Monday, August 3, 2009

Talking your way out of trouble

In this era of accelerating change, organizations need to to be able to change direction in a moment. Agility depends on many factors. But the most critical is the speed with which we create new knowledge together.

It all depends on how people talk to each other, and whether the bad news delivered by the marketplace and from the production and distribution people about the gaps/bugs in your systems is heard, understood and acted upon.

Most forms of discourse are of little help in creating new knowledge. They weakly connect and analyse information. It is only when you use dialectical discourse, which I call Dialogue plus, that you get to talk with any clear purpose.

Here is a model that I use to understand the nature of human activity, ranging from our powerlessness in the face of nature to the more equal power relationships of groups whose interests have converged and are served by each other. It explains the relationship between the exercise of power and how we communicate. It helps to think of language as having both motor/physical and voice components. For example, unilateral action is the equivalent of monologue. Discussion is ships passing in the night. Dialogue is a warm embrace. Dialectical discourse is great sex.

Many organizations continue to employ Monologue to manage their daily operations in a highly directive manner. Monologue is a weak form of discourse and ensures a significant power differential is maintained between the manager and the stakeholders. It is usually employed by teachers in the form of a lecture, oppressors in the form of incarceration, and leaders when they wish to be directive and ignore other opinions, such as occurs with invasions of one country by another. When the corporate "shit hits the fan", people who are treated badly are often too afraid to change, unless the man with the gun, unbridled authority or sarcastic voice says it's OK.

Discussion is also a weak form of discourse, but is more powerful than monologue. Although all participants in a knowledge-creating activity may have permission to speak, some remain silent, or have little to say. The more articulate or powerful in the group often ignore/reject the views of minorities whose views are often the first sign of the errors/mismatches that will eventually doom the organization. Such treatments breeds discontent and disloyalty.

Although Dialogue is a moderately powerful form of discourse where people listen carefully to each other, to understand other viewpoints, and where possible/practical incorporate those viewpoints into a group decision, it's a “hit and miss” process of knowledge creation. Despite our best efforts, dialogue often fails to resolve organizational conflicts, simpy because it lacks a great purpose. The politiciking and discontent often persists, when people fail to reach agreement about what to do together, that could resolve their differences.

Dialectical discourse (Dialogue Plus), which is a formal knowledge creation process, sets out to resolve the ideas/information contributed by the members of the team into one or more unifying/overarching concepts/decisions that satisfy the needs of all the participants, and either creates the new external trend, or is a good fit with the trend. Dialectical discourse results in highly effective models of leadership, not merely at the senior management level of an organization, but when applied throughout an organization. Dialectical discourse is an essential skill for rapidly changing times, where the ability to reliably and speedily transform the organization’s structure, processes and strategy is critical to success.

So here's a workshop to help you get started:

1. How do people in your organization converse with each other and what are the consequences?
2. What kinds of knowledge creating processes does your organization use and how effectively does it resolve the conflict between different information streams/sources?
3. What would you have to do to get your organization to implement Dialogue Plus as a daily way of working/learning?

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