Mind the gap

Photo: Clicsouris - Wikipedia Commons

Dwight Towers sent me a link (as he often does) to Jeff Monday’s short video on information gaps – the difference between what we know now and something new to our experience and how we engage with the new (or don’t, as is often the case). In it Jeff Monday introduces Lowenstein’s Information Gap Theory. But why listen to me when you can see it for yourself (3 minutes)

It’s a bit Goldilocks and the Three Bears: small information gaps are ‘too soft’ – easy to bridge but teach us little. Big gaps are ‘too hard’ – daunting and we run a mile rather than engage with the new information. Medium-sized gaps are ‘just right’ – challenging but possible. For those not watching the video, here’s a little taste of Jeff’s thinking. If you watched, skip on beyond the quote:

The power in medium-sized information gaps is that they inspire curiosity. They are small enough to be crossed but large enough to create interest and this is the key to putting Lowenstein’s Information Gap Theory to work for you…

It amazes me how many new product developers, marketers, and advertisers create the wrong sized gap. They either create a “me too” product or service which creates an information gap that is too small and uninteresting. Or they let their engineers and creatives add wild, bloated, and unnecessary “features”, and create a huge information gap that inspires fear over the size of the gap and size of the of the learning curve.

Each of us has an inherent desire to learn and explore, to the degree that you can create medium-sized information gaps with your audience, with your new website, widget, and or marketing campaign, you will be successful!

And the relevance to facilitation, training, consensus?

Training: As trainers we’re working with groups to learn. It’s easy to see how the theory might be applied in a more top-down learning environment – pitching the new information, theory or experience at the ‘just right’ level. It’s a little less easy to see how to achieve this for those of us committed to a more elicitive approach to learning.

How do we draw out medium-sized gaps from a group? There’s always enough diversity of opinion, experience and knowledge in a group if we’re able to involve everyone and draw on their individual and collective experiences.

Involving everyone seems crucial to moving beyond small gaps in this context. It’s those who are more marginal to a group, for whatever reason, that often have the key to unlocking larger gaps. They are, by definition, more divergent from the group’s mainstream norms. Add to that the use of appropriate questions to deepen the conversation and tune people in to experiences that they didn’t realise were relevant and small gaps can be widened very effectively.

Meetings: As facilitators, and facilitators of consensus in particular, I’d say we’re often working with people on the level of gaps in values rather than pure information. So maybe I’m cheating, but as I think we process information through the filters of our values (believing what chimes with our values and being skeptical or plain rejecting the rest) the information gap theory seems to hold.

The struggles in meetings: The struggle of many groups to work together effectively and to reach a high quality of consensus has several gap-related causes, many of which we’ve touched on before.

Clearly a lot of groups struggle to accept diversity which makes gaps seem bigger than they need to be. This is more than making significant difficulties almost insurmountable obstacles. Many groups are perfectly capable of taking small details and turning them into large gaps. In the competitive and ego-driven mindset that most of us have been educated (and I use that word loosely) to hold dear we pick up on details and drive wedges between ourselves and others in order to have a clear and distinct position. In campaigning circles where values and ideals abound these positions can be aggravated. They’re not just what we think but what we believe. And, like many fervent believers we don’t always tolerate those with anything but exactly the same beliefs as ourselves (People’s Front of Judaea et al).

Then we have the perennial issue of margins and mainstreams in a group. The gaps here are usually large enough to actively alienate the margins who only persist in the meetings of activist groups because of their desire to make a difference in the world and because poor meeting dynamics are ubiquitous. The gap between margin and mainstream seems like a large one. For the mainstream to come to understand the margins enough for their behaviour to change so there is no longer a margin (in that particular respect) is a big step. And the reverse is true – for the margins to feel safe to step into the mainstream, to trust that they are now valued and appreciated….

And finally what about compromise? Isn’t all this talk of closing large gaps to medium ones asking us to compromise in that watering down sense of the word. Compromise is often a very dirty word in consensus circles, sparking images of lowest common denominator decisions that satisfy no-one rather than creative highest common factor decisions that inspire us all.

Take a group that exhibits some racist behaviour (and most do if they’re honest). The gap between racist behaviour and having become aware of and dealt with the root causes of that behaviour is huge. No wonder most groups struggle with these issues. Doesn’t advocating medium-sized gaps suggest that we become a little less racist? Doesn’t sound great, does it? Not what you’d want to put on your group’s flyer – “join our group – we’re a tad less racist than the average activist group!”. I’m guessing that’s not what Jeff, or Lowenstein envisaged. Realistically there are a series of medium-sized steps involved in tackling huge issues. These aren’t compromise so much as an action plan, assuming we can articulate the end point without scaring ourselves because of the seeming impossibility of reaching it (large gap syndrome).

The solutions?: Anyway, what to do? If we want groups to get to grips with medium-sized gaps there’s a number of strategies we can adopt. Here’s a few that spring to mind:

Give it time: Opinions, ideas and theories need to be explored in more depth for people to see the commonalities that might close a large gap a little (or see the diversity that might open a small gap a little).

Check assumptions: related to the above point, if we rush we risk people taking a snapshot and forming judgements based on that. They’re not really looking at the ‘information gap’, rather the ‘hurried assumptions about the information gap’. Are we really talking about things that are so very different? We’re quick to see difference and form assumptions. Further exploration to check out assumptions may highlight that our positions are a lot closer than we first thought or imagined. Even if we’re not closer at the end, we hopefully have a better understanding of the other side (see below).

People not positions: Empathy and understanding can close large gaps even when the positions remain quite far apart. We can feel our way into the gaps and find that in doing so they become more manageable. We can understand people’s experience without having to agree with their conclusions

Reflect on diversity: when you do succeed in creating and bridging a medium-sized gap reflect on the role that drawing on the experience of the whole group played in the decision-making process. Help build a culture of genuinely seeing diversity as strength. Specifically welcome the contribution made by the margins of the group.

I’m sure you can see others.