Tough community decisions involve many opposing views, require time, and—in a word are — messy.

Since decision making is a human endeavor, and complex decisions involve many people with divergent interests, the process of getting to a community decision is messy.

The idea that a complex decision process can be laid out in a series of sequential steps is appealing, but it’s more fantasy than fact. While we would like the decision process to look like sequential steps (A ‡ B ‡ C ‡ D ‡ solution), that is not how complex problems are solved.

To include diverse perspectives, the process must be inclusive and allow consideration of divergent ideas.

Moment of Oh! - Core Principle: Expect It to Be Messy - DivergeOnly through divergence of ideas will the various constituency groups trust that they are heard and develop a better understanding of the other group’s thoughts and interests. This trust and understanding is essential to achieving enduring decisions.

Leaders must allow the process to diverge in order for consensus to emerge. It is only after divergence that the community can converge to consensus. Timing by the leaders to shift the community from divergent thinking to convergent thinking is critical. Moving too soon will disenfranchise individuals who want to give additionalMoment of Oh! - Core Principle: Expect It to Be Messy - Converge input. Moving too late creates unnecessary frustration with the process. In our experience most leaders want to move too soon without realizing the negative effects of leaving community members behind. When leaders get the timing right, people are able to connect diverse perspectives and potential solutions in new ways to achieve a solution that supports the interests of the community as a whole.

Putting it all together:

Divergence / convergence behavior can be seen over the entire decision-making process as well as at individual points and events within the decision-making process.

At times the leader and community members will feel like the whole process is coming apart. This is usually the time to press on and begin the process of convergence.


Common Missteps:

  • Avoid the messy, divergent process.
  • Drive too fast toward convergence.
  • Linger too long in the divergent mess.

Key Considerations:

  • Have you readied yourself for the “messy middle” of the process?
  • Have you warned others involved about how the process will unfold and that there will be some discomfort in the middle of the process?

— Previous book post: Moment of Oh! – Core Principle: Use Experts Wisely

— Next up: Moment of Oh! – Core Principle: Make Decision Based on Shared Facts

Greg Ranstrom and John Blakinger are authors of the new  book The Moment of Oh! a guide to help communities make tough decisions.