Divergence Before Convergence for Experiential Learning

By Dianne Miller and Emily Ricci - April 24, 2017

Divergence Before Convergence: Patience pays for leadership development consulting firms.

The ability to quickly and creatively generate a solution is critical to any leadership development consultant’s success. But there’s a natural human inclination to reach a consensus that can lead even the best leadership programs down the path of least resistance, especially under time pressures. The strength of the “consensus bias” often leads to embracing the first solution instead of the best solution.

You may have seen your own teams fall into this trap. Everyone meets in a room to do a traditional whiteboarding session. After hours and hours of talking and sketching, the team finally reaches agreement on one idea, and someone says, “I think we’re at a good stopping point.” Exhaustion has taken over, and everyone is relieved to just move on.

At The Regis Company, we’ve learned that when we obey this desire to quickly reach consensus and implement the first or second idea we hear, we later find that we didn’t actually have the best idea and our experiential learning activities aren’t optimized. Even worse, stakeholders can easily overrule ideas generated this way because they’re not rooted in substantive thinking. When this occurs, there may be significant time, cost and team morale implications, not to mention less effective leadership training.

Design thinking challenges the need to rush to consensus by deliberately inviting divergent thinking. The idea of ideating, not implementing—or holding space for lots of different ideas at the beginning of a process—allows all ideas to be sifted through methodically.

When combined with rigorous processes that efficiently and systematically eliminate faulty ideas, we’ve found that the practice of divergence before convergence helps generate the best leadership development programs.

However, the concept of embracing divergence isn’t easy. In our own learning and talent development process, we've worked diligently to become comfortable with not rushing to resolution—but we also know that the innate drive for certainty is hard for our teams and clients to override.

Simply put, the gray area of divergence feels uncomfortable. We’ve facilitated a number of business simulations where stakeholders have said outright, “Can we just skip this part and move straight to creating the solution?”

To mitigate some of this discomfort, we routinely do two things:

  1.    We try to be very up-front with our clients about ambiguity that participants will experience as they engage in the experiential learning process. To support this, we prime teams for the cognitive discomfort they might feel by assigning pre-work and painting a picture of the milestones we'll encounter during a design thinking session.  
  2.   We use a lot of structure and timeboxing in our leadership training modules to generate ideas and set up opportunities for evaluation. This creates a very different tone, especially compared with unstructured brainstorming, in which participants become exhausted to the point of accepting nearly any idea in order to move forward.

There are many ways to deliberately introduce divergence into the custom learning design process. Here are a few recommendations:

  •        Invite a broad group of peoplenot just the learning and development team—to engage in a design thinking session
  •        Actively invite vocal dissenters of the program and/or process to participate. This is often difficult, but always valuable.
  •        Structure exercises so that participants can silently generate their own ideas first before having to discuss them out loud
  •        Put time limits on design thinking exercises so that the focus is on speed, not quality (that comes later)
  •        Avoid too much “priming” about a potential solution before a design session so that we limit individual bias

Emphasizing divergence as a goal leads to lots of ideas, which in turn lead to rich discussion and discovery of hidden problems. This brings us to our third rule in our series around design thinking for successful business simulations: Focus on the problem, not the solution. More on that next week.

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