Working with the need for convergence in a divergent conversation


Appreciative Inquiry and other co-creative methodologies are essentially divergent ways of working together; the emphasis is on the value of diversity and variety. Such ways of working can trigger a pressure to converge on a few key points very early in the process, indeed sometimes before the event has even begun. This pressure can be the expression of various different needs, for example:

  • The need for sense of coherence and co-ordination
  • The need for sense of moving forward or making progress
  • The need for a reassurance that there is a degree of commonality amongst the differences and divergence being expressed (that the group isn’t going to splinter)
  • A request for amplification of points of agreement (a visibility of commonality)
  • 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 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 ‘emergent’ ‘exploratory’ ‘unfolding’ description of how the day will run can feel very alarming to those commissioning our work, such as leaders, used to much more controlled ‘facilitation’. A focus on the need to converge 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.

Ways to moderate this demand, so that it doesn’t distract from the day’s activities include:

  • Bringing the leaders and other audiences into 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.
  • Working to help leaders understand that their role in this kind of change is to ‘ride’ the energy it produces; to co-ordinate activities rather than to command and control them. This reduces their feeling of needing to understand everything all at once.
  • Working with leaders on their unchallenged or unquestioned stories of leadership, helping 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 endeavors?

In discussing this we realized 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.

The second is the need to create a tangible or visible record of the level of agreement.

  • 1.Making visible patterns and levels of coordination and coherence amongst the divergence.
  • Use reflecting teams to reflect key points of agreement or action
  • Use commitment and request conversations
  • Have a last ‘action round’ for example in open space. Or a last ‘linking’ round of ‘golden nuggets’ from conversations in World Café
  • Move into the domain of production – acting ‘as if’ we knew the world and therefore can have certainty.
  • Ask 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?
  • Ask people to make individual commitments to what they are now going to do differently or different
  • Ask people ‘Given all we have discussed today, what is possible?’
  • Ask the group what else needs to happen for them to go away convinced that something is going to change

How to create create some very tangible or visible record of the level of agreement.

  • Use 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

A few further helpful hints

  • 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 the leader focused on how convergence will be achieved is essentially asking:

‘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. The is challenge 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!