The on-going practice of evoking shared understanding

Note: this is something I wrote a while back, on another blog I had started and then abandoned.
For a variety of reasons (including how long it’s been since my last entry here!) it seems worthwhile to repost a slightly edited version of it,  here and now…

One of elements that is most central to me about the practice of facilitating emergence, is something I’ve called the “principled refusal to ‘manage’ convergence”. As I see it, this means that the facilitator maintains a continuous stance of welcoming divergence, so that whenever common ground emerges, is as free as possible from groupthink or peer pressure. One of the reasons for this, is that we see over and over again how this kind of agreement is much more “solid” — that is to say, accompanied by much greater enthusiasm and consistent follow-through — than when we have a more “fabricated” kind of agreement.

At the same time, it can be helpful to look more closely at the nature of this “common ground” that emerges. Even when we know that shared understanding has been reached freely and without coercion – how “solid” can something really be, given this ever-changing world of ours?

Along these lines, on the Ning site for Mary Parker Follett, a turn-of-the century visionary whom Peter Drucker has called the “prophet of modern management”, professor Albie Davis recently wrote:

“Did Follett’s thoughts on unity continue to evolve, as did much of her thinking?  I’ve just been rereading the talk she gave in early 1933 (she died in Boston in December of that year) to the newly formed Department of Business Administration at the London School of Economics under the collective title of ‘The Problem of Organisation and Co-ordination in Business’. I’m reading from ‘Freedom and Coordination’ originally published in 1949.  Page 76.  In 1933, in London, Follett is saying:

‘The most important thing to remember about unity is — that there is no such thing.  There is only unifying.  You cannot get unity and expect it to last a day–or five minutes.”

Now, some of us may well be wondering — why would we ever want something that won’t last a day, or even five minutes?

Still, I found myself delighted by Albie’s post, and her quote from Mary Parker Follett.  Not only does it apply to organizational life in a complex and turbulent world – it also aptly applies to what we so often experience in our personal lives, whenever we meet any goal that we have set for ourselves. Even if there is no major external change causing us to re-evaluate our hard-won gains — how long does it usually take, before we are already looking toward the next horizon?

In teaching workshops on Dynamic Facilitation, I sometimes ask participants: “What would happen if somehow you were to finish every item on your “to-do” list? Would that mean you wouldn’t have anything to do for the rest of the week?” People usually laugh, as we know intuitively that there will always be ‘more’ to do’, a “next level” to grow into… though of course if we are really growing, these challenges will indeed be new ones, NOT just the old ‘same unresolved ones’ being continuously recycled!

Similarly, we know from experience that whenever the group arrives at a concrete point of freely emergent convergence, that achievement will naturally become the point of departure for the next level of divergence.

Maybe the group has reached an operational agreement between two departments who were previously encountering difficulties, or has created a strategic plan that everyone is excited about. Now that we are done with that challenge, it’s time to tackle the next one… and when we do so, we find quickly enough that even though we had just discovered a great deal of common ground a mere five minutes ago, we now have a whole new set of divergent perspectives with regard to this next challenge/opportunity….

Of course, to the degree that trust and goodwill has been developed, we will face these new challenges with greater ease. Still, in our facilitation work, just as in our personal lives, we find that it is very useful from time to time, to introduce a “pause” to invite everyone to “look back” and celebrate, how far we have come. When we are in a full-on, creative group flow mode, it doesn’t usually work too well to “wait until we finish working” — because there will ALWAYS be, some new situation or challenge that needs addressing!

However, this kind of “divergence on a new level” is different from another challenge we sometimes face as facilitators. Maybe we thought that the group was approaching convergence on a particular issue, when a participant who has been shifting back and forth in their chair for the last five minutes, begins to offer tentatively, “Well actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’m really on board…”

This is a key and crucial moment in our work. Of course, we will most likely feel internally an initial moment of dismay: ‘WHAT?!!! I thought we were all on board…  this feels like we are going ‘backward’!’

Yet in the very next moment, we need to remember our practice of authentic welcome and curiosity: “Ahhh… How wonderful!!! You have a different perspective, that you are wanting to share with us now…”  This person may have a concern with whatever proposal is currently on the table. Maybe he or she has a new solution idea that has not been considered yet, or even an altogether different issue, a larger question or bit of context that may radically alter the perspective of the group.

If we are to truly refrain from “attempting to manage convergence”, and instead make room for the emergence of authentic common ground, our job is to make sure that this new contribution is adequately heard. Of course, this can be one of the hardest situations in which to remain open to divergent perspectives, when we fear we won’t be able to “wrap things up neatly” with only a few minutes left to go!

My colleague DeAnna Martin has a wonderful story of taking a deep breath in a similar situation, with just 5 minutes left to go before the end of a meeting… to great results. (Her story is included in Peggy Holman’s new book, Engaging Emergence.)

In DeAnna’s case, it turned out that the group was actually able to arrive at a much deeper convergence, in a highly condensed and action-packed “last five minutes” of the meeting. However, I believe the question we need to ask ourselves is,  “What do we need to have already in place, so that we can take the risk of NOT having a meeting “wrap up nicely” with a well-timed appearance of convergence?” Because it is precisely the ability to truly “let go”, that allows the real work to happen.

Of course, it is our responsibility as facilitators to provide a sense of closure to a meeting, regardless of how much divergence or convergence may be present.  Yet closure does not have to equal “agreement”, especially if we happen to be in the midst of a rich and productive divergence.  If the meeting is intended for the purpose of shared decision-making. It helps to have clear agreements beforehand with both the meeting sponsor and the group. What will happen if the group is not able to reach agreement?  Who will be making the decisions in that case?

At times, it can be very effective, when we have explictly agreed beforehand that the purpose of the meeting is NOT decision-making. Instead, the purpose can be a collaborative exploration designed to inspire participants’ creative initiative within their own realms of decision-making authority, while at the same time generating the kind of shared understanding that supports greater alignment and coordinated action.

When we frame our work in a way that allows us to continually welcome dissenting perspectives and create openings for divergence, then we can indeed be sure that whatever convergences emerge, whatever agreements are arrived at, are truly “rock solid”….

“Rock solid”… for now!  For even when everyone is “on board”, fully and enthusiastically, life happens. The environment changes, new situations unfold, and we find ourselves, sooner or later, “back to the drawing board”…

Which is why we are best-served, if our conversational practice is one that allows us to engage in an authentic, energizing, and deeply creative process of “meeting” with one another, in the ever-unfolding and spontaneously emerging rhythms of divergence…convergence…divergence.

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