27 January, 2010

Synergistic thinking - VII: Resistance to depth

Synergistic thinking - I
Synergistic thinking - II
Synergistic thinking - III
Synergistic thinking - IV
Synergistic thinking - V
Synergistic thinking - VI

In this post, I'll not repeat myself and define synergistic thinking and contrast it with imperative thinking again.. Please read the earlier posts in this series for my theory of synergistic thinking.


As a teacher, one of the very common traits I see among students is what I call "resistance to depth." This is the mental reluctance to explore deeper in a given topic and instead, try to want to move sideways and work on several diverse projects -- albeit in a superficial manner.

There is nothing "morally" wrong about resistance to depth and it should not be treated as such, whenever I urge students to dig deeper. It is a very human tendency -- I display the very same resistance myself; and I'm sure most others do as well.

Resistance to depth is a fundamental survival tactic as I will explain below. Except that, the tactic manifests itself for very different reasons for the imperative thinker and the synergistic thinker.

Imperative thinking, as I'd mentioned earlier is "how-to" thinking. The imperative thinker registers to a course or a project with a "how-to" reasoning something like: "How to increase the chances that I will get a well-paying job in a prestigious company?"

(Again, to reiterate, there is nothing morally wrong about wishing good for oneself).

With this as the underlying question, it is clear now why resistance to depth makes sense. Working on a number of disparate projects in different fields "hedges risks" and increase the "catchment area" of companies that are in the fray for employment. This kind of "hedging of risks" is a fundamental survival instinct.

Unfortunately, the above reasoning is a bit incomplete; and it would still make sense for the imperative thinker to obtain depth in at least one field of expertise. The reason is competition.

Consider two contenders in the job market -- let's call them A and B. Suppose that A has superficial knowledge in 10 different fields, while B has in-depth knowledge and expertise in one or two fields. Now whenever a company that is looking for employees in the field of B's expertise comes looking, B would win over A.

And the more competition there is, the more likely it would be that no matter what field A chooses, there will always be someone else who would have more expertise than A in that field, at the cost of the breadth of knowledge that A has.

On the other hand of course, it does not make sense to just focus on one field of expertise only and get into tunnel vision. It amounts to keeping all eggs in the same basket. The answer then for the imperative thinker lies in striking the right balance between depth and breadth.


Synergistic thinkers on the other hand, are also reluctant towards depth -- but for a very different reason. As I'd defined earlier, synergistic thinking is "model building" or "theory forming" or "what-is" thinking.

Synergistic thinkers typically have problems focusing on one thing -- and especially in execution, or getting things done. They are rarely task masters and resist over-specification of requirements. Instead, they value freedom of thought and expression and favour loosely defined requirements for projects.

But then, the resistance to depth by the synergistic thinker is not because digging deeper somehow is akin to getting focus and practising discipline (as in task mastery).

The main reason for resistance to depth is the possibility of cognitive dissonance. Theories and models, by definition are incomplete descriptions of the world around us. They are typically based on axiomatic assumptions that may have certain simplifications embedded into them. Digging deeper typically requires us to challenge our deeply-held axioms, endangering the very model that we've based our lives on.

Let me give a rather trite, but elucidating example. There is this young relative of mine, (let me call her N) who's all of 4 years old. I think she is one of the best insights I've got into synergistic thinking -- because, as a kid, her thinking is unhindered by other hang-ups and put-ons that adults typically have.

The other day, there was a conversation something like the following, between N and her mom.

N: Mummy, why do I need to go to school?

Mom: Because you can grow up to be smart and intelligent

N: But I thought you said, eating cereals made me strong, smart and intelligent? Why do I need to go to school then?

There you have it -- classic cognitive dissonance :-)

If doing one unpleasant thing (like eating cereals) can achieve a superset of goals than another unpleasant thing (like going to school), why do we need to perform the latter? Occam's razor! :-)

I've seen metaphorically similar behaviour from my students those which are predominantly synergistic thinkers. They are typically not thinking about payoffs for themselves (increasing job prospects, for example) when they resist deeper exploration. They're resisting it because the depth is opening up some can of worms that is causing conflicts with their mental models.


Digging deeper for the imperative thinker typically means obtaining specialized skills. For the synergistic thinker, digging deeper means going meta.

I encountered this classic divide once when arguing with a colleague of mine who wanted to offer a course on "Advanced DBMS." (DBMS is database management systems). Our ideas of what constitutes "advanced" topics in DBMS basically went off on tangents.

According to my colleague, a course on advanced DBMS should open up the internals of a fairly large DBMS like Oracle or DB2 or MySQL, and look into how it is implemented.

According to me, a course on advanced DBMS should look into the limitations of the relational data model (which is by far the most widely used data model for commercial DBMS) and address the more general challenge of data management itself (as opposed to "database management").

Finally we agreed that using ambiguous terms like "advanced" in the title of a course does not make sense at all. Instead, we should perhaps have courses with more specific titles like "DBMS design" or "Challenges in Data Management" -- to label the above two versions of course contents.


somayyeh said...

hi ,it is me somayeh ,,i want to write an email but i do not have your address?

sri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sri said...

Hi Somayeh.. Well.. I don't want to give my email address on a public board like this.. ;)

Why don't you find me on LinkedIn or Facebook and mail me there? In any case, my email address is [myfirstname].[mylastname]@gmail.com :)