Archive | March, 2013

Where are we at? Divergent and convergent processes

31 Mar

One of the key skills of a facilitator or a manager working with a group is to make the people understand what they are doing and why they are doing it – in other words – to make them feel comfortable about the process even though it might not immediately appear like the group is moving towards the intended outcome. One can apply this to his/her life as well to better understand where he/she is right now. While we can group these processes along many dimensions, the one I have found most useful divides processes into divergent and convergent ones.

The whole idea is that first we go wide, we diverge into many options, and then we go narrow again, we converge towards a solution. To illustrate this on a simple example, we can look at a process of trying to achieve a certain aim. Such process usually goes through several stages. A very basic divide would be:

1. We have a rough idea of what we want to achieve
2. We come up with many options of how we can achieve it
3. We select the best ones by applying various filters to all the options we came up with before
4. We execute those options

If we were to draw what is happening, it would look something like this:

Divergent processes

Firstly we diverge – we are creative, we brainstorm and generate as many alternatives as possible. This is very important because even if we would have very good criteria for choosing the best alternatives afterwards, we can end up with a bad outcome if we did not have any good alternatives to start with.

The problem is however that some people do not feel comfortable with this part of the process. After some time, they can either feel like they are losing time because they think sufficient number of alternatives has already been generated and they want to move towards choosing the best one or they feel uneasy and stressed about the sheer number of options, thinking that it might be impossible to ever come up with a simple solution. This is where the facilitator needs to step in and make sure that everybody understands that we are exactly where we should be at, in the divergent phase, and that we will converge in order to come up with a solution a bit later on. This makes people more comfortable with the process and allows them to focus on the problem more and to ultimately come up with a better outcome. Which is where the convergent phase comes in.

Convergent processes

The task is to narrow down the number of option to only a few best ones  in the convergent phase. There are multiple ways of doing so such as applying certain filters (having cut-off points) or if they are mutually exclusive comparing trade-offs between the options .

It is worth keeping in mind that these processes can often be found within each other as well. For example when starting with only a basic idea of what we want to achieve, we might diverge in terms of our objectives only to converge to the most important ones later on and to subsequently start the whole process again with diverging into possible ways of achieving those.

I have used this concept many times during discussions with teams I lead to make sure we consider all relevant options and choose the best one. I have also been thinking about my life over the last couple years in this way. I have been travelling to many countries, trying various things and meeting lot of people in order to experience what all is out there in the world and to see what I really want to care about in the future.

So next time you feel a bit lost or feel like your chosen alternatives are not really that good, think about what part of the process you are in and decide if you should stay there a bit longer or if you should go one step forward or backward.

Context matters

24 Mar

I have been coming across the word context a lot lately. So much so, that it really forced me to think about it and to appreciate how vital it is to our ability to make good decisions as well as to understand decisions of others and the world around us as such. Is £1000 a lot of money? When your friend was angry some time ago, was she being unreasonable? Is 15 degrees a warm weather?

Well, we cannot answer any of those questions without knowing their context. Extra £1000 is a lot to a student living off couple hundred pounds a month but not to a company for which if might represent only a 0.1% increase on profits of one million. Your friend might have been unreasonable if the cause of her anger was having to work overtime on a one off basis but not if her boss shouted on her for no apparent reason. 15 degrees is pretty cold in summer but unusually hot in winter. This might all seem obvious but I would bet we don’t always take the time to understand the context before making or perhaps even more importantly, interpreting one’s decision.

Making a decision…

When making a decision, we need to realise what are the options we have realistically have, what consequences would they have, what is the likelihood of them working out and how would they be perceived – we need to know the context of the problem. If we come up with a model solution but we cannot implement it because of a specific organizational constraint, it’s a useless one. In a similar fashion, if we do not understand how the final decision maker will perceive our recommendation and if we would not be able to secure her buy-in, even the ‘best’ solution in the world would be useless in that context.

Organizational models (see for example my previous post here) or personality models, heuristics and preferences (e.g. if the final decision maker is risk averse, if she prefers quantitative or qualitative analysis, what are her key concerns etc.) are usually good starting points for gaining deeper understanding of our context.

…& interpreting a decision

Being aware of the context becomes even more crucial when we are interpreting someone else’s decision. What is an overreaction in some situations is an appropriate response in other situations and vice versa. Big risks can go unchecked and relationships built over a long time can go sour if we wrongly evaluate somebody’s decision. This can be because we were too lazy to dig deeper and understand the context in which that decision was made before we start judging it or because we misunderstood what message the other person was really trying to put across.

So remember, although it might sound obvious, context matters and it often matters more than you think!

Never regret

14 Mar

I have recently been thinking about to what extend we can influence what is happening to us, if we should do so and how we should react if things don’t go as planned. Here is what I came up with.

Let me start more generally. When making a decision, we either do what we feel is right or we think of our objectives, generate some alternatives, assess how likely they are to help us in achieving those objectives and decide accordingly. From there on, things can go either well or not so well. It is however very important to separate the decision making process and the decision itself from outcomes of that decision for we can directly influence the former but not the latter. It follows therefore, that if we took the best decision possible at the time when we had to make it, we should never regret having taken it regardless on the outcome of that decision.

Influence what you can and don’t worry about the rest

With this in mind we can see that there are certain things we can influence by the decisions we make and our actions resulting from those and certain things we cannot influence – they just happen. You can call it fate, good or bad luck or whatever is appropriate in your culture. The first important point here is that you have to accept that there are things you cannot influence and therefore you should not worry about them. You should just accept them. The trick then lies in where we draw the line.

And here comes the second point – always do the best you can. That is the the best we can with the resources available such as time, intellectual capacity, money or influence at the time. You will have to make some trade offs but if they appear to be the most sensible actions to take at the time when things are happening, then that’s exactly what they are. If things go well, perfect. If they don’t, we should learn from the past but never regret having done what we did. The dots might connect just a little bit later on.

Here is a recent example from my life. I got to a final round of interviews with BCG, a leading strategy consultancy, and I really wanted that job. I spent almost all my time in the three weeks preceding that interview preparing for it and when I was entering their offices, I felt I have prepared the best I could have. Eventually, I did not end up getting an offer from them. I could have been regretting the fact I did not get it or that I spent all that time in preparation for nothing but that would defeat the whole point. I did the best I could have done and what made most sense at the time. I had nothing to regret and was able to look forward to other opportunities. I now have two other great consulting offers and most importantly, a clear mind.

So to summarise, the key to never regretting is acting in a way so that we never have to. That is doing the best we can right now to maximise the sphere of our influence and accept that from there on, things will just happen and there is nothing we can do about it.