Are you an introvert who hates meetings and derives pleasure from thinking in solitude? Or do you get excited when you can discuss ideas with others and work side by side with them toward a common goal? Working alone and working with others have each their own advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we define a collaborative technique that combines the two in order to maximize the work quality and efficiency: diverge and converge.

Definition: The diverge-and-converge collaboration methodhas two stages: (1) a diverge stage, during which team members work independently to produce individual insights and (2) a converge stage, where they discuss the results of the diverge phase as a group in order to decide on some collective output.

When team members diverge, they research, analyze, generate, or design independently, without discussing thoughts or findings with others. When team members converge, they share their findings, insights, ideas, or designs with one another.

How Diverge-and-Converge Works

The technique can be incorporated into any collaborative activity which involves consolidating the input of multiple people into a single collective output. A facilitator should introduce the diverge-and-converge method before or at the beginning of the meeting, to keep participants on track.

Depending on the goal of the activity, the diverge part can happen before the workshop, with participants working by themselves at their own pace, or during the workshop, with all participants spending a dedicated period of time to do the individual work in parallel.

For example, if the goal is to speed up data collection for a large research study, several UX researchers may run study sessions separately, using a shared research guide. After the data has been gathered, team members will converge in a meeting to discuss research findings. Alternatively, if the goal of the activity is to generate design ideas for a particular problem, participants in an ideation workshop may all spend the first part of the meeting sketching ideas individually and then they may converge and consolidate those ideas.

The amount of time dedicated to each phase depends on the complexity of both the independently generated input and of the collective output. For example, running usability studies can take hours, sometimes days. Analyzing research findings for a large data set can also take days, sometimes weeks. Consequently, both the diverge and converge portions for research can extend over the course of a month. On the other hand, anideation sessionis best run when timeboxed — that is, within a designated amount of time, like 5 to 10 minutes — in order to emphasize quantity over quality of ideas.

The most important piece of running diverge-and-converge exercises is to set expectations and ground rules before running these activities. Doing this early can help ease tension between group members, increase contributions, and avoid groupthink. Here are some rules and expectations you should share with your group before running a workshop.

  • Strictly enforce divergent and convergent time as “quiet” and “talking” time.
    Some people are naturally chattier than others or like to bounce ideas off of others or “think aloud” before solidifying their own ideas. Not only does this disrupt the quiet time needed for individual thinking, but it can also inadvertently sway the output of the diverge phase (or even that of the converge phase) by adding bias.
  • Ban the words “no” or “but.”
    People often become defensive and reluctant to share when they hear others openly rejecting their ideas or contributions with words like “no” or “but.” Banning these words reduces inherent tension, increases willingness to discuss, and, paradoxically, and enables dissenting contributions to be heard (because they won’t sound so offensive).

Why Use Diverge-and-Converge

Many of the issues that emerge in collaborative workshops happen precisely because team members are not given the time to first sit with their ideas and insights before subjecting them to the opinions of others. When converging first, the input is still very “malleable” rather than being substantial enough to have a nuanced discussion.

Diverging first enables team members to:

  • focus on the task at hand without distractions
  • quickly gather data or organize information
  • tackle multiple parts of a project
  • interpret or analyze information at their own pace (which is crucial for people who speak a different native language, or people with disabilities or impairments)
  • generate creative ideas in a safe space
  • counteract groupthink (i.e., being influenced by others’ ideas)
Groupthink comic
When groupthink happens, an influential group member’s opinion (in the comic above, the yellow lightbulb, A) may directly or indirectly squelch dissenting opinions (the green lightbulb, B) of others.

Converging afterward enables teams to:

  • identify patterns and uncover new perspectives
  • frame problems differently
  • align and build a shared understanding of the problem to be solved
  • create strong team relationships for future collaborative efforts
  • build empathy among team members
  • increase the odds of solving the problem or finding objective truth (More and varied solutions will have a higher chance of solving the problem than one idea will.)

Diverge-and-converge will ultimately produce a higher-quality result than would have resulted from simply generating one good idea and running with it. Several years ago, we conducted ameasurement study of an example of parallel design(which was equivalent to the “diverge” stage for a user-interface design project). Four different designers independently designed solutions to the same user-interface problem. The measured usability of the best of these 4 designs was 56% higher than the average usability of all designs. (This number can be interpreted as an estimate of the gain to be had from having 4 different ideas, instead of just an average one.) Even better, when the ideas from the 4 designs were merged into a single design, the result gained an additional 14% in measured usability compared to the single-best of the original designs. This outcome shows that even the best design wasn’t perfect. The 3 designs that scored lower in overall usability still contained some good ideas.

In the case study, the final, converged design was 70% better (56%+14%) better than the average of the individual (diverged) designs. Obviously, this was just a case study, and your mileage will vary. However, the example shows that the gain from this method can be quite substantial. It does cost a little more time to employ two steps instead of proceeding directly to the solution, but the ROI usually makes it worthwhile.

Image of three painters, each looking at a dog, and each painting contains a dog with two legs
Each person’s perspective, in isolation, is rarely a complete understanding of the problem. In this adaptation of theparable of the blind men and the elephant, each of the three painters sees a different view of the animal, and all three of these perspectives are incomplete if they do not incorporate the perspectives of others.

When to Incorporate Diverge-and-Converge

Diverge-and-converge activities are most useful during collaborative efforts which are subject to skewed results due to personal bias, groupthink, or the HiPPO effect (highest paid person’s opinion). Here are some common use cases:

Collecting and Analyzing Research Findings

Research is just as subject to bias and groupthink as any other activity. Diverge-and-converge can reduce bias and increase empathy with both participants and coworkers.

A diverge-and-converge technique likeaffinity diagrammingcan be used in a variety of circumstances (e.g., analyze findings from sessions, buildcognitive mapsandempathy maps) to cluster research findings and analyze themes. Or, if time does not allow a full affinity-diagramming workshop, a quicker version may simply involve verbally sharing with team members individual notes made while observing a user session or reading aninterviewtranscript.

Comic of two researchers diverging to collect data, and converging to empathy map
Researchers can avoid projecting their own biases into their research and speed the process along by gathering data independently and converging to comprehend their insights together.

Mapping Workshops

Diverge-and-converge methods can be used to build any types of maps — customer-journey maps, experience maps, service blueprints, and so on. The diverge stage usually involves participants individually reflecting upon and labeling the data used to build the map, and the converge stage consists of aggregating individual insights into a final artifact.

Comic of a team diverging to jot down observations and converging to create a service blueprint
Teams can diverge to jot down their insights at their own desks and transfer those insights onto sticky notes on a journey map or service blueprint.

Design-Thinking Workshops

Diverge-and-converge activities are a common practice indesign-thinkingworkshops in order to maximize contributions and ensure alignment. For example, this method can be used to createneed statementsor forideatingon new design ideas to prototype next.

Comic of a team diverging to ideate and converging to prioritize ideas
Teams can diverge to ideate or create prototypes, then converge to prioritize which ideas or prototypes get implemented or tested.

Conclusion

Diverge-and-converge is a powerful tactic that eliminates bias, broadens insight, adds depth to conversations. When incorporated at the right moments, it can also help you get many team members’ hands in the user data, code data quickly, and increase the likelihood of creating the right solution to the right problem. After all, many hands (and brains, when given the chance to think) make light work.