Start With Converge?
Editor | On 14, Feb 2018
Things are always at their most interesting when we find contradictions. We’ve spent quite a bit of time trialling our COBRA+ process last year. We didn’t think about it at the time, but the first step in the process – C for Compass – is all about helping companies to think about the Ideal Final Result for the problem they’re working on. This is by definition a convergent job. It is so because the IFR solution is by definition a point such that, the closer we get to it, the fewer and fewer solution options become available to us.
Design Thinking on the other hand typically begins with a divergent stage which encourages problem solvers to empathise with their intended customers.
Which is right? Should we start with convergence or divergence? There’s the contradiction. And because we can see it is a contradiction, we also know that any question demanding to know which is right is the wrong question. In the ideal world we want the best of both worlds: We want convergence and we want divergence.
Both COBRA+ and Design-Thinking have at their core the idea of divergent-convergent cycles like this:
This should tell us that we should typically be looking to solve the divergent-or-convergent contradiction using a separation in time strategy: such that in a typical workshop session one follows chronologically after the other. But that doesn’t appear to solve the COBRA+ versus Design-Thinking contradiction. If anything, the divergent-convergent ‘double-diamond’ process flow would appear to suggest that Design Thinking has the story right. The Empathise stage being an inherently divergent process of exploring what it is that customers might want us to solve.
One of the big problems of Design-Thinking is that neither its originators nor proponents know anything about TRIZ. Consequently, they know nothing about the idea of an inevitable Ideal Final Result end point or the predictable trends that lead to it.
It is often difficult for newcomers to conceptualise such things. This is one of the unsolved contradictions of the TRIZ world. Fortunately, there are successful business leaders – people that others will listen to – that, even though they don’t know TRIZ, know there are some inherent truths about the way successful things evolve. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Amazon boss Jeff Bezos where the interviewer was trying to gain some insight into the success of the Company (Reference 1):
“…Jeff Bezos is often asked, “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” That’s actually not the key question though. Listen to how he reframes it:
“That is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s NOT going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”
“He then goes on to explain how Amazon has profited from focusing on the second question:
[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.
And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”
To the best of my knowledge, Jeff Bezos has never heard of either TRIZ or Ideal Final Result, but he clearly understands the idea that ‘what remains stable’ is the customers desire for cheaper, better, faster solutions. IFR tells us everything evolves to ‘free, perfect and now’; Bezos observes that the route to that end point is necessarily involves getting cheaper, better and faster.
So, anyway, back to the Design-Thinking versus COBRA+ contradiction. COBRA+ starts with the convergent ‘Ideal’ job because we know that successful evolution must, as Jeff Bezos’s question ‘what will be stable in the long term?’ tells us lay in this direction. COBRA+ says that if we don’t set our initial compass in this direction, irrespective of what customers might tell us when we try and Empathise with them, we’re going to fail.
The second stage of COBRA+ is ‘O’ for Outcomes. This is where the process asks us to do the customer empathy job. It also says, partly contrary to Design-Thinking convention, that very often the best way to empathise with the customer is to not engage with them directly, but rather to think about what outcomes they’re looking to achieve. This is especially the case when it comes to the intangible ‘emotional’ factors that ultimate determine customer behaviour. Whether in Design-Thinking mode or in COBRA+ this Empathising job is a fundamentally exploratory divergent activity in the ‘problem definition’ side of the double-diamond.
So how does the ‘start with convergent’ premise of COBRA+ fit with this divergent second stage of the process?
Answer: something like this:
The first ‘C’ stage is all about defining the big evolution-to-IFR cone, and then the ‘O’ step (or the first stage of Design Thinking) is all about a divergent activity within this overall cone. Ergo, contradiction solved: I start with convergent in order to get the super-system level story right; I start with divergent in order to get the system-level story right.