Have you ever been sitting in a meeting and you think that the group is really starting to realize something that they hadn’t understood before, and then the facilitator suggests moving on to deciding next steps? If so, you know that feeling of being ripped off, as if you were about to reach some important and satisfying insight, and someone jerked you away from it. This can be awkward, unproductive and frustrating—not the kinds of feelings you want in your collaboration.
That’s one example of premature convergence—one of the frustrating side effects of a leader who isn’t effectively managing the divergence and convergence dynamic.
Skilled leaders are usually adept at managing two primary cycles that groups need to move through on their way to real innovation. (Described nicely here by the UK Design Council)
The first cycle is one of discovery—that is, we begin with a clear learning intent, we expand our view upwards by mapping the system so we can see what’s happening from 30,000 feet, and we dive deep into the human experience within that system so we can get the view from the ground. Both views are important—the first to see the whole system and the second to help everyone gain empathy for the people affected by the work (and to inform the design of solutions that ultimately make a difference for real people). As we move forward in this first cycle, we start to converge on key insights about the system and the experiences of people within that system that point to critical shifts that need to happen in order for the whole system to work better.
Armed with a handful of the most strategic critical shifts (because complex systems change requires a whole solution set, not just one solution), we then move into the second cycle of divergence and convergence, which is about generating lots of ideas for ways to make the critical shifts happen, and start to winnow those ideas (often on an “action priority’ matrix as described here on the excellent MindTools website). At the end of this cycle, we have our top ideas to develop further, test, refine, and eventually scale (or fail, and start over!).
Sam Kaner, author of the wonderful Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-making and his colleagues at Community at Work note two things about this process of diverging and converging:
As seen below, groups all too often fail to expand or diverge broadly enough in their work together (whether to understand the whole system OR to generate ideas), so they end up with marginal solutions that fail over time. That means they end up pretty much where they started, not having adequately understood the whole problem or created truly complete solutions, so they will soon have to chase after the same problem again…and again, and again.
Kaner also notes that there almost inevitably comes a point in the divergence process in which the sheer scope and complexity of the information before the group seems (and feels) overwhelming. He calls that space the “Groan Zone." It can be a painful, frustrating place at times, not typically a group’s favorite place to hang out.
Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator's guide to participatory decision-making. San Francisco (Cal.): John Wiley & Sons/Jossey-Bass.
A common response to feelings of frustration and overwhelm in the Groan Zone for one or more participants to want to “jump over” the complexity and frustration and go straight to some solution (that solution almost always being their favored solution!). It’s important to help the group be okay with the confusion and uncertainty, and struggle with how to make sense of it. Have faith, they can and they do get through the Groan Zone to insights and ideas that are far better than what they would have had without the struggle of working through the complexity.
Bonus pattern! It’s called the Design Squiggle and it was first scribbled down (as far we can tell) but a guy named Damien Newman at the Central design consultancy.
The Squiggle is designed to communicate something simple but important: While innovation is often perceived as a neat and orderly process, it’s not. It’s actually messy and unpredictable. It’s helpful for participants to understand that design-led innovation will not be a linear process that goes straight from problem to solution. It will feel messy and unclear at times, especially when they are full of insight with no clear path forward (in the Groan Zone), but the strategy and solutions will emerge in time.
And here’s a useful tip for all leaders: Just tell the group about the Groan Zone BEFORE they get there, that it’s normal and good to be there because it means that they are doing the real learning that’s needed to make robust and powerful solutions!
So try it out. Practice identifying which phase a group is in, whether you’re leading a meeting or participating in one, and see how the natural flow of divergence and convergence helps everyone do the work they need to develop rich, meaningful analysis and generate powerful and useful solutions. And check out Sam’s book for other useful tips and ideas on leading collaborations that work.
For our more detailed understanding of each of the 5 Patterns of Collaboration, see our article on each pattern below.
The 5 Patterns of Collaboration:
The Infinity Loop
Focus & Frame