Framing and solving diverge-converge exercises

There’s this fairly common technique: the diverge-converge exercise. I first heard about it when learning about design thinking, and now recognize it in other places. The gist of it is fairly simple: break down your thinking process into two distinct phases. In the first phase, encourage divergence of ideas to broaden the space of possibilities. In the second phase, study this space to converge on one artifact that best satisfies the intended objective of the exercise.

When working on a decision-making framework, I realized that there are two distinct kinds of this diverge-converge exercise, each with a different goal. I am going to call them “framing” and “solving”. As I implied before, the first one roughly maps into the Complex Cynefin space, and the second one into the Complicated.

The solving diverge-converge exercise is the one that I see described most commonly. Invest a bit of time in the “diverge” phase to generate a rich pool of possible alternatives, then compare them to pick the one that works best in the “converge” phase. A typical engineering doc that’s an outcome of the solving diverge-converge exercise has several alternatives listed with pros and cons, and a discussion followed by a decision to pick one of these alternatives. This kind of diverge-converge exercise is very much about finding the best fit, and it benefits from having a strong fitness function that guides the process of making the pick.

The framing diverge-converge exercise might seem similar, but has an entirely different mindset. Here, the “diverge” phase is meant to collect perspectives that all describe something that’s difficult to see from just one side. When framing, the “converge” phase is no longer about picking the best fit. Instead, it’s the process to see the larger picture, incorporating all perspectives, studying the differences and similarities between them to synthesize a larger perspective. A typical artifact here is a problem statement doc, describing multiple perspectives of the stakeholders and outlining how they relate to — and interact with — each other, along with the outline of the synthesized larger perspective. In the framing diverge-converge exercise, the choices aren’t narrowed down. Instead, they are used to improve the understanding of the space.

When trying to compare the two kinds, the blind men and the elephant parable comes to mind. When applying the solving diverge-converge exercise, the big question will be whether it’s a fan, a snake, a tree, or a wall: we have to pick one. When applying the framing diverge-converge exercise, we might actually see the elephant.

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