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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

The Shape of A Deliberation

Updated: Jul 5, 2018

Marisa Guerin PhD - April 20, 2018

Like most consultants, I was often retained to help a client system to resolve a knotty problem. (If it weren't difficult, they would have figured it out long ago!) I remember these cases in considerable detail, because they were both emotionally and intellectually challenging. The leadership teams or member working groups that I met with were wrestling with decisions that might seem straightforward from a rational perspective, but which were anything but simple once you factored in the relevant history, politics, emotions, and uncertainties.

These are some of the questions with which they had to grapple:

  • Shall we sell or deconstruct a historic property that is much loved but no longer needed?

  • How will we manage affordable, life-giving retirement options for a far-flung community?

  • How shall we decide on a product model that satisfies both the operational constraints of the manufacturing function and the creativity flexibility needed by the marketing team?

  • Do we need to launch an innovative service to attract bigger funding, or must we seek the bigger funding so we can launch innovative services?

  • What options do we have to address a financially-struggling ministry that may be reaching its life limit?

  • Should we seek a merger?

  • How to extricate the organization when it is caught between a rock and a hard place with external constituencies?

Even though these are interesting questions in their own right, I'll focus in this blog-post on one dimension of process that may be helpful to leaders facing similar thorny problems. I have come to call it "the shape of a deliberation" and I offer it as a process guide for navigating through the right kinds of questions at the right points in time.

The model, of course, oversimplifies life, but it has a useful logic to it. In the diagram that accompanies this posting, you can see two diverging arrows, two converging arrows, and three dotted lines that mark three important moments in the life of the deliberation. Depending on its complexity, a deliberation could happen over weeks, months, or even years, or perhaps in a day or a weekend.

  • When an issue is first identified, the early, divergent path for fruitful deliberation generally expands one’s understanding of the issue, its context, the implications of various factors, relevant similar data, feelings about the issue, experience, history, etc. Conversations in the expansion phase should have prompts that open and deepen the dialogue. NOT useful at this stage are questions that ask prematurely for preferences or commitments.

  • At some appropriate point in time, the issue is widely and deeply enough understood and processed to permit the group to start on a convergence path, progressively narrowing the range of options as a decision becomes clearer. There is no hard and fast rule about the turning point – it depends on the issue, the group, and the context for the deliberation.

  • Conversations in the convergent phase are appropriate if the issue is ripe for discerning choices. At that point in the process, questions and topics should help to make those discriminations. It is NOT helpful at this stage to invite open ended thoughts or feelings.

I was able to observe the relevance of this model in real time a few years back when I was sitting in on a large conference event in advance of a presentation I was to make later that day. Before my time on the agenda, there were two discussion rounds held in the assembly body to provide consultative input to two different task forces. Each topic was being introduced for the first time for large group dialogue. One went well - but in the other, all (^%*#) broke loose!

It wasn't the topic that made the difference - - each task force presented a report on work that was weighty, significant and potentially controversial. The difference was in the way the discussion QUESTIONS impacted the energies and emotions in the room. The successful consultation asked table groups for input on questions like: "What do you need more information about? What are your initial ideas about how we might approach this? What experience have you already had that contributes to our understanding?" The table groups engaged with these questions, had a lot to say, and were assured the issue would return after the input was digested. Their energies were channeled and their concerns publicly validated.

By contrast, the second discussion generated heated push-back; the questions that the task group had asked were along the lines of: "Which solution do you favor for the future? What would be your personal position on the decision that has to be made? " And the table groups erupted with responses such as "We don't have enough information! Aren't there options you haven't given us? We don't see our values here!" etc. As you notice, the questions used by the second task force are the kinds of questions a group must grapple with in the converging phase, once there has been sufficient exploration, learning, and sharing of data and feelings about the problem. I think the conference body felt rushed to a conclusion that was not in fact "ripe". Their energies were uncontrolled and indeed aggravated. It is possible that they didn't feel confident that the task force was willing to hold the tensions of the upcoming decision, but rather that the task force had offloaded the risks into the large group prematurely.

Of course, a different mistake can occur if a group is well past early stage discussion and has been "diverging" for months or years, without anyone calling the question by inviting them to the process of convergence, of coming to agreement. There is a time and a place for sitting with the issue in a listening and learning mode, and a time and a place for moving into discernment and decision making.

In fact, there are lots of things I could say about decision making, but the blog format isn't right for much more right here. If you are interested in further reading, you will find an outline of some decision making terms and considerations for faith based groups on the articles tab of my website.

Good luck navigating the flow of group deliberations!

For those interested in sources:

This simple process model is based on two ideas I picked up from other writers over the years.The first idea is the concept of a deliberation. Although I use it in a modified way, a deliberation was defined by the late Cal Pava*, as an issue that must be engaged in an ongoing way by an identified group of stakeholders. The other idea is the notion of learning styles that are divergent and convergent, from Wolf and Kolb.** The model I have developed for understanding the "shape" of a deliberation combines these two ideas. You will note however that it doesn't match Pava's concept exactly because it does, in fact, assume an end point of some kind to the deliberation. But the idea of deliberating is a rich one, respected in business and civic life and quite compatible with the discernment methods often used for decision making in religious organizations.

*Calvin H. Pava, Managing New Office Technology -- an Organizational Strategy, Free Press (1983)

** D.M. Wolf and D.A. Kolb, Career development, personal growth and experiential learning In Organisational Psychology: Readings on human behaviour (4th edition), Prentice-Hall, New Jersey (1984)

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