Divergent Problems: Conflict, Integration, and Management

Senior Assoicate, Carlos Valdesuso


“Management is dealing with different conflicts at different times.”
– Peter Drucker

In his book A Guide for the Perplexed, economist and management philosopher E. F. Schumacher presents the distinction between Convergent and Divergent problems:

Convergent problems are problems whose solution depends on science and technology, for example, the cure for cancer or clean energy. As science and technology develop, these problems are eventually solved. Divergent problems appear to have no single “solution.” For example, how do you raise a child, with discipline or with liberty? How do you run a country, with stability or with growth?

The Nature of Divergent Problems

According to Schumacher, while convergent problems arise from the physical aspects of the universe, divergent problems arise from a basic and constant conflict inherent in life itself: stability versus development.

If life opts for stability, it runs the risk of decay. If life opts for development, it runs the risk of disintegration.

One can see such basic life conflicts in many other divergent problems: Liberalism versus Socialism; Flexibility versus Control; Order versus Progress; Short Term versus Long Term.

“Solving” Divergent Problems

Since divergent problems present two extremes that are simultaneously necessary, divergent problems have no “solution.” Instead of being “solved,” divergent problems can only be “integrated.”

To Schumacher, integration means finding a “higher” concept that integrates the apparently irreconcilable, but simultaneously necessary extremes. As a perfect example of integration, Schumacher cites the motto of the French Republic: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Liberté represents development, egalité is stability, fraternité is the “higher” integration principle. Similarly, Brazil’s national motto “Ordem e Progresso” was originally conceived as “Amor, Ordem e Progresso.”


Divergent Problems and Management

My conclusion is that the essence of management is dealing with divergent problems. If a manager is not dealing with divergent problems, he or she is not performing a managerial job, but a technical one. Vice versa, if a technical person is dealing with a divergent problem, he or she is performing a management job.

From such point of view, the essence of a management job is:

1. Being aware of the divergent-type situations you are facing, with pros and cons at each end (the “sweating hands” principle);

2. Understanding you have to find a higher integrating principle. Thus, management is not defined by the position title, but by the type of problems you are dealing with. Tell me the type of problems you are dealing with and I will tell you the type of job you are performing!

– Carlos Valdesuso, Adizes Institute

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