In his personal weblog (On conversations ... 4 December 2006), Johnnie Moore sets out some of his early thoughts on re-reading Patricia Shaw's book Changing Conversations in Organizations. The book is one of the series published in 2002 by members of the faculty and students on the University of Hertfordshire's Doctoral Programme in Organizational Change, which are referred to elsewhere in this blog.
I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop run by Patricia Shaw at the university in May 2002, timed to coincide with the launch of the book series. Some of Shaw's concluding remarks and my own thoughts on what she said are set out below.
At the end of a highly interactive session, Shaw somewhat reluctantly set out what she saw as some of the important points about working from the participative perspective that she, Ralph Stacey and others were seeking to articulate. This approach ordinarily eschews the use of bullet-point lists and other such attempts to 'capture' the essence of conversations or to extract lessons learnt, on the basis that these abstract from the here-and-now richness of the interactions themselves. Despite her unease, though, she made some notes on flip charts, on the basis that these might be useful to those present (food for thought there, I think!). I have attempted to reproduce these and other comments that she made below:
- Work from the process outwards.
- Change the conversation and then draw attention to it – does it make sense?
- Work with energy and intent; but it happens in the moment, through the conversation.
- There is no beginning of change – How did it come about? . . . And how did that? . . .
- No start, just emergence – so work from here.
- Understanding comes with insight; and faith and trust come with understanding.
- Engage with people who have the motivation, interest and sense of urgency – invite them to take up the invitation to make sense of what’s happening.
- Beware the reification of models.
Mode of enquiry engaged through conversation
- What have you made of this conversation?
- How do we account for what we are doing, day-in-day-out?
- What kind of causality do we employ to make sense of our decisions and actions?
- How do we believe both change and continuity arises in human affairs - "enabling constraints"?
- How do we recognise leadership?
Paying attention to the movement of sensemaking
- What parts are we coming to play as we account for our continuing presence in the conversation?
- What are we finding ourselves talking about?
- How are our endeavours evolving as the conversation progresses?
- How are we reconfiguring constructs?
- How are power relations shifting?
- How are ‘rules of the game’ changing as we play?
- How is the meaning of our actions developing as we act?
- How are we opening up where we can go from here, as we rearticulate how we came to here?
Attributes of 'good' conversation
- Free flowing.
- Sensitivity to emerging themes.
- Alertness to rhetorical ploys.
- Introducing themes from other communities.
- Awareness of shifts in anxiety/ spontaneity.
- Holding ambiguity to allow the novel to emerge. Alertness to conscious processes which trap us.
My afterthoughts and comments
As a practising consultant, and subscribing to the general tenor and philosophy of Shaw's approach, I find the above 'guidelines' extremely useful. Her comments on the nature and dynamics of change sit well with those set down in Informal Coalitions. At the same time, there are one or two things that I would take issue with - or, at least, wish to qualify.
The reification of models
First, Informal Coalitions introduces one or two 'models' or frameworks, to facilitate the sensemaking process and to help move managers into the conversational space that is critical to leadership of the change process.
Shaw's expressed concern with "reification" of management models is that they might take over and detract from what is happening in what she and her colleagues at the university would call the "living present." I have less concerns about this, providing that these frameworks are seen as facilitative rather than prescriptive and that they are recognized as being incomplete and provisional. I have addressed this concern of the 'Stacey School' in an earlier piece; although I'm sure that my comments would not fully satisfy them. I believe that it's possible both to remain true to the idea that it is the 'in the moment' conversational exchanges that matter most and, at the same time, to recognize that use of the occasional model or framework - properly applied - can provide new insights and help conversations to become unstuck. If Shaw's warning to "beware of reifying models" is seen as an advisory 'give way' sign rather than a mandatory 'stop', I have no problems with it.
In one of his lesser known books, The Happiness Purpose, Edward de Bono introduces the idea of "proto-truths," which he describes as temporary or contingent truths. He suggests that with a proto-truth there is a constant readiness for change but, at the same time, a willingness to use the proto-truth as if it were absolute. In this way, the frameworks in Informal Coalitions can be thought of as proto-truths - offering help with the sensemaking process but cautioning users against becoming trapped by them. The important question when using any such framework then becomes "Is it useful in this situation and at this time?" rather than "Is it right?"
Leaders' everyday conversations and interactions
The scheduled (if not pre-designed) conversations that Patricia Shaw has with any of her clients only represent a very small fraction of those that will be taking place continuously throughout that organization as a whole. This is the issue that all of us face as consultants; our work with clients is necessarily limited in time and space. To the extent that any shifts in perception, interpretation and action arising from these events stimulate conversations with others across the organization, further change might be triggered beyond the immediacy of the specific workshops. However, it is the everyday conversations that leaders have with their staff - and that staff have with their colleagues and others - which will have the greatest impact on the change process as a whole. It is therefore leaders themselves (throughout the organization) who need to engage with change through their day-to-day conversations and interactions with staff. Periodic set-piece events, however participative, cannot substitute for the impact that the everyday words and actions of local leaders (including their silence and inaction) have on the process and its outcomes. This point, and its implications for leadership practice, is discussed more fully in the Reframing Communication chapter of Informal Coalitions. The shift in emphasis that this implies - from formal, structured communication events and informal workshop-type sessions towards everyday, informal conversations and role-modelling interactions - is reflected in one of the sensemaking frameworks mentioned above. It is called the Leadership Communication Grid (oops!).