The danger of our drive to make sense

our drive to make sense In our natural desire to predict the future and make good decisions, we must always stay mindful of the danger of our drive to make sense.

Nick Chater and George Loewenstein propose that evolution has produced a ‘drive for sense-making’. They argue that sense-making…

  • …is a fundamental human motivation.
  • …is a drive to simplify our representation of the world.
  • …is traded off against other ‘utilitarian’ motivations.
  • …helps to explain information avoidance and confirmation bias.

The under-appreciated drive for sense-making, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

Clearly, sense-making is a vital human activity. At a fundamental level, our brains are continuously, and largely automatically, making sense of our sense organ data. At higher levels of thought, we routinely attempt to make sense of situations that confront us. If we didn’t, the world would be a confusing and more dangerous place.

Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. Thus, sense-making is a key ingredient of our ability to plan and make group decisions.

The danger of our drive to make sense

There’s a flip side to our incredible ability to make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Dave Snowden, speaking about tactics used by the foresight community, says:

“The real dangers are retrospective coherence and premature convergence
—Dave Snowden, Of tittering, twittering & twitterpating

Retrospective coherence

Dave Snowden coined the term retrospective coherence, aka Monday morning quarterbacking, when talking about the behavior of complex systems. (See Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making to learn more about complex systems, a domain of the Cynefin framework.) Retrospective coherence means that, in a complex environment, it seems easy in hindsight to explain why things happened. Unfortunately, applying our sense-making abilities to complex systems doesn’t work, since cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.

For those with short memories, the danger of retrospective coherence is that it inspires a false confidence in their ability to make correct predictions. To avoid such inflation of our predictive expertise we need to scrupulously compare our predictions with actual outcomes, and admit our limitations.

Premature convergence

Premature convergence is our predilection to prematurely decide we have found the answer to a problem and stop exploring other possibilities.

Facilitators are familiar with this human tendency, and minimize it by spending adequate time in what Sam Kaner calls the Divergent and Groan Zones.

our drive to make sense
Diagram from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al

Determining what is “adequate” time is one of the arts of facilitation.

During divergence, a facilitator supports the uncovering of relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas.

At some point, there’s a switch to the Groan Zone. Here, the participants discuss what’s been uncovered, develop a shared framework of understanding, and create inclusive potential solutions. At least, that’s how Kaner describes the process, though the Groan Zone has always seemed to me to have a lot in common with what Virginia Satir’s change model calls chaos.

People have proposed many ways to move from groan zone to convergence, and some of them are flawed. There’s no single “right” way to move to convergence. But you’re likely guaranteed to come up with a poor conclusion if you don’t spend enough time diverging and groaning beforehand.

Stop making sense?

Despite the pitfalls outlined above, we are sense-making animals and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Stay realistic about your limitations to predict future outcomes, and take your time moving through divergent & Groan Zone process, and you’ll avoid the dangers of our drive to make sense.

Mostly.

Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All has a big problem

Liberating Structures 1-2-4-All has a big problem While Liberating Structures include many useful ways to improve meetings and organizations, one of the “simplest” offered — “1-2-4-All” — has a big problem. It claims to uncover a group’s “important ideas” in just twelve minutes. But in practice it invariably misses innovative ideas that need time for the group to understand and value.

1-2-4-All’s point of failure

1-2-4-All starts with individual reflection on a question, problem, or proposal. Next, pairs and then groups of four develop individuals’ ideas (a total of seven minutes work). Not a bad start, though in my experience allocating several minutes for individuals to come up with and formulate ideas is well worth the added time.

It’s the jump to “All” that is a big problem. At this point, each group is supposed to have answered the question “What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?” This requires throwing away the other ideas discussed in the group. Each group shares their “one idea” with everyone during the next five minutes. In addition,” large groups” … “limit the [total] number of shared ideas to three or four”.

I can think of four reasons why this is poor process:

  • Forcing the groups of four to discard all but one of their ideas almost guarantees the loss of important perspectives.
  • The limited amount of time for the groups to review their members’ ideas biases the “one idea” chosen to something that seems quickly understandable and superficially attractive. Groups are more likely to reject good ideas that require nuanced understanding and/or more extensive justification.
  • Useful ideas can focus on the “big picture” or a specific detail. I’ve observed a useful detailed idea lose out to a vague sounds-good suggestion. 1-2-4-All provides no guidance as to how each group should select its “one idea”.
  • The process for restricting the total number of shared ideas for large groups to “three or four” is undefined. I suspect 1-2-4-All imposes this arbitrary limit to keep the entire process short. But a large group will generally have many more than four useful ideas. The surplus useful ideas are wasted.

Poor process leads to poor decisions

Rushing group process to quickly come up with some “great ideas” may feel good. “Wow, we’re really moving along guys!” This is an unfortunate example of how our culture often prizes efficiency over effectiveness. (Another example: lectures are the most efficient way of sharing content — but also the least effective.) The 1-2-4-All process is biased against complex innovative ideas and prematurely focuses on an arbitrarily and hastily chosen few.

Decision-making that relies on the ideas output by 1-2-4-All is likely to be flawed or, at least, suboptimal. Generally, much more time will then be spent on turning these ideas into policy or outcomes. Underinvesting in idea generation and discussion leads to significant time wasted refining suboptimal, limited ideas.

When 1-2-4-All may be adequate

Under some circumstances, making quick and dirty decisions is appropriate and/or necessary. For example, making a group decision on where to hold the annual company picnic, or how to respond to an unexpected event that requires ideas and a decision in the next thirty minutes. Generating ideas using 1-2-4-All under such circumstances makes sense.

Affinity grouping— a better process than 1-2-4-All

Good decision-making by groups requires sufficient time to both generate ideas and review them, plus a process that involves everyone and that does not discard potentially useful ideas prematurely. A process that has been around since the 1960s and that satisfies these criteria is affinity grouping (sometimes called cards on the wall), described in the late R. Brian Stanfield‘s The Workshop Group: From Individual Creativity to Group Action and in Chapter 43 of The Power of Participation.

Affinity grouping takes longer than 1-2-4-All: from 30 minutes with a small group to several hours with a large one.

In my experience, affinity grouping leads to a comprehensive and rich set of ideas, discussions that allow the entire group to understand all suggestions, and clear methods to filter, cluster, and prioritize decisions and future desired outcomes and actions.

I recommend you use it, rather than 1-2-4-All, whenever possible!

Have you used 1-2-4-All and/or affinity grouping? What has been your experience? Share in the comments below!

Participatory voting at events: Part 1—Introduction

Participatory voting Introduction

Look up “voting” on Google and the top search results are dominated by links about electoral voting. Making decisions (about elected leaders, opposing choices, and action plans, etc.) is the first function of voting that comes to mind for most people.

In a participatory meeting environment, however, voting is most useful as a way to obtain information early in the process. It provides a “straw poll” that provides public information about viewpoints in the room and paves the way for further discussion. I call such process participatory voting.

Ways to use participatory voting

Perhaps surprisingly, voting is not a simple, well-defined process. The International Society on Multiple Criteria Decision Making lists more than four thousand articles on decision theory in its bibliography. Voting, it turns out, can be a complex and subtle business.

For most of us, “group voting” brings up the concept of voting as decision-making. But voting can be used to test learning, and to elicit and share information. To guide your choice of the participatory voting techniques I’ll cover in later posts, here are short descriptions of various ways to use voting in meeting sessions.

Determining consensus

It’s often unclear whether a group has formed a consensus around a specific viewpoint or proposed action. Consensual participatory voting can quickly show whether a group has reached or is close to consensus, or wants to continue discussion. It can also pinpoint those who have significant objections to a majority position and give them the opportunity to clarify their reasons for opposition.

Making decisions

How people use voting techniques depends a lot on their presentation/facilitation/management style. If you are focusing on making a decision, voting is a tempting method to obtain an outcome. But if a vote is held prematurely, before adequate exploration of alternatives and associated discussion, the “decision” may have poor buy-in from those who voted in the minority or who feel they weren’t heard. People will rightly feel ambushed if they are asked to vote on a decision without adequate warning and opportunities for discussion.

Thus, if you plan to use voting for decision-making, explain up front the processes and time constraints you will be using prior to the vote. Unless the vote is purely advisory, give participants the chance to determine what they will be voting on, and how it will be framed. Such preparation lets people know their opportunities to shape discussion, and minimizes the likelihood that unexpected premature voting will cut off exploration of important creative or minority options.

Testing learning

Polling an audience is a time-tested technique, as old as teaching itself, for teachers to obtain feedback on student understanding. “Pop” quizzes, multiple-choice tests, and modern Audience Response Systems can be useful ways to test audience learning. But they have their limitations. As Jeff Hurt explains:

[Audience Response Systems] are good for immediate feedback. They are good for ‘knowledge learning.’ Studies show they increase engagement and let someone know whether their answer is right or wrong. In short, they are good for surface knowledge. They however do not promote deep learning…which leads to higher level thinking skills such as estimation, judgement, application, assessment and evaluation of topics.”
Facebook comment by Jeff Hurt

The participatory learning philosophy I espouse concentrates on these deeper learning skills. From this perspective, traditional voting supplies limited information when used as a testing tool.

Setting context

We know that small group discussion is key to effective learning during an event. But how do we set an initial context for discussion? Participatory voting techniques supply important information about the views, preferences, and experiences of participants, both as a group and as individuals. You can then use this information to set up appropriate discussions.

Eliciting information

Perhaps the most important benefit of participatory voting techniques is their ability to elicit important information about the people, needs, and ideas in a group and make it available to the entire group. Although you can use some voting techniques to provide anonymous or semi-anonymous information, I believe that sharing information provided by group members to group members is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen connection, openness, and a sense of community in a group.

Allowing participants to discover those who agree or disagree with them or share their experience efficiently facilitates valuable connections between participants in ways unlikely to occur during traditional meetings. Giving group members opportunities to harness these techniques for their own discoveries about the group can further increase engagement in the group’s purpose.

Determining the flow of group conversation and action

Participatory voting techniques such as card voting provide large groups the real-time feedback required to productively steer a complex conversation to best meet the needs of the group.

Planning action

Finally, we can use participatory voting to uncover group resources, interest, and commitment on specific action items from individual participants.

Some concluding observations about voting

If you’re using voting to test understanding of a concept or explore a group’s knowledge of a topic, include time for small group discussion before the vote. Pair share is a great technique for this. Provide enough time for each participant to think about their answer and then have them pair share their understanding. After the vote, you can facilitate a discussion with the entire group about the differences uncovered.

To avoid making premature decisions, use consensual voting to uncover significant alternative viewpoints. Test the depth of agreement before confirming that you have substantial agreement through decision-oriented voting.

Think about when and how you use voting. Voting on alternatives that have been inadequately explored or discussed is counterproductive.

Use public voting methods whenever appropriate—which is, in my experience, most of the time.

If people wish to “sit out” their vote when using participatory voting, support their right to do so. (Unless you are testing for consensus, in which case it’s reasonable to ask for their feedback.) Consider using anonymous voting if people seem reluctant to express an opinion.

[This post is adapted from a (longer) chapter on participatory voting in The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.]

Read more about participatory voting at events in Part 2 and Part 3!

Red pill blue pill image modified by yours truly, attribution W.carter under CC BY-SA 4.0 license