Convergence: From Ideas To Preparing Decisions

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Summary

Convergence is what needs to take place in group processes after all perspectives, opinions and ideas have been voiced and discussed. It’s the next logical step to make sense of a multitude of individual thoughts, turn it into something ‘owned’ by the entire group and ultimately enable the group to act. The process flow from divergence to convergence could take the following form:

  • Divergence: What are all the problems we could work on?
  • Convergence: This is the best.
  • Divergence: What are all the contributors of the problem?
  • Convergence: This one is the most significant.
  • Divergence: What are all the possible ways of fixing it?
  • Convergence: This one is the cheapest.

Hence, convergence is about seeking a conclusion and closure of a topic. It can consist of a variety of steps, including to:

  1. Organise everything that has been collected before according to different criteria or under different headers (building so-called clusters or clustering).
  2. Sharpen concepts and thoughts, e.g. by also making any differences between them more explicit and apparent.
  3. Rank or prioritise topics or ideas according to agreed criteria.
  4. Vote on different options or clusters of ideas in order to create a ranked list.

Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output

Facilitate in a transparent way the selection of a few ideas/suggestions out of the many that have been compiled and developed by the group.

In this way, prepare for decision-making and agreement on concrete follow-up steps.

Way/level of dealing with subject

Actively participate in narrowing down and selecting contributions by all group members as well as participate in decision-making.

Application in moderation cycle

Convergence.

Duration

Overall, it is safe to assume that convergence needs roughly a similar amount of time as the preceding divergence phase.

Group size

Small- to mid-sized group.

Level of difficulty

Medium

Facilitator

Internal as well as external moderators can apply convergence methods in their group facilitation. It needs some experience and some sensitivity to underlying and implicit group dynamics so as to ensure that conclusions are not reached too quickly following the most vocal members of the group, but really supporting a collaborative thinking and decision-making process that is inclusive of all participants.

Materials needed

(depending on the choice of methods)

  • Post-it notes
  • Moderation cards
  • Sticky dots
  • Markers

Additional resources:

  • Kaner, Sam (2007), Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, John Wiley & Sons inc.: 2nd Edition.

Process description

Clustering

Prior to clustering there has usually been a step where a variety of opinions, suggestions or ideas were collected, e.g. through brainstorming. This step, part of divergence, might have used moderation cards or post-it notes so that everybody in the room was able to contribute to the generation of ideas. The precondition for clustering is that no more than one idea is written on one card or post-it.

Clustering is most easily done with post-it notes, as the position of each post-it can be changed many times in order to ultimately come up with a cluster with which everyone is satisfied.

There are two basic approaches in clustering: either participants themselves do it or the facilitator makes a suggestion and asks the group to confirm or validate the
proposed logic of clustering.

Variations of participant clustering:

One participant after another reads out his/her card or post-it, walks up and pins it on the wall. After the first, the following participants immediately start creating clusters when they add their cards to the wall. Once the different
clusters have formed there can be a facilitated discussion about different options for the clusters including appropriate headers for the different clusters.

Participants walk up and hang all their cards or post-it notes simultaneously. The facilitator numbers the cards. Then participants are invited to shout out the numbers of two cards they believe belong together. This is repeated until participants get the hang of it and group pairs together until the clusters grow.

If a card could go into two different clusters, the facilitator makes a copy of it and puts it into both. Check if people want to amalgamate any of the clusters to get the number of clusters down a bit. It does not often work, but keeps the debate at high energy and starts the clarification process.

The final task is to name the clusters.

Participants put all their sticky notes on the wall. They are invited to move the cards around in order to group related ideas into themes. All of this is done silently. Anyone may relocate a sticky from one cluster to another. Thus, ideas move back and forth until everyone accepts the categorisation. Finally, the title of each cluster is discussed and agreed.

Involving participants in clustering has many advantages as it helps to clarify the different perspectives that are behind abbreviated statements. However, this can sometimes be time- consuming and overstretch the attention span of the participants.

Another option is that the facilitator takes over the clustering, for instance during a coffee break, to come up with a suggested logic of clustering. He/she may also invite volunteers to help him/her in the grouping process. It’s key to then still get feedback from the group so they agree with the suggested clusters, and to find an appropriate title for it.

Sharpening concepts and differences

The basic idea of clustering is to look for similarities and connections between statements made. However, it is sometimes important not to jump too quickly in trying to create a consensus or harmonise between various statements, as underlying conflicts in opinions might be overlooked. These can come out later and seriously block the ongoing process of moving towards closure. Hence, before going into ranking or voting it might be helpful to draw the attention of the group towards clear differences
in opinion and statements. Maybe there are ideas that are even mutually exclusive.

Making this really clear to the participants allows them to take more conscious and well-informed decisions later.

Ranking/Prioritising

Ranking and prioritising can be done in many different ways. One possibility is to go around the room and ask every participant about their personal priority or their three highest ranked options.

A more interactive approach is the so-called snowballing. All participants are grouped into pairs, discuss and agree their joint top or top three priorities. Then two pairs join and need to agree on their top priority list. After that two groups of four join again for their top priorities. This is done until the whole group is united. If no agreement can be reached, it’s likely there are more profound differences in opinion and needs that need to be explored and clarified in a different way.

Voting

Voting is a specific form of ranking. The easiest and most common way is done by using sticky dots. Participants might be given one sticky dot per person to indicate their top priority. This means that all items that receive unanimous or nearly unanimous support become the group’s high-priority list. The advantage is that choices reflect and make visible what people really feel.

Another option is to distribute between 3 and 5 sticky dots to each person. People can be allowed to allocate all of their dots to one item so that the relative distance between the ranked ideas usually becomes more visible.

Another variation is to combine the setting of priorities with the next step of distributing roles and responsibilities in planning follow-up steps. In this case participants first vote with sticky dots on their priority items. Secondly, they are given a differently-coloured sticky dot, the so-called passion point. The explicit question is ‘which item do you not only consider (most) important, but you would also be ready to dedicate your time to work on’. Usually the number of ‘high priorities’ decreases.

Options for modification

In the overall process of convergence, coming to conclusions, decisions and follow-up agreements there is a general move towards narrowing down, condensing and filtering out those ideas that the group can agree on. It is recommended at certain decisive junctions to check that everybody is still on board or can at least subscribe to the overall direction. This can be done by asking for people’s consent (see Consent Decision Making).

Consent is ultimately the right of veto, the option to opt out in case there are significant objections. It means not everybody has to fully agree with the proposed decision, but people are invited to state if they can live with it and are ready to go along. The way of running a circle of consent before an important decision is to ask everybody if they give their consent or if anybody has significant objections. In case of objections justifiable reasons should be given. In that case, the following discussion aims to develop solutions to solve these objections.

Debriefing options

The debriefing would focus on the process of convergence, asking for feedback if the process was perceived as inclusive, fair and transparent and if everybody felt heard and included.

As convergence is extremely important for and indicative of the culture of decision-making and informal power relations in an organisation or team it is also interesting to consider what the group can learn from this process for future similar processes, what outsiders would notice, how it would compare to past decision-making processes.

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