Improvement through expansion and contraction

One of the patterns I've noticed in process improvement is that improvements seem to go through periods of expansion and contraction. Recently, I have become more explicit in saying "we are in the expansion phase" of an improvement or "we are moving into the contraction phase."


In the expansion phase, we are identifying possibilities. For example, let's say that we're going to build a new web site. What could be on the site? Why are we building this site? Who might benefit? Is someone else better positioned to do this work?

In the expansion phase we're brainstorming, making lists of options, exploring the topic, and being very open to ideas. This exploration may lead to building criteria to judge the ideas, in order to form tests and learn more by seeing which ideas resonate.

Rules for expansion

In the expansion phase, define the place to capture ideas as you have them. For example, I might create a Google doc list of ideas. Then, if I come across a good idea from an email, a meeting, or just from walking around, I know where that idea goes.

When talking with other people about the idea, use yes, and… thinking to build on ideas. Don't discount ideas even if they don't make sense to you.

Advantages of expansion

In expansion, you are finding possibilities that could make you wildly more effective. You get a sense of rigorous thinking: that you have considered the subject thoroughly.

Disadvantages of expansion

Tight timelines don't work well with expansion, because timelines create a pressure to hunker down and finish the work.


As we start to learn more about the problem at hand, it becomes clearer what is actually most helpful. We had 100 ideas, but now it's time to select the best idea.

Rules for contraction

The Liberating Structures "Min Specs" activity is useful here.

Be very clear in what is "in" and what is "out," so that everyone knows the scope of work. Explain the reasoning for not pursuing certain ideas, so that people have an opportunity to question the criteria and logic. This results in a better improvement and one that's owned by the group.

Keep a "parking lot" for ideas not selected and ideas that will be reviewed later. Use this parking lot to keep people focused on the current step.

Advantages of contraction

You no longer need to track all the possibilities, and can let go of them. You can start to focus on the actions needed and you can build a schedule. You are moving into the mode of getting things done and can expect to see concrete outcomes.

Disadvantages of contraction

You may lose sight of the bigger reason for the improvement. You may succumb to the "hill-climbing algorithm" where you've found the best local solution but there exists a much better option that you haven't uncovered.