Making Diamonds from your Retrospectives – The Diamond of Participatory Decision Making

One of the techniques I have come to greatly appreciate as a facilitator is the diamond of participatory decision making (see “The Leader’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making”, 1998 by Sam Kaner). This technique/framework allows facilitators to better harness team’s collective intelligence.

What problem does the diamond solve?

As part of a business writing course I took years ago I learned about writer’s block: a state of mind in which professional writers (such as a novelist) cannot find it in themselves to write. The phenomenon is understood in that our brain has different faculties or “hats it can wear”. One of those faculties is that of creative thinking: coming up with new ideas, exploring new topics, thinking out of the box. Another faculty of our brain is that of critical thinking: removing flawed ideas, to identify – for example – style problems that need to be revised. Both faculties are important, serving different purposes. 

The problem comes in when both creative and critical faculties of the brain are trying to be active at the same time, and as a result interfere with each other to the point where one shuts the other down. So when an author tries to write new, innovative ideas, BUT the critical part of her brain is dominant, she will not be able to come up with anything creative and is hence “blocked” from writing. The problem can be addressed by taking turns: only wear one hat at a time (eg. now I am thinking creative, simply spitting out ideas without worrying about quality or style; in an hour I will sift through my creative writing to fix style or grammatical issues and unweed the lesser ideas).

The diamond of participatory decision making follows a very similar pattern, but at the group level: the facilitator makes space for divergent thinking (creative, out-of-the-box), contemplation (discussion, debate), and convergent thinking (shortlisting of ideas) at separate, successive times, rather than at the same time or not at all.

How does the diamond work?

In short the diamond suggests 5 stages to a decision making conversation:

  1. Business as usual – conversation that does not challenge status quo
  2. Divergent zone – brainstorming, thinking outside the box
  3. Groan zone – contemplate and debate ideas
  4. Convergent zone – narrow down ideas to those most feasible
  5. Close – decide on a way forward

The diamond framework teaches us that divergent thinking and convergent thinking cannot happen at the same time, as they interfere with one another. The facilitator must make space for both separately.

The process of convergent thinking is also very important: not all ideas can be implemented, lest we create bloating, systems that conflict with each other, or that do not have enough benefit because the underlying ideas were not appropriate to start with. In this case we must dismiss some ideas and advance others.

And the groan zone is equally important: moving directly from diverging ideas (generating insights) to convergence (decide what to do) can mean that ideas are not sufficiently contemplated and understood by the group. If this happens, the group will not have the understanding it needs to make the best decision possible.

The trick is that these three stages must not take place at the same time. For example: the facilitator must not allow dissent on ideas by the group when the brainstorming is still happening. Sometimes you will notice that one person in the group ‘critiques’ everyone else’s brainstorming ideas as soon as they are being spoken. This is because they are unaware of their critiquing brain functions being active. However, if allowed to continue, this behaviour will seriously impede ideation because a) ideas that are poorly articulated, but are otherwise great ideas, won’t see the light of day and b) the group will not feel safe to express new ideas for fear of being criticized.

Many good ideas started as something that at the surface seemed odd or even silly, only then to evolve into something highly valuable.

The 3M stickies often are used as an example of this. It was originally thought that there was almost no market for them. Imagine if someone hadn’t given these a chance, where would agility be without them? 😉

Why agility and the diamond go hand in hand?

Agility and the diamond share several beliefs that make them highly compatible. 

  1. Interaction between individuals is important (agile manifesto value #1 and principle #6) and can foster innovation and quality;
  2. Participative decision making gives a voice to everyone on the team, and allows team members to contribute to end results in a meaningful way. Lean and agile believe that team empowerment and self organization is important (agile principle #5, 11);
  3. Making space for convergent thinking can help reduce bloating scope (agile principle #10) – this is more important than may first be apparent: too many teams and organizations suffer from unhealthy levels of work in progress in part because they lack a robust mechanism for saying “no”;
  4. Finally, the diamond encourages focus on identifying a concise way forward at the team level, obviously to the end of an improved future. Compare that to agile principle #12: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The Diamond and Retrospectives:

While there is a large variety of different ways to have retrospectives, many of them will have much in common with what the diamond stands for. One popular outline for retrospectives was introduced in “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen (2006), and I will compare it here side-by-side.

Another important perspective is that Derby & Larsen’s outline could be seen as a string of diamonds, and we can go through a separate divergence/groan/convergence process for each phase. For example, when gathering data you first want to get as much information as possible (divergence), then group the results (groan zone) and then dot vote to pick the most important topics (convergence) for generating insights.

The Diamond of Participatory Decision Making offers many more insights and techniques that are worth exploring, for example how to draw out good ideas from people, and how to teach team members to internalize the facilitation function.

Additional Tips:

In agile environments – and especially in cross functional teams as you would find in Scrum settings – we want every team member to chime in and add to the ideation pool, believing that good ideas can “come from anyone”. We do not want to lose ideas that could prove valuable, even if at the beginning they might seem a bit odd. 

Retrospectives often follow an outline that resembles the participatory decision making framework that was researched and documented by San Kaner in 1998:  diverge-groan-converge.

As described by Kaner in his book, a few tips are worth keeping in mind:

  • Share with the team that you are using the diamond and how it works, so they are informed.
  • Do not try to diverge and converge at the same time, as great ideas might be discarded prematurely. That means stopping people that critique the ideas during the brainstorming phase.
  • Draw out poorly worded ideas by asking questions.
  • Do not skip the groan zone – moving directly from diverging ideas (generating insights) to convergence (decide what to do) can mean that ideas are not sufficiently contemplated and understood by the group. If this happens, the group will not have the understanding it needs to make the best decision possible.
  • Use diamonds within diamonds: diverge/groan/converge at each phase of the retrospective, as well as looking at the retrospective end-to-end as a diamond.
  • Converge properly: do not walk out with 150 action items. You know none of them will get done. Walk out with 1 or 2 and be sure that they will get implemented.

If you are interested in learning more about Agile Facilitation, consider taking the Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM) course. There will be discussions on divergent and convergent thinking, methods on helping teams reach final decisions, and listening techniques that help facilitate more effective meetings.