Ever Heard of the Groan Zone?

The switch from divergent to convergent thinking in innovation workshops is smooth in literature but extremely tough in reality. In this article Susanna Bill explains how she was on the verge of making a huge mistake until she learned about the middle component between divergence and convergence: the groan zone.

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing a strategy workshop for a new client. The first assignment is always a bit special – I do not know very much about the group until I have encountered them in the workshop and at the same time I want to make sure that I deliver high enough quality so that they will  assign me more work.

As I went through the exercises I realized that I had squeezed in far more than the available time permitted, thus I had to exclude some of what I had planned. The question was what? The client had wanted to divide the work between vision and strategy so I was reluctant in changing any of that. What was left – the “getting to know each other” part would have to go I concluded.  Then I started to read about the groan zone.

Group workshops, whether it be ideation, solving a problem or working with vision, strategies or values all have a very distinct pattern (read my post about el Bulli for example). The first phase is exploration, that is discussing different viewpoints, opening up the senses in divergent thinking without making judgments about the other group members thoughts. But in order to formulate a result, divergent thinking is paired with convergent thinking, during which choices are made, judgment is exercised and the best ideas are exploited into concepts.

The bad news is that if you want to get really good results out of the workshop you have to reach the groan zone and work your way through it.

In ideation literature the transition between divergent and convergent thinking seems trivial, in many cases it is expected to be a smooth switch without any need to pay attention to. Unfortunately this perception has nothing to do with reality. In reality this switch is cumbersome to the extent that most groups never do it. They either close the discussion too prematurely at the cost of not attaining the ideas with most potential, or they diverge until they become paralyzed by the innumerous options they have created.

In reality, there is a distinct phase that is neither, or both divergent and convergent, when group members experience impatience, frustration, question the process or purpose of the workshop and in general feel very uncomfortable. This is the groan zone. Clearly a discomfort zone. The bad news is that if you want to get really good results out of the workshop you have to reach the groan zone and work your way through it. The good news is that if you do, the convergent work of selecting good idea candidates will be a smooth ride with a committed group, which is pivotal for the challenging work of taking the concepts further after the workshop has ended.

The secret is to create win-win out of two ingredients

  • Shared context through understanding the perspective of others
  • Strong relationships through interpersonal communication

Seeing the situation in another person’s shoes will help you expand your viewpoints and potentially kill some of the biases that narrow your own mind. The result is a shared context through which the selection criteria can be designed so as to cater for the entire group.

Strong relationships are the base for trust. If you deal with challenging work you need to have everybody engaged in the task, not in protecting him or herself or worrying about being ridiculed if they have ideas that seem out of context. To know the person behind the discussions and work is to strengthen the human ties and to increase trust (read earlier posts, e.g trust and creative climate, failure and trust).

To know the person behind the discussions and work is to strengthen the human ties and to increase trust.

I realized that by excluding the “getting to know each other exercises” I was about to make a terrible mistake and act very irresponsibly as a facilitator of the workshop. Instead of achieving unique and strong input to a vision and strategy I would have risked us moving only incremental steps. After some thinking I increased the socializing exercises and removed almost all the strategy work.  The workshop had good results and the client was very happy afterwards.

One final reflection, especially for those of you who facilitate workshops: one tends to believe that the divergent-convergent work happens once, that first you do all the divergent work, then the convergent work kicks in.  It is important though to see these two modes with the groan zone in between as an engine going back and fourth. Even if the overall design of the workshop is divergent first finishing off with convergence, these two are at the same time micro processes constantly moving back and fourth. When facilitating, make sure to be prepared to do a social exercise if or when the group seems to get stuck in a micro groan zone.

For this article I was inspired by:

MOVE, an innovation workshop concept designed by Lund University and Stanford Institute for Foresight.

Sam Kaners book about facilitating, my bible to facilitating workshops.

By Susanna Bill

About the authorSusanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.
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