Collaboration: From groan zone to growth zone

Community member post by Carrie Kappel

Carrie Kappel (biography)

What is the groan zone in collaboration? What can you do when you reach that point?

As researchers and practitioners engaged in transdisciplinary problem-solving, we know the value of diverse perspectives. We also know how common it is for groups to run into challenges when trying to learn from diverse ideas and come to consensus on creative solutions.

This challenging, often uncomfortable space, is called the groan zone. The term comes from Sam Kaner’s diamond model of participation shown in the figure below. After an initial period of divergent thinking, where diverse ideas are introduced, groups have to organize that information, focus on what’s most important, and make decisions in order to move forward into the phase of convergent thinking.

Navigating that transition between divergent and convergent thinking is the realm in which creativity and innovation emerge, if we let them.

Adaptation of Kaner’s diamond model of participation (source Carrie Kappel 2019)
Adaptation of Kaner’s diamond model of participation (source Carrie Kappel 2019)

My own recent experience navigating the groan zone happened midway through a two-day workshop I was facilitating on oceans and the future of food, where an interdisciplinary, multi-sector group of participants became daunted by the task of integrating their extensive set of ideas and perspectives into a shared research agenda. One of the organizers, Dr. Liz Selig, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions’ Deputy Director, remarked, “We’re at the stage where we have taken everything out of the closet and it’s all strewn across the floor. Now we have to sort through it all and start to make sense of what’s important, what to keep, how to organize it so we can find what we need.”

Every interdisciplinary working group I’ve ever participated in or facilitated has found itself in the groan zone at some point. The good news is you don’t have to be a skilled facilitator to employ the tools for navigating this territory and tapping its creative potential.

Managing the groan zone

  1. Don’t Panic: Half the battle is recognizing that you are entering the groan zone. Just naming the transition from divergence to convergence as a distinct, valuable, and normal phase can help to reassure a group.
  2. Encourage Dialogue: Dialogue, rather than debate, allows collective insight and creative breakthroughs to emerge in groups. Challenge participants to speak to be understood, rather than to win a point, and listen for understanding, rather than for the weakness in another’s argument. Put a premium on defining terms, unpacking assumptions, and explaining thinking to bridge diverse disciplinary perspectives. When participants interact in this way, they tend to feel more comfortable wading into the groan zone’s uncertainty and trusting the process – and each other – to carry them through to the other side.
  3. Use Tools to Support Convergence: Build in specific processes to converge on ideas. This involves seeking that collective intellectual tingle that comes from lighting upon an idea that has the potential to unlock new insights.

Tools to support convergence

There are countless tools for sifting and synthesizing ideas, such as these that I’ve found useful:

  • Use conceptual frameworks to organize ideas and draw connections. Constructing a visual model together helps to reveal the different ways individuals think about the problem, which can build a shared understanding of it and unlock new ways of addressing it. Joint model building supports metacognition, raising awareness of individual assumptions, gaps, and biases (see Machiel Keestra’s blog post on metacognition).
  • Take a staged approach to prioritizing ideas. Invite individuals to reflect on their own, then share in pairs, then bring their insights and ideas to another pair or small group, and finally offer highlights to the full group. This 1-2-4-all process offers everyone a chance to speak and allows the group to elevate the most promising ideas rapidly.
  • Get the ideas on paper. Give each idea a headline and write a short abstract that distills the problem, why it’s important, and your proposed solution. Review each other’s ideas. Identify areas of confusion or uncertainty. Clarify.
  • Specify your criteria for convergence. A simple two-axis plot can help a group decide how to focus its effort. For example, as shown in the figure below, you might assess each idea for its feasibility and potential impact, and then focus on those scoring high in both. Defining what you mean by feasibility and impact before your start scoring is essential and can be another source of collaborative learning.
Classifying ideas based on their feasibility and potential for impact can move a group toward the sweet spot of convergence (source Carrie Kappel 2019)

Final words

Inviting diverse perspectives (divergence), synthesizing to yield new breakthroughs (emergence), and coalescing around a shared vision (convergence) are fundamental elements of successful collaboration, and they don’t just happen once. In fact, a well-designed collaboration will move through these stages over and over again.

In the arc of a project, a group may encounter the groan zone at multiple scales – within an individual discussion, midway through a multi-day meeting, part way through a multi-year project, or all of the above. Group participants often report that their satisfaction ebbs in the messy middle of their project, but rises again as the project approaches the end.

Recognizing that the groan zone is inevitable, our best option is to embrace it and let it spark opportunities for the emergence of novel ideas. Armed with awareness and a few good process tools, could we come to see the groan zone as an essential growth zone instead?

What has your experience been with the groan zone? Are there other strategies that you have found useful for navigating it?

Reference:
Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. 3rd edition, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, California, United States of America.

A modified version of this blog post is simultaneously published as part of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) commentary series: https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/news/how-spark-joy-groan-zone-collaboration .

Biography: Carrie Kappel PhD is a Senior Fellow, Research Scientist and professional facilitator of transdisciplinary collaborative working groups at University of California Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), in the USA. Her facilitation work also takes her outside the university where her clients include nonprofits and government agencies. Her research and facilitation are aimed at i) understanding socio-ecological coupled systems and ii) developing the tools and capacities we need as a society to adapt and thrive in the face of high uncertainty and rapid change. This work draws upon synthesis science, integrating knowledge and methods across diverse disciplines and ways of knowing; facilitation and leadership for cross-sector collaborations; and effective multi-channel communication with a wide array of collaborators, policymakers and stakeholders. As a visual thinker, Carrie uses graphic facilitation to help foster the emergence of new ideas and make connections and insights visible. She is deeply interested in the intersection of art and science, and the ways in which the humanities and sciences can inform one another.

10 thoughts on “Collaboration: From groan zone to growth zone

  1. Thank you for your comments, Charles! It does seem that at least sometimes, the groan zone may equate to the latency phase of a partnership or collaboration – when things are moving slowly as the collaboration works out its purpose and internal systems for how it is going to work together. This is certainly a phenomenon I’ve noticed in my own collaborations and collaborative groups I have facilitated, and like with the groan zone, it’s helpful to name that a slow start may be par for the course, but if well tended, can lead to a later phase of rapid productivity (tended by the exponential mindset you mention). I hadn’t heard the “flock thinking” term before, but the idea – that any individual in the group can be influential to the whole group’s direction – resonates with my observation of how groups often navigate the groan zone. i.e. that a variety of ideas are proposed and shaped, that ideas can come from anyone in the group, and that eventually the flock follows a single idea or a small number of ideas into the convergence zone. (See also the comment by Rebecca about the role of a few individuals in navigating interdisciplinary trading zones in this thread). Thanks for the links – they have many useful tips.

  2. Thanks for an informative post, Carrie. I agree that the groan zone is a particular problem in diverse groups such as multidisciplinary groups. They bring more information to a collaboration task than many groups. In addition, their different technical and professional jargon further hinders collaboration. I also think that a groan zone is common enough and problematic enough in much less diverse groups. Many readers may find your post practically useful.

    In multidisciplinary and other groups I’ve found suggestions similar to yours to be valuable. Realistic expectations help participants to prepare for possible frustrations. Without the motive to understand others that dialogue confers, listening and cooperation suffer. It becomes more difficult to resolve issues as they arise. Working with a structured process can provide a feeling of safety.

    In group decision making there usually comes a time when enough divergent information has been collected. As you say, the task then becomes one of making sense of what has been assembled. The danger is that participants begin to suffer information overload. At this point I find it useful to think about keeping the task “brain-sized”. I try to separate the task into pieces in such a way that each is manageable. You offer very suitable tools for this. They help to alleviate information overload.

    Your criteria for choosing between alternatives is a beautiful example of keeping the immediate task brain-sized. At any one moment participants are considering one alternative only. And not only that. Their momentary task becomes agreeing how impactful it is, and then how feasible. An otherwise complex task has become manageable. In addition, capturing all information on whiteboard or chart paper is a further help. The information remains visible accessible instead of overloading participants’ memory.

    I almost always give participants individual thinking time, as you suggest. In my experience this has application whenever information is being collected from multiple participants, and pooled. Thinking time seems especially helpful for more introverted participants. They otherwise find it difficult to collect their own thoughts while also trying to listen to others. Then, pairs (or very small groups) allow the information to be filtered, or its quality improved, depending on the instructions to the participants.

    At the end of your paper you invite us to contribute our own experience. I think you have provided an excellent beginners’ kit. People who are relative novices at facilitation can use it to begin to facilitate. As they develop experience they can then broaden their repertoire, adding to the tools you’ve provided. If I were to add anything, I would base it on my own early experience of facilitation. I found some early strategies could reduce the later stress and frustrations.

    For example, I’ve learned that time spentat the beginning building relationships is valuable. My goal is for participants to experience each other as real and well-intentioned people, committed to a collective goal. Listening then becomes easier and understanding more easily achieved. This establishes a solid foundation for effective collaboration for the remainder of the session.

    I’ve also found it useful if participants agree (in very broad terms) what an eventual conclusion might be like. This makes it easier for me to keep participants forward-looking and future-oriented. That seems to reduce the feeling of being lost. It helps a group to maintain focus. When I assist project teams during their initiation phase I now adopt this as a standard practice. These may be valiuable additions to your beginners’ kit.

    • Thanks, Bob. I’m grateful for the added color you’ve added to this short post, based on your own experience. You are correct in terming this a beginners’ kit. I hope to add more nuanced and advanced ideas in later posts. In the meantime, I fully support your additions. Creating opportunities for individuals in the collaboration to connect as real people and build social bonds is essential. The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, where I am based, was once nicknamed the National Center for Eating And Socializing by former director, Jim Reichman, in no small part to honor the critical role that those opportunities for personal interaction and team bonding played in the success of the scientific collaboration of myriad working groups. I also fully support your suggestion to have groups “begin with the end in mind” and invest in imagining what a successful outcome(s) would look like at the outset. A common vision of success is really essential, from my perspective, and it’s time well spent to make sure the group has clear consensus around that early on. I often encourage groups to write themselves a manifesto that clearly encapsulates their purpose in coming together and their vision for what they are going to achieve. As you say, when they are feeling lost, looking back at their vision can be both steadying and galvanizing.

      • Hello again, Carrie. Just to be clear, my “beginners kit” comment was intended as high praise. I think you’ve identified the few key ideas that can most effectively help novices to a good beginning. I look forward to your later elaborations. Warm regards. — Bob

  3. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I will now be referring to that space as the growth zone! I am wondering what has been your experience in this space? I have found that much of the management of this space involves finding that thread on which to move forward. I have often found this to be done by a small few. What they come up with can often work but is one of multiple possible moves forward. I have been thinking about trying to structure elicitation techniques around a common language. From there, we can lay out ideas that will hopefully be understood by all. From this we can possibly think in terms of scenarios (or an elaboration of your two axis plot above), and decide a move forward that may be optimized. I liken this to Galison’s (1997) concept of trading zones; an idea that I’ve seen compared to interactional expertise. As I test these ideas, however, I may find no way around the archetypical groan; but at least I can attribute that groan to growing pains:)

    • Thanks for your fascinating question, Rebecca. It has also been my experience that the way forward is often charted by a small few. And in fact, often those who are best able to find a thread that carries through are those who have some facility with multiple disciplinary languages and methods (the interactional expertise you refer to). Democratizing that facility so that all members of the group may understand what they understand and therefore participate in weighing (and designing) options is a laudable goal.

      Even if you have a good common language for understanding the problem space and discussing options, a further challenge I’ve encountered is that what might constitute a breakthrough or a significant contribution in one field (which could be one measure of impact on my two axis plot) is not seen as novel in another field. Finding the sweet spot where all collaborators “win” from working together on a particular product is challenging. Having multiple outputs from the collaboration can help to ameliorate this issue in my experience.

  4. The “Groan Zone” you describe is very similar to the “Latency Phase” I describe here: https://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2013/05/getting-mostout-of-partnerships-latency.html The key point you make, for me, is that the Groan Zone becomes a “Growth Zone” by identifying and realising a collaboration’s latent or hidden potential. As you say, this can be done by using tools and techniques that encourage dialogue and a path towards innovative and inclusive solutions.

    Another way to make the Groan Zone or Latency Phase a Growth Zone or Phase is to develop what Mark Boncheck calls an “Exponential Mindset”. I explore this, and a few ways to encourage it, here: https://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2016/08/get-most-out-of-partnerships-latency.html

    Lastly, while I think about it, being aware of “Flock Thinking” and, again, seeking to manage it through suitable tools can also help create growth from groan. I describe Flock Thinking here: https://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2013/04/partnerships-need-flock-thinking.html and how to manage it here: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2013/05/how-to-encourage-flock-thinking-as.html

    Thanks for your post!

    Charles

  5. Carrie, Thank you for this post! It’s just what I needed to hear and I have a feeling I will NEVER forget it. I think NAMING will be the most important tool that I pull from this post. Thank you for all that you do:)

    • Yes, Sam Kaner’s book is an essential resource for those interested in facilitating smooth collaborative processes. I highly recommend it!

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