C-Circle: Powering Research Ideation Cycles

Covering the third horizon…

Gemma Jiang, PhD


The role of “developmental evaluation” feels very much like consulting. I collect data to get a read on the team, mirror my thoughts back to the team, and offer developmental suggestions.

This is exactly what I did over the past month from May to June. The data I gathered from talking with a few faculty and students pointed to this image: a group so busy picking the low hanging fruit that all their hands are full — leaving no room to climb up the ladder to reach the ripest high hanging fruit.

My observation is clear: we need to take a “convergence leap”.

Three Horizons and Multidimensionality

Three Horizons of Growth

The three horizons of growth model will help to make the point. We have concentrated most of our energy on the first (improve) and second (expand) horizons; we have not covered the third (disrupt) horizon. As noted in the article Enduring Ideas: The Three Horizons of Growth, this model provides a structure for teams and organizations to assess potential opportunities for growth without neglecting performance in the present.

The tension between the first and third horizons is a constant struggle for most teams, especially in uncertain times. The concerns around the first horizon are immediate: what are the concrete deliverables to NSF by mid-term evaluation? These concerns can easily overwhelm other efforts important to the future of the project: what truly convergent activities are we undertaking? The leadership challenge is to balance the attention and time investment in both immediate deliverables and long-term impact.

The good news is that it is possible to make a “feasible whole” out of “infeasible parts”. Complex systems are governed by the principle of multidimensionality, which maintains that opposing tendencies not only coexist and interact, but also form complementary relationships. How does the principle of multidimensionality relate to the three horizons model? What does it mean in the context of our project?

Multidimensionality: Creating synergy between first and third horizons

If we only focus on the first horizon, we would not be able to move up the convergence ladder; if we only focus on the third horizon, our team might collapse due to a shaky foundation. If we cover both horizons, we can reach our full potential by leveraging all our resources.

How to achieve that? How to take the “convergence leap”? This is where C-Circles come in.

Convergence Circles (C-Circles)

Each C-Circle is made of 4–5 students who represent our best approximation of a transdisciplinary circular economy research team.

C-Circles are modeled after coaching circles. I was first introduced to the term “coaching circle” in the Theory U world. Through my engagement with the Pitt u.lab hub, I came to see firsthand the transformative power of such small groups. I recorded my findings in this blog post.

My personal experience was confirmed by other researchers. In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes:

Small groups have the most leverage when they meet as part of a larger gathering. At these moments, citizens experience the intimacy of the small circle and are simultaneously aware that they are part of a larger whole that shares their concerns…The small group is therefore the bridge between our own individual existence and the larger community.”

This logic is also supported by fractal geometry, an important field of study in complexity science. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales and create infinitely more complex patterns. In this sense, each C-Circle is like a “fractal” of the entire team.

The Charge

The charge to each C-Circle is to:

1. Come up with REAL circular economy research questions bounded within the three guiding questions for the projects (How does a society sustainably close resource loops? How does a society sustainably slow resource loops? How can we effectively engage stakeholders in circular economy convergence research?)

2. Answer that question with a transdisciplinary research design.

3. In both parts 1 and 2, challenge disciplinary assumptions.

The Roles

Process Coach: faculty members who are most experienced with transdisciplinary work, to accompany circle members through the ideation process.

Academic Advisor: faculty advisors to students, to provide discipline-related guidance.

Circle Captain: post-doctoral researchers who lead the circle’s team through the ideation process, to serve as leader for the circle, as a liaison with process coach and other circles, and as coordinator for cohort gatherings (assisted by a first mate).

Circle Members: all students who participate in the ideation process.

The Ideation Cycle

The Ideation Cycle is fashioned after social lab, a field-tested method for addressing complex challenges. The essence of social lab is “sprint” with a “part-whole-part” meeting structure. In each sprint will be time for c-circles to meet on their own for deep work, time for all c-circle members to get together for peer coaching, and time for c-circle members to meet with the entire team to present progress and gather feedback. See the graph below for the concept of a 6-week ideation cycle, which will morph organically into execution cycle driven by action-circles.

It is important to emphasize the iterative nature of the cycles, to allow for the surfacing of emergent rationality and the incorporation of new data that characterize complex adaptive challenges.

Some might say “6 weeks is not enough”. Well, I believe 6 weeks is more than enough. The belief that more time leads to more output is an illusion, especially for creativity-driven work. Instead, a well focused, short period of time can be one of the most important constraints to spur creativity. The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm recounted such a story. The leader announced that they were going to re-design the whole website in 2 days — a job that normally takes 2 months. The result? More creative ideas. This is an example of the principle of nonlinearity at work.

C-Circle Driven 6-Week Ideation Cycle

Quick Cycle Prototyping

Normally the research process is long and drawn out with very slow feedback loops. The essence of the ideation cycle is quick cycle prototyping with short feedback loops. At the early stages, to test their design, circle members are encouraged to gather “warm data” from multiple sources, such as academic advisors, other circle members, and friends in the same field. Once settled on a certain design, they are encouraged to gather small samples of real data to live test the design.

Weaving in peer coaching and feedback from the whole team provides additional feedback loops.

Peer Coaching

The essence of the peer coaching method is to separate answer from question, to avoid an automatic “advocacy” stance from the presenting team. After the presentation, the presenting team:

a. Invites clarifying questions (e.g. what do you mean by…)

b. Invites helpful questions (e.g. would you consider…)

c. The presenting team writes down each question — NO response

When all teams are done, everybody engages in generative dialogue related to the questions.

The Tension

Most of the tension lies in how to allocate time purposefully. I would like to suggest two ways to ease the tension.

First, voluntary participation. I got the sense from our team conversations so far that different team members feel the tension differently. For some, c-circles add to their already over-full plate; for others, c-circles respond to their most pressing needs. I see validity in both responses, because they reflect differentiated roles on teams. Tending to the different needs of this highly skilled research team is an essential task for leadership. So, why not make participation voluntary, both for faculty and for students? If we have one faculty who is willing to coach, one postdoc who is willing to lead, and three students who are willing to participate, then we are good to go! Let’s start with a single prototype circle with the most willing participants!

Second, individualized effort profile between first and third horizon. A more growth-oriented student might spend more time on activities related to the ideation cycle, while a student who is close to graduation and needs publications for the short term might do just the opposite. These differences will be reflected in the roles students play in the c-circles moderated by the coaches and captains. With voluntary participation, I expect more growth-oriented students will choose earlier to participate.

The Synergy

One way synergy can be created between the two horizons is through literature review. Literature review takes up most of the first horizon activities, because it is important that we establish the baseline for circular economy as a field. The third horizon research questions and designs will have to base themselves on the literature review. In the meantime, these questions will provide the vision that will bring coherence to the process of establishing baselines.

As we start our activities, we expect to see more synergy.

The Execution Cycle

Image of Diamond: Colour/Darrell Freeman

The diamond image above is a map that points to three phases that groups pass through as they move from questions to insights. Groups begin with divergent thinking, sit for a while in the chaos and uncertainty of “the Groan Zone” and later move into convergent thinking.

A full cycle needs both the divergent phase and the convergent phase. If the group tries to converge too early, then they have not captured the full diversity of possible ideas and thus are not capturing all the key aspects of the question they are trying to answer. The Ideation Cycle holds space for divergence, where deep and extensive cross-disciplinary interaction happen that lead to a diversity of ideas. The Execution Cycle holds space for convergence, where research teams start to collect and analyze data dictated by the research question and the research design generated from the Ideation Cycle. As we move from ideation to execution, the c-circles will morph into action circles whose members will be responsible for concrete deliverables such as papers. This is how we close the loop.

Core Innovations

C-Circles have several core innovations that power the deep convergence process.

First, we start with the most fundamental activity of a research project: the research question. Research questions are especially important with complex challenges like circular economy, because the right question leads to the best leverage points. In nonlinear systems, small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they are in the right place (leverage point). Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline has many insights on finding leverage points for nonlinear systems.

Second, c-circles provide both a container that binds the energy and a mechanism that keeps the cross-communication going (peer coaching, warm data, real data). In his book The Unshackled Organization: Facing the Challenge of Unpredictability Through Spontaneous Reorganization, Jeffery Goldstein advocated for the importance of firm boundaries in open systems: “in self-organization, boundaries have to be non-permeable enough to contain the system, yet permeable enough to allow an exchange with the environment”.

Third, the team operates as a system made of roles, processes, tasks, and goals. This system is advantageous to discrete activities like faculty having cross-disciplinary conversations, just as models are advantageous to algorithms. Check out the WSJ article Models Will Run the World for the logic behind this idea.

Fourth, we leverage field-tested processes such as sprints, peer coaching, and quick cycle prototyping to speed up innovation in all phases of the research endeavors.

The Most Important Question

For us as a team, I believe the most important question is not: are we going to get further funding next year?

The most important question is: Are we aligned with the intention of the NSF funding? Plastic waste is a big problem, and NSF needs help in solving the problem. Are we working towards solutions? The answer to this question will most likely determine whether we get further funding.

Would NSF refuse a team that provides more value than they asked for?



Gemma Jiang, PhD

Senior Team Scientist, Colorado State University; Complexity Leadership Scholar and Practitioner; also at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gemma-jiang/