Monday, October 19, 2015

Group Works: Divergence and Convergence Rhythm

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention 2. Context 3. Relationship 4. Flow 5. Creativity 6. Perspective 7. Modeling 8. Inquiry & Synthesis 9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fourth pattern in this category is labeled Divergence and Convergence Rhythm. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:

Diverging widens perspective, explores new terrain and opens up options. Converging coalesces collective wisdom in moving toward focused decisions, concrete outcomes, and the end of the session. Good group process naturally cycles between these two, so be thoughtful about which to engage when.

The aspect of group dynamics where this pattern is evoked most strongly for me is the sequence associated with how a group effectively tackles an issue. Based on four decades of group living, I've distilled this into a basic six-step progression:

1. Presentation of the Topic (what are we talking about?)
2. Questions (did everyone understand what was said in the presentation?)
3. Discussion (what factors does a good response to the issue need to take into account?)
4. Proposal (what action steps bets balance the factors identified in Discussion?)
5. Decision (have we talked about this enough?)
6. Implementation (who will do what when, and with what resources?)

Discussion Phase
I think this should be handled as an expansive, or divergent, phase with plenty of room for exploring the dimensions of the issue, casting a wide net. In order to maintain a creative, open attitude, it can be important to not engage prematurely in evaluation of ideas. Let 'em breathe!

Give everyone a chance to tell you why their concern is the most important thing since night baseball. It's important to make sure that everyone has a chance to say what matters to them on the topic. While this can be done in a variety of ways, here's a relatively straight forward approach that will guide you through it without getting bogged down:

a) Brainstorming
Brainstorms are unedited, which means you capture everyone's thoughts about what the group needs to take into account. You are not looking for evaluative comments at this stage, and you don't need to hear an idea twice. With discipline, it doesn't take that long to run out of new things to capture.

It's at this stage that you welcome people's passionate statements about why the factor that they've named is important to them. Let 'em sell it! The idea here is more than capturing the concepts; it's also to understand what it means to the advocate, so that this depth of understanding is carried forward into the Proposal phase.

b) Vetting
In this step, the group pauses to look over the output of brainstorming to determine if everything belongs on a list of group concerns. It's possible that some items were added for levity and were never meant to be taken seriously (say the topic is recruiting new members for the group house and someone suggests targeting seven-footers with purple hair, all the better to form an eye-catching intramural basketball team). Or perhaps there are some personal preferences commingled with group concerns (let's go after people who play brass instruments to bolster the house ensemble).

If the group exercises reasonable discernment when brainstorming, then nothing may need to be winnowed out during vetting.

c) Prioritizing
Sometimes there are factors that are more important than others. If so, this is the time to identify that ranking. Continuing with the example of recruiting new members, the group may decide it that when screening prospectives that it wants to emphasize social skills above people with a better credit rating.

Once the the Discussion phase is complete, then it's time to switch to problem solving.

Discussion should always happen first, and be completed before the group starts entertaining potential solutions. While this may seem obvious (determining everything that the solution needs to cover before you start building it), it is not how groups typically work an issue. All too often these two phases are folded together in one free-for-all conversation: no sooner does someone mention a concern, then another well-meaning member proposes a way to deal with it… and so it goes, with concerns and would-be solutions flying around the room like so many ping pong balls at a lotto convention.

The problem with this is that Discussion is expansive (or divergent) while Proposal is contractive (or convergent), and it can be crazy-making if the group allows members to simultaneously be convergent and divergent. (Try it).

Proposal Phase In contrast, this step has a very different energy from Discussion. The time for advocacy is over; now is the time for thoughtful bridging. It helps the group not a whit to have people say again why their particular concern should drive the conversation—if this came out during Discussion (as it should have) then you have to trust the group to not forget.

So this is a convergent phase where the focus is on stitching together; not a tug-of-war. You want the quality of the Proposal phase to be holding the whole, not a demolition derby where the idea with the best radiator and toughest body wins.

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