When A Divergent Discussion Must Produce A Convergent Conclusion

A number of Appreciative Inquiry practitioners were having a conversation concerning the strong demand frequently experienced from commissioners and contractors for a highly convergent end to a discursive, divergent event.

We asked ourselves two questions: What was this request an expression of? and How could we meet it without compromising the spirit of our endeavours? Here are the high points of our discussion.


What is this hunger for convergence an expression of?

  • A desire for a sense of coherence and co-ordination, going forward
  • A reassurance of a degree of commonality amongst the differences and divergence being expressed
  • A request for amplification of points of agreement
  • A need for a convincing story for other audiences of the value of the day
  • A desire for a record of the intellectual learning, to accompany the experiential learning of the participants
  • A request for tangibility
  • A demand for a guarantee that something different will now happen

At its root, we felt, this is often a request for a reassurance that there is a positive, sustainable momentum to action that won’t die the moment the session ends; this fear is often based on prior experience of away-days. There is often a fear that the day is ‘just a talking shop’ and that unless clear outcomes and actions are written down ‘nothing will happen’. In addition, our description of how the day will run can feel very alarming to those used to much more controlled ‘facilitation’ and this can be a request for reassurance that the ‘complexity and diversity’ they are agreeing to work with can, in the end, be drawn back to somewhere safe and contained.

We also discussed how to moderate this demand, so that it doesn’t distract from the day’s activities. Our suggestions are: 

  • Include leaders and other audiences in the event so they experience the change in the room, in the system, in the moment. This reduces the reliance on ‘planning’ as the driver of change
  • Work to help leaders understand that their role in this kind of change is to ‘ride’ the energy it produces; to co-ordinate activities not command and control them. This reduces their feeling of needing to understand everything all at once
  • Work with leaders on their unchallenged or unquestioned stories of leadership, help them behave differently around change and leadership. This can help reduce anxiety about being solely responsible for achieving change


How to meet the need without compromising the spirit of our endeavours?

In discussing this we realised that there are two slightly different aspects to this. The first is a need to create sufficient coherence so that the system can move forward. This can be done very much in the same spirit as the rest of the day, with questions and activities focused on creating coherence amongst the group. Here are some examples we came up with of how one might do that:

  1. Using reflecting teams to reflect key points of agreement or action
  2. Using commitment and request conversations
  3. Having a last ‘action round’ for example in open space. Or a last ‘linking’ round of ‘golden nuggets’ from conversations in World Cafe
  4. Moving into the domain of production – acting ‘as if’ we knew the world and therefore can have certainty
  5. Asking those present questions such as, what story are we going to tell ourselves (and/or others) about what we have done here today and are going to do tomorrow and in the future? Who else needs to know? And how will you get the resources to do what you now believe needs doing?
  6. Ask people to make individual commitments to what they are now going to do differently or different
  7. Given all we have discussed today, what is possible?
  8. Ask the group what else needs to happen for them to go away convinced that something is going to change

On the other hand, sometimes there is a need to create some very tangible or visible record of the level of agreement. Here are some suggestions for achieving this:

  1. Using dots or ticks to get individuals to select out of all the ideas or points that have emerged, which are most important (or some other criteria) to them. Gives an instant ‘weighting’ picture.
  2. Popcorn. Get people to write on a post-it the most important thing that has come out of the last conversation, for them. Sort and theme
  3. Pyramid. Start people in pairs identifying four or five top things. Then pair up with another pair and produce a new list of top four or five etc until whole group are narrowing down the last few contenders.
  4. Get projects (with first draft name) and what it is going to achieve, on flip charts with interested parties and a first step to making something happen
  5. Help group prepare something for absent sponsors who appear at the end of the day, about the best of the day and intentions for the future

During our conversation a few things became clear or were reinforced for me.

Everything is everything else. In this instance how you work with commissioners and leaders from the beginning affects the helpfulness or otherwise of the hunger for convergence later on.


Life is always a compromise

That I need to develop better answers to the unspoken question of the leader who is taking a huge risk in doing something very different and very outside their range of experience: ‘How will I, and my organization, survive the diversity, complexity, confusion, multiplicity and richness, you are proposing to unleash? Please reassure me that we won’t fly apart, that it will be safe, that it will be productive’ This is a very reasonable request for reassurance. It is a strong sign that the person wants to go forward yet has concerns, and the challenge for me is in offering sufficient reassurance so that we are able to continue moving towards the day, while maintaining sufficient freedom of movement to be able to work with the balance of need in the room on the day.

Appreciating Change will be delighted to come and facilitate divergent events to convergent ends for you!

Other Resources

More on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive psychology techniques at work can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more Thought Provoking articles in the  Knowledge Warehouse.

Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with LeadershipCulture change and with employee Engagement.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715