Tactic: Diverge and Converge

Giff Constable leadership, product management

You’re an inclusive leader. Maybe you’re an executive trying to find good ideas and give more people a voice. Maybe you’re a PM trying to foster the creative juices of your team. What’s your move? Do you get everyone in a room (virtual or real) for a brainstorm, break out the sticky notes (virtual or real), and let the conversation flow?

Hold those horses! If you just jump into a conversation, you risk several things happening: 1) the fast-ideas, heavy-talkers often dominate the conversation; 2) the first ideas are often not the best ideas; 3) you get an unhealthy dynamic called “group think”. I first learned about group think at university when we examined the terrible decision making under US President JFK that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Group think is when the desire for consensus and group harmony overcomes critical thinking about ideas, leading to irrational decisions. There’s also a worse flavor where an intellectual bully makes it hard to dissent.

You can overcome group think by using what the design field calls diverge and converge. As those two words imply, first you allow people to think through an issue on their own, and then compare ideas in an attempt to find the optimal answer.

I use the diverge and converge technique for just about any situation where you want multiple perspectives into a decision. Need to align on resource allocation as an executive team? Diverge and converge. Need to design an experiment to prove out an idea? Diverge and converge. Need to prioritize the best opportunities to chase after? Diverge and converge. Want to think through the possible UX flow of an idea? Diverge and converge. Need to make an important technical choice? Diverge and converge.

You can diverge and converge in a meeting simply by giving people a few quiet minutes to think/write/sketch. But not everyone does their best work on the spot, in the moment.(1) Heaven forbid that our meetings have agendas and even, just maybe, a little bit of pre-work! However, what this requires is for you to put down your fire drills for a moment and do the prep work to make it easy for your attendees to do their prep work:

  1. write down clear goals and constraints for the meeting
  2. concisely explain, in broad-brush terms, the exercise you’ll be going through as a team
  3. link out to any useful background information (such as qual/quant data summaries) on the topic
  4. give people a little bit of homework, which might be as simple as “mull over this topic so you are ready for this exercise”

Remember, all of the above has to be concise or people will not read. Yes, this takes more work, but our whole field needs to set a higher bar for a meeting should be and how we use our meeting time together.

As a meeting designer (since that’s what you’re doing here), don’t assume that everyone will actually do their homework. People are busy. What is most important for you might not be most important for them. But some people will, and that will usually improve the quality of ideas that emerge and then converge.

Lastly, diverge and converge isn’t just for teams. It’s also for you, as a solo thinker. Humans have a tendency to get excited about their first ideas, but those first ideas aren’t always the best ones. Experienced designers learn not to accept their first concepts. Instead, they force themselves to sketch out multiple solutions to a problem, even some that feel dumb, just to stretch their thinking. This can feel painful, but it’s worth it. Jumping at one’s first idea is lazy, reactive thinking. The key to embracing this technique is choosing the desire for the best decision over a desire to feel clever.

And if you want a really interesting watch/read on more clearly thinking through product possibilities before jumping to a conclusion, check out Teresa Torres on critical thinking for product teams.

(1) I want to repeat what I said above: not everyone does their best work on the spot, in the moment, and/or in public. Ideally you don’t actually force your people to work that way. So take a look at how your company interviews — are you forcing people to dazzle on the spot, or are you coming up with other ways to let them reveal you their thoughtfulness? If you’re just doing the “dazzle me now” approach (looking at you Google, but they are far from alone), then you risk enforcing a bit of a mono-culture in terms of the kinds of people you hire. Maybe instead, try a design challenge or some new approach?

Top image from Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash