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How They Used the Kite to Help Find and Capture bin Laden

Recently, best-selling author Steven Johnson published a book titled Farsighted where he shared how to make the decisions that matter most in our lives. The book includes an examination of the group decision making processes that led to the successful capture of bin Laden.

What a fascinating read.

Not surprisingly, there were many rich lessons which can help us engage in more effective decision making meetings in our offices.

Here’s a quote from Steven’s book;

With the pursuit of bin Laden, the CIA had to make a decision about who was in the compound, and then it had make a decision about how to attack the compound. But each of those decisions was itself made up of two distinct phases, sometimes called divergence and consensus phases.” 

Steven goes on to say that the CIA’s insistence to separate these two phases was critical to the success that they ultimately experienced.

Here’s his statement;

….the CIA deliberately set up a divergence phase at both stages…(the) Chief of Staff ordered the bin Laden team to conjure up twenty five different ways of identifying the occupants of the compound. They were explicitly told no option was too crazy…. The goal was to generate more possibilities, not narrow the field.” 

Does that sound familiar to those who have read other posts of mine?

They used a principle I have been teaching and writing about for some time now. They applied the Kite! I want to remind you of that principle now, and help you apply that in your meetings.

Diverging and converging your conversations

The Kite is based on the principle that for EACH decision of significance your team or group needs to make, you need to design your meeting to have a divergent conversation, then followed by a convergent part. These two parts must be separated, because if they are not, the analytical thinking that characterises the convergent part of the process stifles the divergent thinking required.

Most meetings suffer from this problem, and this has resulted in divergent thinking becoming uncommon in our meetings.

Even Steven Johnson agreed with this problem;

Of-course, most of us don’t separate the two phases in our minds at all. We just look at the options, have a few informal meetings, and make a decision, either through some kind of show of hands or an individual assessment.”

But why do most meetings make the mistake of failing to diverge before converging?

It’s because most of our meetings are suffering from an addiction to closure. This compulsion to complete drives us prematurely to reach conclusions, make decisions, and move on.

Ok, lets go one more step. Why do we repeatedly drive to complete before it’s time?

The answer? Anxiety. Our consistent, elevated levels of anxiety biase us towards closure, since at closure we tend to experience a short term relief from that anxiety.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this. Our best known and most loved Australian social commentator and sociologist Hugh Mackay confirms this for us. In his latest book Australia Reimagined he identifies the current epidemic of anxiety in our country to be our biggest stumbling block on the road to creating the Australia we most want.

How to apply the Kite to your own meetings

So where to from here?

Here’s a simple 5 step process to enable you to design a meeting that:

  • faithfully applies the Kite principle
  • stops undiscussed anxiety eroding the quality of your meetings, and
  • ensures your meeting will diverge before converging.
Step 1

Identify the topic or situation you want to address.

Step 2 

Decide:

  • do we need to get to a shared understanding of the problem? or
  • are we ready to work on solutions?
Step 3

Depending on the answer to the question in step 2, clarify the critical question that must be answered by your group.

If you need to get a shared understanding of the problem, then the critical question will be something like “What do we now understand to be the core problem we are facing?”

If you are going straight to solutions, then the critical question will be “What do we need to do now to address this problem?”

Step 4

Identify the divergent question that must be asked before going to your critical question.

If you are working on understanding the problem, good examples of divergent questions you can ask are “What are the sign or symptoms that tell us we have a problem?”, or “What evidence do we have that we have a problem at all?”

If you are going straight to solution, a good example of a divergent question that could be asked is “What are some options for action that we might take to address this problem?”

Remember, when it comes to actually running your meeting, just list all the answers your group shares in response to your divergent question.

When the listing is complete, only then ask analytical questions (step 5) about the list of items you have retrieved from the group.

Step 5

Next comes the questions that will help your group analyse the answers they have provided to your divergent question.

If you are working on the problem, then the best analytical question will be “Can we theme the observations we have listed? What groups can those observations form?”

If you are working on the solution, then the analytical questions might be “Which of these options are most workable?, or “which of these options seems most likely to move us toward our solution?”

Conclusion

Using the above 5 steps, you are now ready to run your meeting!

You have designed a series of three questions (steps 3, 4 and 5) that will help your group do what the CIA have discovered to be one of the single most important practices for their problem solving groups.

By designing your meeting using the Kite, you will plan a meeting that will DIVERGE BEFORE CONVERGING.

Do you have any questions about implementing these steps with your team, or would you like to share the results you have noticed after applying them? I’d love to hear them in the comments below :)

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