One of the earliest maps I ever discovered in my facilitation career was Sam Kaner et al.’s Diamond of Participation. It has been a stalwart companion for more than 20 years in my work. It forms a key part of the way the Art of Hosting community talks about process architecture, usually referred to as “the breath of design,” owing to its pulsation between divergence and convergence.
I realize I don’t have much on the blog about this map. So I thought I’d share my summary of Kaner et al.’s seminal work, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. If you don’t yet own this book, buy it now. It is an essential resource for all facilitators.
The Diamond of Participation
The Diamond of Participation is a map of the group process created by Sam Kaner and colleagues that identifies several phases a group goes through to create participatory decisions.
As groups engage with complex decisions, a very common journey goes through emotional and creative phases. Our ability to stay open to this journey enables us to discover new ideas, enter into the unknown, engage with difficult dynamics and make sustainable decisions. As a map, the diamond of participation helps us navigate the terrain of participatory decision-making and can help a group identify common traps, pitfalls and opportunities. Alongside personal leadership capacities to host and participate with presence and openness, this map, with tools and practices to help move through each stage, can support engaging, creative, participatory decision-making.
The diamond is divided into five zones or phases that groups go through. In each of these zones, leaders can help groups make good decisions by paying attention to the emotional terrain and using good tools at the right time.
Zone 1: “Business as usual”
Most decisions and conversations go quickly. You might need a few ideas and a couple of options, but the pathway is clear, and there is little or no controversy about what to do. Because we are conditioned to make decisions this way, it is common for groups to close a conversation down early, and for complex conversations this can have the effect of both avoiding conflict and limiting choices and possibilities.
When important decisions are on the table and there is no easy or obvious solution, groups enter the diamond of participation. Good leaders, with an awareness of the underlying patterns the diamond illustrates, can help guide a group through these stages toward more effective participatory decisions.
Business as usual involves:
- Quick decisions
- Debate over dialogue
- No focus on relationships
Zone 2: The Divergence Zone
Once it is clear that there is no obvious or clear decision, groups enter the Divergence zone. Familiar opinions get bandied back and forth and diverse perspectives on the problem begin to surface. This can be an enlivening time as a group searches for options and brainstorms possible paths forward. In the early stages of the divergence zone leaders can invite teams to explore different points of view and perspectives and introduce three key types of thinking: Surveying the territory, searching for alternatives and raising difficult issues.
Surveying the territory is done with methods that collect stories, perspectives and data and share them between the group members to build a shared picture of the diversity that the group is working with.
As a group searches for alternatives, holding intentional dialogue interviews, undertaking learning journeys or gathering stakeholders together can provide valuable information and insight.
But in truly complex processes, the answers are still not evident, and emotions can turn negative, with frustration and impatience beginning to appear. At this time, leaders need to be able to host the difficult conversations that come up so that diversity and difference don’t turn into unproductive conflict. In these moments, working with limiting beliefs and taking the time to sit in processes like circles and hear feelings and emotions becomes an important part of the work.
From this point, the group enters the Groan Zone, a sometimes painful part of the journey that can lead to fresh thinking and innovative decisions if it is well-hosted.
Zone 3: The Groan Zone
As a group enters the groan zone, people begin to struggle in the service of integration and in releasing their attachment to their own perspectives. Creating something new requires mixing, combining, and letting go. This can be a fraught experience rife with confusion, irritation, discouragement, anxiety, exasperation, pain, anger, and blame. It is no surprise that we want to avoid the groan zone, but for a group to discover new things, leaders can help people through the groan zone by engaging two types of thinking: creating shared context and strengthening relationships.
Creating shared context helps to re-ground a group in their work. This can take the form of paired interviews or group conversations where people explore different perspectives with a deliberate intention to listen for differences and where each other is coming from. Focusing on need and purpose can be valuable here as it gets a group “out of the weeds” and into remembering the deeper intention and the bigger picture.
Strengthening relationships is important in the groan zone, because frayed relationships will undermine the sustainability of a decision. Practices as simple as sharing stories, or going for a walk together can alleviate acute conflict and give people a chance to shift out of positions and reconnect to each other.
Work in the groan zone is heavily influenced by emotions and it is a lifelong practice for leaders to work on their own comfort and resourcefulness around conflict and strong emotions if they are to hold a group through this work.
Personal leadership practices are key to developing the ability to stay present and host process effectively in the groan zone. Developing deep self-awareness and presence, and using self-inquiry practices to shift reactive patterns can be helpful.
Zone 4: The Convergence Zone
When a group has worked through the groan zone, it comes time for convergence. This is where new ideas, fresh thinking and innovation can rise to the fore. The convergence zone precedes decision making as options are weighed, paths forward are discerned and, in larger processes, prototypes are designed for the purpose of testing new ideas.
When working towards a decision, three types of thinking are helpful: applying inclusive principles, creative reframing and strengthening good ideas.
Moving through the transition from groan zone to convergence requires a change in the container and the work. Inclusive solutions require a commitment to an inclusive decision making process, so it can be good practice to have the group design and adopt a set of inclusive principles to guide their work. These can be used later in the decision making phase as well.
Creative reframing invites the group to look at the work with new eyes. Having come through the groan zone together, all of the ideas that were gathered and discussed in the divergence zone take on new life. Looking at solutions with creative processes like scenario planning and TRIZ helps to introduce new ideas and perspectives to strengthen proposals.
And strengthening good ideas is the way towards making a sustainable agreement. Once ideas are contested, experimented with and considered it comes time to strengthen them through prototyping and piloting. The idea is to move the new ideas towards a decision by working with them through various scenarios first. Whatever can be done to strengthen an idea helps.
Zone 5: The Closure Zone
In participatory decision making processes closure usually involves making a decision together. This could be through a vote, or a consensus process, or it could even mean that the leader takes the decision alone with the consent of the group. Regardless of how closure comes about it is useful to agree together on the rules of decision making and then facilitate a decision.
Starting with agreeing on the rules and process gives you a chance to have a dry run through decision making with your group and this is especially useful if the decision you are making is contentious. Start by agreeing what would constitute a good decision and what a good, robust process is for making that decision. There are different versions of what consensus decision making can mean. You can research and try different approaches that best suit your context. For example, you may want to test consensus and have a rule that if someone is opposed to a proposal that they must bring an alternative to consider. You also might want to make some rules about timeliness of the decision or the maximum amount of resources available. When the group owns the process, it goes a long way to having them own the outcome.
Facilitating a decision can take various forms but typically goes through four stages: First, prepare a proposal that is simple and clear and that ensures that everyone knows what they are voting on. In some cases you might prepare two or three proposals in order to poll the group of options. Regardless, a proposal for a decision should be something taht is easily understood and easy to compare against other options.
Second, test the group for consensus. See who agrees with the proposal and who has questions or other things they would like to add. This process allows for a final set of conversations to strengthen the proposal. If you experience blocks and vetos at this stage of the process, this can give you good information about changes that need to be made or ongoing relationships that will need to be tended after the decision is made.
Third, iterate the proposal and review it again. Focusing on the major issues and questions means that the iteration process can be focused and aimed at creating a stronger proposal. Finally, make a final decision. That may be a vote or a consensus decision depending on what is required of the process.
Once the decision is made, the process is closed and the work continues. It can be important to give some thought to how the decision is communicated and implemented as part of your next steps.