By Gemma Jiang
How can we enable graduate students to think in ways that open new possibilities, as well as to make good decisions based on diverse cross-disciplinary insights?
Here I describe how we have embedded 14 graduate students in a research team with nine faculty from four academic institutes, representing six disciplines (for simplicity only three disciplines – engineering, economics, and anthropology – are considered here). Our research addresses the circular economy. I have developed a three-step model (summarised in the figure below) to operationalize the “divergence-convergence diamond,” which is key to our teaching method.
The “divergence – convergence diamond” is widely used in design thinking. The divergent mode helps open new possibilities while the convergent mode helps evaluate what you have and make decisions. Both are important to cross-disciplinary collaboration. Divergence without convergence results in disjointed ideas without any impactful output, while convergence without divergence leads to “same old same old” ideas without a breakthrough.
The three steps in our teaching model are:
- Student meetings
- Three-minute pitch
- Convergence circles.
Step 1. Divergence: Student Meetings
We have designed our bi-weekly student meetings to focus explicitly on fostering cross-disciplinary dialogues. Each meeting is facilitated to minimise structure and maximise creative ‘chaos’. We have two major types of meetings:
- exploring the frontiers of research
- topic ‘provocations.’
In meetings exploring the frontiers of research, each student is invited to pitch a research topic they would like to explore. The student team votes for one idea to focus on during the meeting, which is then examined through different disciplinary lenses. For example, in a recent meeting where the chosen topic was the social aspects of the circular economy, students from different disciplines shared their perspectives:
- the anthropologist discussed professional identity and how the attachment to a fixed identity could trigger resistance to change;
- engineers were primarily concerned about the technologies involved, and also brought up the importance of involving communities in developing and deploying technology from their past experiences;
- the economist wondered how economic modelling could bring all the parts together.
In topic ‘provocation’ meetings, we invite students from one discipline as topic owners to start the meeting with a provocation on a topic and then foster cross-disciplinary interaction. For example, the economics student invited everybody to explore how the different disciplines could get involved in designing an experiment to test the feasibility of a “durability label” for products in the United States.
After the meetings, students have opportunities to continue to explore the ideas through collaborative writing and self-organized small groups.
When asked about their experience with these dialogue-driven meetings, one student said “These conversations are only possible because we have such a diverse team. We need to face circular economy as the complex system that it is. We can’t run away from the uncomfortable talks about our different worldviews.”
These activities enable students to “stretch” their divergent thinking through meeting themes, facilitation methods, writing initiatives and self-organized groups. Together they build a runway for deep thinking and cross-disciplinary exploration.
Step 2. Inflection: Three-Minute Pitch
Groups of students come together to pitch a research idea to the entire research team at the monthly whole team meeting. To qualify for a three-minute pitch, the idea has to be sponsored by at least three disciplines. This initiative facilitates not only the transition from divergence to convergence by clarifying potential research questions, but also the bottom-up dynamics by connecting students with faculty. In most cases, faculty advisors are invited to guide the development of pitch ideas and co-present the pitch with their students.
After the presentation, the pitching team receives coaching from the rest of the research team, followed by a participatory decision-making process to decide whether to move the pitch idea into a research project.
Step 3. Convergence: Convergence Circles
A convergence circle forms around pitch ideas that are chosen for research projects. Each convergence circle is a microcosm of the larger team with roles such as a process coach to help with the convergence process, academic advisors to provide subject matter expertise, and a circle captain to lead the team. In most cases, advanced graduate students are appointed to be circle captains, while faculty members experienced in cross-disciplinary collaboration volunteer to serve as process coaches.
We employ field-tested structures and processes to foster innovative thinking within such close-knit circles, such as liberating structures, design thinking, social labs, and agile methods. Outcomes of a convergence circle include scholarly outputs, such as peer-reviewed publications and conference proposals.
In my previous blog post, Three complexity principles for convergence research, I laid out three types of transformative containers. This post provides a practical model to operationalize one of them: the container for small, intensive transdisciplinary research teams and is especially useful in graduate student education.
Another application of the divergence-convergence diamond can be found in Carrie Kappel’s blog post Collaboration: From groan zone to growth zone.
For faculty readers: what has your experience been with teaching graduate students about divergence and convergence? What tools, methods or models have you found useful?
For student readers: what worked in enabling you to conduct cross-disciplinary research both divergently and convergently? Are there particular tools, methods or models that you would recommend?
Funding for this research was provided by the U. S. National Science Foundation Award, ID: 1934824, GCR: Collaborative Research: Convergence Around the Circular Economy.
Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the founding director of the Organizational Innovation Lab in the Swanson School of Engineering and the founding host of the Pitt u.lab hub at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.