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Friday, September 28, 2012

Convergence - Symbolic, Imaginary or Real?

@Christian_BB responded to my post Does Rigour Matter? with a comment "Rigour matters when building. It matters less when trying to get people converging." I replied, "Rigour matters when building consensus. Unless you just want people to have a warm feeling of convergence."

Roughly speaking, there are three modes of convergence and consensus.

1. Symbolic. We have a formal agreement, and maybe set up some formal structures that perpetuate this agreement, but there is enough loophole and exception and wriggle-room that we don't need take it seriously.

2. Imaginary. We have a warm impression that we are all in agreement about something, and a vague hope that all the details will sort themselves out somehow.

3. Real. We have a tough negotiation around the details, and acknowledge the practical trade-offs and compromises that are required to implement the agreement.

Christian may be perfectly correct that a warm feeling (imaginary convergence) may be a useful and motivating step towards real convergence. But I have seen the converse too many times - when a meeting or workshop evades or fudges the details of some plan, leaves the details to be sorted out later, and then fails to follow through. This is a common feature of Management-by-Powerpoint, as notoriously practised by the Pentagon before the US invasion of Iraq.

And where there is a lot of mutual hostility and mistrust, it is probably unrealistic to expect warm feelings to emerge until long after a real agreement has been forged and implemented.

So an imaginary agreement is neither necessary not sufficient as a precondition for a real agreement.


  1. Dear Richard, I had a good laugh reading your post, because your classification of convergence and consensus (which you by the way unduly mix up) is purely made up to support your point. Still, I have to admit your argumentation is both clear and strong. I wouldn't have expected less, knowing you from your (e-)reputation. I am on the contrary a local consultant, and I'm afraid I will need more time to make mine as clear and hopefully as strong. I'll keep you posted, and thank you already for opening this discussion space on your blog.
    Take care,

  2. Of course my classification is "made up" (invented). Surely all classifications are "made up"?

    (As far as I can see, the only other alternative is that all possible classifications, including mine, preexist in some platonic space waiting to be articulated.)

    I acknowledge that I have used terms that are used elsewhere, but language ia always reused. I don't claim any mapping between my classification and any other classification that uses the same terms, although anyone is welcome to try and construct such a mapping.

    The test of a classification is whether it is useful, and I think the fact that you understand my argument proves that this classification is useful in this context.

    I think my classification applies equally to both convergence and consensus. My disagreement with Chrisian started on Twitter, where it is almost impossible to express fine differences between two related concepts clearly, and I'm afraid I did not bother to articulate these differences when I moved the discussion onto my blog. However, I hope I have expressed my argument clearly enough to get the debate started, and I look forward to Christian's counter-argument.

  3. Richard,

    There are 4 types of classifications:
    1.the ones that rely on nothing
    2.the ones that emerge from personal experience and thoughts (which emergence can be accelerated by the necessity to make a point)
    3.the ones that are supported by significant academic research
    4.the ones that are rooted in the essence of things (if you liked Plato, you'll love the "Porphyrian tree").

    When I say "made up", I mean type 2. (And I have to admit that my classification of classifications is type 2 too.)

    I appreciate this is a digression to our topic, but I took my chance to make a side point and write something humourous too.

    As a teaser to the next post, I'll quote Alexis Carrol:
    `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
    `That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

    I'm enjoying this discussion, I hope you are too, and I keep on thinking about it to try and sum up my thoughts.

    Take care,