4 minutes

Convergence and divergence in organizations. A possible co-existence

The tension between convergence and divergence offers organisations the chance to build transformative communities open to innovation.

In an era of incredible transformations, it is now critical for organisations to manage two seemingly irreconcilable dynamics: convergence, understood as the cohesion of the collectivity in an agreed direction, and divergence, which enhances individuality and generates perspectives for change. But how do we manage the tension between the two, reconciling the aggregating nature of one and the disruptive nature of the other?

In business change processes, convergence seems predominant

Promoting convergence seems to have taken precedence over divergence when dealing with business change processes. Let’s think about the transformations of the last few years, for example, those implemented by two leading companies to steer their employees towards new visions: General Electric with ‘Ecoimagination vision’ and IBM with ‘Smarter Planet’. In both cases, the participation of everyone at every level of the organization and the spreading acceptance of shared values and goals have been crucial for GE to address environmental challenges in manufacturing and enable IBM to reconsider a more interconnected world.

The role of dissidents in innovation 

However, shifting our gaze to the world of innovation, we see an anomaly that seems to tell the opposite story: the creation of innovative visions can emerge from a few individuals who, placed in the interstitial spaces of the organisational community, explore radical ideas at odds with the company’s strategy. When Microsoft launched the Xbox console in 2001 to compete with Sony’s PlayStation 2, the market didn’t expect such a radical move. The software giant didn’t enter the gaming world as a supplier to join other platform manufacturers and application developers. Microsoft opened a new hardware product business, based on an operating system that was incompatible even with its flagship Windows product, to offer young consumers a new entertainment experience.

The radical circles and the birth of the Xbox 

Tracing the origins of the Xbox vision, Professor Roberto Verganti speaks of a ‘radical circle’: a group of a few colleagues – Backley, Bachus, Hase and Berkes – not formally connected within the organisation who, sensing a malaise in corporate strategy, had intentionally begun (silent) research which they soon submitted to top management.

The birth of Xbox is just one example of how openness to ‘dissident’ ideas has generated innovative visions for the community. According to psychologist Charlan Nemeth, the disagreement of a few troublemakers sometimes is more valuable than the majority opinion. It challenges the status quo, incorporates more information, and engages the mind in creative decision-making. The pirate flag hoisted over the Cupertino campus at the behest of Steve Jobs during one of the countless periods of clashes with Apple still testifies to the concept.

The tension between convergence and divergence generates space for opportunity 

Faced with these two dynamics, convergence and divergence, the community thus constitutes the battleground between polarized forces. While convergence dynamics help to foster social cohesion during periods of transformation, they also risk triggering mechanisms of inertia and confirmation bias towards old paradigms. Similarly, divergent ideas can lead to the development of new radical visions but also cause fragmentation. How to avoid a rupture?

Cooperation and listening between parties foster reconciliation

The reconciliation of the two forces seems to be a matter of the two sides cooperating and listening to each other: all the voices promoting a dominant paradigm and the individual voices standing against it. The four creators of the Microsoft Xbox vision operated radically but non-destructively. They promoted something the organisation could not yet see but did so for the company’s success. Microsoft’s top management paid attention to an opposing voice, appreciating its visionary value. This attitude was not a one-off. Over the years, the Microsoft Garage programme made listening to the ‘few’ the company’s recipe for innovation. In this space, anyone within the company could pursue ideas far removed from business as usual.

This is how the tension between these conflicting forces becomes a place of opportunity for organisations.

The search for a dynamic balance that alternates convergence and divergence

Business climate analysis tools allow us to identify the emergence of positive and conflicting attitudes towards the company’s chosen direction. While they can confirm the spread of shared ideas, they can also become a tool to investigate some people’s ‘discomfort further’ and turn the proposition of contrasting stimuli into possibilities for innovation. This is now the design terrain confronting organisations wanting to build transformative communities open to innovation: continually giving voice to dissent, valorising it as a form of community participation, and integrating it into the debate in a dynamic balance alternating between convergence and divergence.

Article by Silvia Magnanini, Service Designer & Project Manager Logotel – published on Weconomy 16 – A completely different vision