowing.” It’s not about quality or editing, or finding the right answer. It’s about exploring the options and finding new ideas.

Convergent thinking is about narrowing down options and making choices. It’s the process of editing. Taking that wide array of choices you generated and finding the best ones. Editing a document, or picking the top 3 ideas to execute out of a brainstorm are good examples of convergent thinking.

My use of analog and digital tools follows this dichotomy pretty well. I find analog tools more helpful for divergent thinking — eg brainstorming on white boards, outlining presentations on paper/stickies, etc. The inability to get too detailed or specific helps me focus on the big picture. Something about holding a pencil in your hand wants you to generate more ideas and write them down. Plus, you can’t start wordsmithing a document or putting graphics into a presentation yet — all you can really capture is the big picture.

However, once I want to start getting down to the editing process, I jump back to digital tools. The document goes into Google Docs and I start structuring sentences and paragraphs, choosing the best way to make the argument, and cutting out the fluff. Or a presentation goes into Keynote and I can start to think about what should really go on the slides — pick the best image and choose the right words.

It’s not just that digital and analog tools have unique features that make them better suited to specific kinds of tasks — its that they help keep you in the right mode of thinking. A whiteboard is simply less precise than a word processor or presentation tool, making it harder to dive into specifics and start the editing process. Similarly the high fidelity of our digital tools forces us to start the editing process — we write in sentences, build a slide deck, etc.

Choosing the right tool is an act of self-control. Of pushing our minds into the right way of thinking for the task at hand — and then knowing when the nature of that task changes and adapting our tools.