Jonathan Cutrell

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Diffuse and Focused Thinking

Diffuse thinking produces options and draws connections. Focused thinking narrows things down to a specific path.

Use them both, and watch for when they collide.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
When a painting picture, you'll probably be able to find yourself in this picture. A group of engineers is trying to solve a problem. None of them is considered the lead engineer in this particular group. There's no managers present, but they're still having a clash. The clash is that one of the engineers keeps on bringing up all of these wild ideas. Keep on going in a hundred different directions, talking about using different languages, than what we're using right now to solve this problem. And another one of the engineers is hyper-focused on the problem. In fact, so focused that there is a third engineer who's concerned that if we focus in that much, we might actually miss some important context. You might be one of these engineers. That third engineer who is not really sure if we should go big or go small, or maybe you are always the one generating the big ideas, or maybe the one that is taking it step by step. And this is a list of who you tend to be. In today's episode, we're going to talk about this mental model of problem solving that you probably haven't ever really directly intentionally engaged with. And the model is very simple. When you are thinking outside of the box, or if you're trying to expand your options, think about the funnel going outward. This is called diffuse thought. Just thinking allows you to draw conclusions or connections, explore new ideas that are not really directly related to any primary idea that you started with. This is a way of gathering new information beyond the scope of what you've already explored. And then focused thinking is just the opposite. This thinking is incentivized to eliminate options, to eliminate pathways instead to focus on one pathway or to try to focus on one pathway at least. And it makes sense to use these two types of modes of thinking and to orchestrate them explicitly. Because what happens if we don't recognize these two kinds of thinking, these two modes of thinking is that we end up in that place where one person is in diffuse mode, another person is in focused mode, and another person is not really in either. They're kind of jumping between diffuse and back to focused. And they may feel guilty because they're not focusing in or they may feel guilty that they're not giving enough credence or enough opportunity for more kind of external thoughts. It makes sense to orchestrate these for a couple of reasons. One, both modes do provide unique value. As hopefully you could tell in the way that I was describing them, neither of these are wrong. Diffuse thinking provides you litany of options. Hopefully it breaks you out of a closed-minded way of thinking about a particular problem. It avoids kind of finding a local maximum, right? This idea that you're kind of exploring more of the landscape. If there is a better option that you haven't considered, at least the very beginnings of that thought can enter the conversation with diffuse thinking. But of course, diffuse thinking is not going to deliver any particular result, any particular solution. It's an exploratory way of thinking. But you need focused thinking to then execute on whatever those exploratory options were. So here's how you might orchestrate focused and diffuse thinking. It's not just one and then the other. First you might want to describe the problem very clearly. This requires focused thinking. You need specific information that describes the problem itself. And then you take the output of this focused thinking and use it as an input to diffuse thinking. So now that you have a very specific problem that you're trying to solve, you can use that as a platform for diffuse thinking. So that, and here's the important part, that diffuse thinking is actually valuable. Rather than the diffuse thinking being all about everything under the sun, it actually has a direction and a focus. This focus is provided by some kind of ground rules for the diffuse thinking, which provide clarity about which of the diffuse thoughts, whatever those generated thoughts or explored thoughts are, are valid to consider in the next phase. And as you begin to focus in, you're taking perhaps a large list of ideas and figuring out which of these ideas makes the most sense moving forward. So then you might shift back into focus thinking, but you may be tempted to quickly pick one and said, focus your attention on identifying which of these ideas makes the most sense. Not necessarily going into execution mode, but using that same focused thinking to walk through a process of clarifying which of the ideas makes the most sense or provides the most opportunity, solves the problem in the best way. Now, it's important to note that this isn't the only kind of problem solving architecture that works, and you might end up actually doing this kind of revolving cycle. You could imagine that once you've identified a particular direction, you might then use that as input for more diffuse thinking. If you're going to go this direction, then what are the many ways that you can execute this particular pathway? The important thing here is to recognize that there are indeed multiple ways of thinking about the same problem. The next time that you are kind of having a clash on your team about how to solve something, consider whether maybe some of you are using diffuse thinking and others are using focus thinking, or maybe everyone is all over the place, and it's time to set an explicit strategy. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like to continue this discussion, have a further discussion about these styles of thinking or any other mental models that we've discussed on the show or not. You can join us in the Developer Tea Discord community however to Developer slash discord. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.