“Dialogue is a space where we may see the assumptions which lay beneath the surface of our thoughts, assumptions which drive us, assumptions around which we build organizations, create economies, form nations and religions. These assumptions become habitual, mental habits that drive us, confuse us and prevent our responding intelligently to the challenges we face every day.”
– David Bohm
An emerging view sees organizations as conversations rather than open systems that respond to external conditions and threats. As conversations, they are proactive and tap into the collective imagination and wisdom of the group. As open systems, they are reactive and fight to survive in an evolutionary battle as the fittest amongst competitors to solve problems.
We’ll argue here that both views have their utility and as we’ll explore, can effectively work together. Yet we’ll also make the case that as the context of our work becomes more complex—for example, situated with environmental and social issues that are not fully understood and for which there are no existing solutions—conversations become a more fundamental part of the process.
In Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change, Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak contrast these two views as the Dialogic and Diagnostic Mindsets. They write:
“The Diagnostic Mindset continues today through widespread interest in such things as discovering best practices, benchmarking against world-class organizations, collecting the ‘right’ data, and continual searches for the singular cause of some problematic situation that can be fixed by applying analysis and expertise.”
As we explored in some depth here, the Diagnostic approach to developing organizations is well-suited for what Dave Snowden refers to as the Complicated domain, where the strategies quoted above are generally effective. As our world becomes more complex and interconnected, however, we are being challenged to transcend the limits of the Diagnostic approach so we may achieve a clearer understanding of the opportunities we face and better work together to realize the untapped potential that exists within our organizations, on every level, as well as beyond them.
The Dialogic approach is, arguably, well-suited for operating in Snowden’s Complex domain, where perceived problems are often only the tip of a much larger iceberg. The full situation (or the “real problem”) cannot be understood through a process of diagnostics and analytics, but rather through a process of probing—asking thoughtful and curiosity-driven questions and exploring multiple perspectives through dialogue.
This brings us to our eighth principle of Leading Continuous Learning:
Continuous learning happens within containers designed to facilitate open-minded dialogue.
Facilitating dialogue within teams and organizations
As leaders within continuous learning cultures, our job is to facilitate ongoing dialogue to promote collective sense-making and decision-making in a complex environment. There are a number of specific strategies and approaches we can take, some of which we will explore here.
First, it will be helpful to define what dialogue is—and what it isn’t. In his book On Dialogue, David Bohm writes, “Real dialogue is where two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.” We can contrast this to a debate, where individuals are taking and defending a position in a type of competition, where the objective is to beat the other by proving oneself “right.”
Dialogue occurs in the spirit of collaborative learning. It begins with and depends on participating individuals letting go of the idea that they already have the solution. When a false sense of certainty finds its way into the conversation, the conditions for dialogue are compromised.
Such conditions are fragile. They are supported by the shared values of a continuous learning culture (The 5 Cs), as we explored in more depth here:
Curiosity: having a “beginner’s mind” that defaults to asking questions or inquiring into that which we don’t know or understand.
Courage: being willing to admit we don’t know or understand, exploring the unknown, and embracing uncertainty.
Collaboration: working together to achieve deeper knowledge and understanding, recognizing and honoring the role of multiple perspectives in making sense of complex issues.
Creativity: being guided by our imaginations of what is possible as we explore together.
Commitment: being aligned with and committed to a shared purpose or mission.
First and foremost, as leaders we must work to develop such a culture by modeling these values in our daily actions. A few questions we can ask ourselves to stay on the path to building a continuous learning culture:
Am I suspending my own sense of certainty when appropriate and opening up to other perspectives?
Am I admitting when I don’t know or understand something?
How am I relating to what I don’t know? Am I embracing it or am I hiding it?
What perspectives am I considering on this issue? Am I recognizing the value of holding multiple perspectives? Is there a useful way of looking at this that I’m currently missing?
How often am I asking truly great questions?
How am I being guided by my imagination of what’s possible? How am I considering the imaginations of others?
What am I most committed to? How does this show up in my work? How am I putting first things first?
Toggling between dialogue and debate
It is important to note there is a time for the expertise-driven decision-making process of the Diagnostic approach. As mentioned, this approach is well-suited for Complicated problems, which can be thought of as “technical puzzles.” In such situations, we turn to expert analysis and debate the pros and cons of existing solutions to find the best fit for the given situation.
A key capability is being able to collectively identify the domain of the problem on the table. Without this capability, a team may slide into an unproductive debate while facing a complex issue that calls for a dialogic approach—or on the contrary, may waste time probing multiple perspectives when expertise and analysis are needed to solve an urgent technical problem.
The table below contrasts these two critical domains and the appropriate strategies for engaging in collective action for each:
When a problem is perceived, we can help facilitate an appropriate response by asking: is this a technical puzzle with one or more existing solutions that will work for us (even if this solution is yet to be identified)? Or is this merely a symptom of a more fundamental problem that we don’t really understand?
An increasingly common issue is that we waste valuable resources in addressing symptoms of complex issues as technical puzzles, without working to understand the complex issue itself. As a result, the real problem does not get solved—or worse, only gets exacerbated—and we are in a perpetual state of combatting symptoms without making any real progress forward. Operating in such a state produces a sense of hopelessness and leads to burnout or worse.
The following is a work in progress, but attempts to map decision points using Snowden’s framework which distinguishes different approaches for different types of problems:
The fork of interest for our purposes here centers around the question: are we confident this is the real problem? If so, we can take a more diagnostic approach which centers around analysis and selecting a right-fit solution among existing practices. If we are not confident the real problem has been identified, the task becomes to “probe multiple perspectives” until we are able to form a hypothesis worth testing. This probing is at the heart of the dialogic process.
Tools for facilitating dialogue
Dialogic approaches, well-suited for complex challenges, center around strategies that involve, in the words of Bushe and Marshak, creating containers and processes to produce generative ideas. There are many existing tools and practices that can help us do this, a few of which we will outline here. It is both possible to adopt these tools in a straightforward manner, as well as adapt and integrate aspects of them for our own purposes.
Appreciative Inquiry, originally developed by David Cooperrider, engages individuals in a collective process of building on what is working well. It looks to create a “positive core” by focusing on a team’s strengths instead of diagnosing its weaknesses, creating a force of generative energy that seeks to explore potential through a dialogue-driven process of asking questions and engaging the collective imagination. Appreciate Inquiry is based on 5 core principles:
The Constructionist Principle, which states that we co-create our own reality through a process of negotiating meaning.
The Principle of Simultaneity, which states that the questions we ask are fateful—in other words, we move in the direction of the questions we ask.
The Poetic Principle, which states that an organization is fundamentally a shared story. This story is being continuously co-authored by its stakeholders and is shaped as such.
The Anticipatory Principle, which states that our actions today are informed by the images we hold of the future. Developing these images together, therefore, creates a powerful impact on our collective behavior in the present.
The Positive Principle, which states that sustainable change is best driven by positive feelings such as hope, excitement, love, and joy—rather than negative emotions such as fear or resentment.
Appreciative Inquiry is based on a structured and facilitated process that can last last several hours or even several days. This approach can produce powerful insights and help establish strong bonds between team members. We can also look to apply these core principles in our regular meetings and interactions to facilitate a more positive and imaginative process of sense- and decision-making.
Action Learning, originally developed by Reg Revans, is an approach to team coaching that centers around asking questions and probing multiple perspectives to better understand and more wisely act to solve complex problems. The first rule of Action Learning is: no statements except in response to a question. This rule helps the team avoid slipping to diagnostic thinking, better suited for Complicated problems (or technical puzzles).
The goal in an Action Learning session is to gain consensus around what the “real” problem is, before deciding on next steps to address it. At specific points in the conversation, the coach will ask the group to pause and write down their understanding of the problem. As each member shares what they have written, differences emerge and the process is repeated until the group agrees there is a consensus on the problem.
This is a simple yet powerful approach to exploring the deeper and more complex issues that lie underneath the symptoms that we often perceive first. In doing so, actions can be identified that address the root problem instead of merely the symptoms, driving meaningful results.
Action Learning is also unique in that participants are consciously practicing and reflecting on specific leadership skills during each session, such as active listening, showing empathy, asking powerful questions, and working collaboratively.
Again, we may benefit from the support of a trained coach who can facilitate this process. We may also find value in applying the principles to our own ways of working. For example, when facing a complex issue, we can avoid slipping into diagnostic thinking by staying focused on asking questions and coming to a shared understanding of the issue before shifting into discussing solutions.
Developed by Otto Scharmer, Theory U offers a set of powerful tools for engaging with complexity and learning into the unknown. It involves a process of first letting go of old patterns of thinking and acting, creating space and letting come new patterns. It supports us to suspend our assumptions, see the situation with “fresh eyes,” and enabling what Scharmer calls presencing: where we are able to access “deeper sources of knowing.”
Theory U also helps us engage with our whole selves to facilitate emergent understanding of complex issues. On the individual level, this involves using (or “opening”) our minds, hearts, and wills to emergent possibilities and potentials. On the collective level, this involves remaining open to the perspectives of others, being patient and showing empathy, as well as focusing on taking collective action and learning through an ongoing process of experimentation and reflection.
There are many other tools that can help us facilitate the emergent practices that will effectively allow us to overcome complex challenges. These include but are not limited to: Dynamic Facilitation, Complex Responsive Processes of Relating, Engaging Emergence, Participative Design, Open Space Technology, and Word Cafe, among many others. All share one thing in common: they are focused on creating containers for dialogue and exploring multiple perspectives with respect and curiosity, guided by principles that facilitate emergent understanding of complex issues.
Key Skills for Facilitating Dialogue-Driven Continuous Learning
In his essay The Skills of Dialogic OD, Jacob Storch identifies a number of key skills for facilitating the dialogic process, which we will unpack briefly through the lens of leading within a culture of continuous learning. Arguably, these are fundamental skills for any modern leader and are worthwhile to keep on our own developmental radars.
Storch describes this as “the ability to re-articulate the intentions behind what people express in a way that supports the unfolding process.” For example, let’s suppose a participant in a dialogic process is slipping into debate-mode, where they begin “attacking” the views of another participant. This is a common occurrence we must be prepared to correct for if we are to keep the conversation open and respectful of multiple perspectives.
Skillfully reframing such a statement might look like interjecting by “steel-manning” their point of view (stating it in one’s own words to the best of their understanding) in a more collaborative tone and thanking them for sharing—shifting the focus to positively honoring multiple perspectives. Here it can also be useful to have some simple guidelines for engaging in the conversation, such as the “no statements except in response to a question” rule in Action Learning. In such a case, the facilitator can gently remind the group of the rule, or better, ask, “what question are you responding to?”
Asking circular questions
A circular question draws attention to how things relate to one another by shifting the perspective of the receiver of the question. For example, if a group seems to be struggling to break through and gain clarity, we might ask them to imagine the situation from an “outside” perspective. How would person X view this? How might they experience the situation? Such a shift in perspective often leads to new insights and creative ideas.
Empathy is a critical factor in the dialogic process. We must be willing to temporarily suspend our own assumptions and open up to the perspectives and experiences of others. This may prove challenging for certain individuals, though it is arguably a skill in itself that can be developed over time and through practice. As leaders, we can support our team to develop this skill by asking circular questions that encourage them to step into another person’s shoes for a moment of what organization development expert Carol Sanford calls “external considering.”
Managing reflecting teams
Reflecting teams, in this context, refers to a specific practice where the team serves as a sounding board. The speaker shares an issue and the team, instead of responding to the speaker directly, explores the issue amongst themselves while the speaker listens only. This can help the presenter of a problem consider multiple perspectives without the need to respond to each, or defend their presentation of the issue. They are simply given the space to listen and reflect.
Dialogue plays a critical role within any culture of continuous learning. It is through open-minded dialogue that we are able to share and consider other perspectives, shine a light on our own blind spots, and collaboratively explore the nuances of complex issues.
Dialogue, according to David Bohm, begins with suspending our sense of certainty. The need to be “right” is a major barrier to continuous learning as it closes both individuals and teams off to accepting feedback and considering the perspectives of others. This can prove detrimental to an individual career, as well as a company needing to adapt to change.
This is not to say there is never a time for debate, where ideas are defended and problems are diagnosed through analysis. Yet as many of the challenges we face become more complex, dialogue plays a greater and greater role in our ability to overcome them.
As leaders and organizations, we must develop the ability to identify the limits of the diagnostic approach and when it is appropriate and most effective to shift into a dialogue-driven process of learning and decision-making. We must also develop our ability to create containers as well as good dialogic processes, using and integrating the many tools available to us, where perspectives can be explored to facilitate a deeper understanding of complex issues.
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