I have been writing and talking to groups about Collective Sensemaking for some time, and in this post I answer a question I am often asked, "Can any organizational conversation can be effective if participants in the conversation are not skillful communicators?" I will start by defining Collective Sensemaking, then, given that I have worked extensively with both ways of creating conversations, training participants in Argyris' Model II skills and designing meetings that are conversational, I will draw on those experiences and the research literature on the topic to answer the question.
Collective Sensemaking is a process that leading edge organizations use to take advantage of the collective intelligence of their members. It is a conversational event that brings organizational members together in order to make sense of an issue or problem the members are mutually facing. Collective Sensemaking is not one a time event but a way of getting work accomplished. There are many terms used for this growing practice, “swarming”, “collaboration,” “teaming”, “Whole system” etc. All bring people together in a new way, that is, not to listen to PowerPoint presentations, nor to hear leadership introduce a change that must be implemented, but rather to engage in meaningful conversation among organizational members themselves. Collective Sensemaking is a conversation where members tryout ideas, challenge the status quo, and puzzle together on the meaning of information and events that have occurred within their unit.
I am using the term “unit” to mean any of the following, a team, project, department or whole organization, depending upon the part of the organization that owns the issue or problem. I am using the term “organizational member” to reference all levels of employees from senior management to front line workers. Unfortunately, we do not have an inclusive term in English to reference all of the people who work for an organization. The term “employee” typically references only non-managers so is not inclusive.
Collective Sensemaking is increasingly important as organizations face growing complexity and ambiguous challenges. It is the recognition that no one individual, however highly placed, is smart enough to address the challenges organizations now face. The time of the heroic leader, who is expected to have all the answers, is over. It is the time for drawing on the collective intelligence of the organization to generate both strategy and action.
Experience Using Training to Improve Organizational Conversations
During my academic career, both at the University of Texas and at The George Washington University, I taught Argyris’ Model II skills to graduate students. Model II is arguable the most effective communication skill set that has been developed. Using these skills students experienced a significant change in the way they interacted with each. Learning the skills was like a door that allowed them to experience the values, which Arygris identifies as necessary to produce learning at the organizational level, that is, valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment to that choice.
Valid information: means to share all relevant information related to an issue and share it in a way that others understand it and can independently validate it. It also means continually seeking new information to determine whether previous decisions should be changed.
Free and informed choice means people define their own objectives and methods for achieving them. They are not coerced or manipulated into acting against that choice and their choices are based on valid information.
Internal commitment to that choice means people feel personally responsible for their decisions and find their choices intrinsically compelling or satisfying. Internal commitment is necessarily based on valid information and free and informed choice.
Later, as a consultant, I taught the Model II skills in organization workshops. For example, over a period of several years I conducted workshops for the top leaders of a large government organization as well as for project teams, all with considerable success. I collected over 200 ”left and right hand cases” from participants who wrote about their interactions.
From these cases as well as cases drawn from other client organizations, I identified numerous interaction patterns, which managers and employees alike exhibit, that prevent learning within the organization. The patterns will be familiar to most readers:
- Hiding Agendas – Trying to get another person to come around to my view without telling them what I want, e.g. to do a task, agree to a course of action, support an issue. For example,
Jack believes he should author a particular paper. But in talking to Pete, a counterpart at another agency, he discovers that Pete believes he should be writing the paper himself. Jack sees a “train-wreck” coming over this. He knows that Pete lacks the necessary knowledge and if he persists in writing the paper it will result in disaster for everyone. However, Jack does not say this, rather he asks Pete questions to try to get him to come to the conclusion, on his own, that he should not write the paper.
- Hiding Negative Information – trying to get the other person to see that they are causing problems by hinting about it.
Larry has come to the Director to get him to use his influence with a subordinate – a problem employee. The director believes the real problem is not the subordinate, rather he believes that Larry is being over controlling. The Director talks in vague terms to Larry about things like empowerment and support, but never tells Larry that he think Larry is the problem or why.
- Not questioning the thinking of superiors – accepting their opinion or task without raising contradictory evidence
Francis has received an assignment from her boss to put together a recruitment plan to hire 200 new people. Being much closer to the data, Francis is aware that there are already enough people in the pipeline to fill the up-coming vacancies. However, she does not tell her boss this – feeling that he would not want his judgment questioned. She draws up the plan hoping she can avoid implementing it before she wastes too much of the organization’s money.
- Not raising information that would contradict the prevailing view
Everyone on the team seems to support the view that the leadership of country A will not yield to pressure to reduce arms. Several team members provide intelligence from their contacts to support that view. Sam has reliable intelligence from his contact that things have changed in country A, but against the sureness of all the others he is hesitant to raise this contrary opinion in the meeting.
Such patterns severely limit an organization’s learning. The patterns also create distrust because the person upon whom they are being enacted most often recognizes they are being “played.” These concerns are not limited to lower level employees. Research by Detert & Edmondson shows that even executive level employees withhold knowledge out of concern for how they will be perceived. Argyris refers to this phenomenon as organizational defensive routines and suggests that employees learn behaviors from other employees about how to interact with bosses and with other employees.
The participants in the training program learned to recognize such dysfunctional patterns in themselves and others from the cases they wrote. And using the new Model II set they were able to interact more effectively in staff meetings and in conversation with each other. The change was manifest in their increased willingness to raise tough issues; to test the inferences they made about each other, rather than holding them privately; and to be open to having their own conclusions challenged. As a result they were also able to resolve long-standing issues between departments.
I have taught several less comprehensive models of communication skills in organizations, such as listening, and how to ask powerful questions. Although participants enjoy these less rigorous workshops, they typically retain the skills no more than a few days. The Model II skills are the only skill set I have found that is retained long enough to change the patterns of interactions in an organizational unit. This is because the way organizational members interact with each other is largely tacit. In order to make a lasting change, participants must first have the time to, 1) become aware of the dysfunctionallity of their current patterns of interaction, 2) learn the new skill set, and 3) to internalize the values that underlie the new skills. In the end, it is not the words people choose to use in conversation that make a difference; rather it is the intent behind the words – the values they hold.
This extensive experience, over many years has convinced me 1) that most organizational conversations produce little learning, and 2) that it is possible for training to greatly increase that learning.
Using Skillful Design to Improve Organizational Conversations
As early as the 1980s I began using designed group conversations in both my consulting and academic work. One form that took was Action Learning. With Action Learning, small groups of 5-6 participants (called a set), made up of organizational members from across the organization, meet every two weeks over a period of six months to help each other with the work problems they are facing. During the meetings each member is allocated an hour to explain what had happened in their problem situation over the last two weeks and to describe the issues on which they wanted the help of the other members of the set. The other members listen careful and then pose questions to speaker. The guidance is that members should not offer advice in the sense of, “Here is what you should do,” rather they should interpret what was happening through their own lens, share their own experiences in similar situations, and express their interest and support. When the hour is up it is the next person’s turn, until all six members have the opportunity to help and be helped. Over the months participants develop strong and meaningful relationships with each other that often lasts long after the Action Learning meetings are over. Because they grow to care about each other, they are willing to speak honestly with each other, to speak even painful truths, if that is needed to help a colleague deal more effectively with a problem. Those Action Learning conversations produced solutions that no member could have developed on their own.
During the same time period I began to use GE’s Work-out with client groups. Work-Out is a simple, straightforward methodology for cutting bureaucracy and solving problems quickly. Its genius lies in harnessing the intelligence of workers closest to a problem. The Work-Out process has four basic steps:
- Bring together the people who know the issues best.
- Challenge them to develop creative solutions.
- Make yes or no decisions on the solutions immediately in a public forum.
- Empower people to carry out the solutions6.
Before a Work-Out meeting occurs there is a lengthy planning stage during which a process map is drawn that details the steps and sub-processes of the problem as it is in the current state. The process map helps identify the members of a cross-functional team that will come together over three days, so that every aspect of the process is present in the Work-Out meeting in order to develop a solution. The design of Work-Out includes the following, 1) hierarchy is absent from the three day meeting in which the participants create solutions, 2) discussion alternates between small group work and full group work, 3) each team presents a recommendation in the public form, but only if a team member is willing to be "owner" of it — to take responsibility for driving it through to completion.
Work-Out is credited by GE for moving its operating margin from 8.92 in the early 1990s to 14.4% by 1995. Other companies that have implemented Work-Out achieved similar cost savings. For example, Zurich Financial Services verified savings of over 100 million from Work-Out meetings held over a four year period.
Early in the 1990s I begin to work with many of the Whole System in the Room processes that were becoming prominent, such as, Future Search, Open Space Technology, Real Time Strategic Change, World Café, and Appreciative Inquiry. Each of these Whole System processes has a unique design, but all share similar processes:
- They are conversation meetings
- They use the small group as the unit of learning
- Participants connect on a human level before they are asked to hold content related conversations
- All voices in the room are heard
- Participants are heterogeneous, representing a wide range of organizational and stakeholder perspectives
- Participants do not feel the need to defer to one individual, recognizing that information and expertise is distributed among the participants.
- Rather than being defined before the meeting, participants determine the outcome of the meeting.
- The conversation is extended over several days so that participants come to know each other in terms of skills and knowledge.
Out of these experiences and many more I have engaged in, I have come to the following conclusions about the value of training organizational members in communication skills vs designing an environment that produces learningful conversation.
The most effective way to have learningful conversations in an organization is to disrupt the dysfunctional conversational practices that are occurring. Both training and skillful design can disrupt those patterns.
Training accomplishes it by identifying the dysfunctional patterns organizational members use on a regular basis and training them to use new skills based on the Argyris values of valid information, free and informed choice and internal commitment to that choice.
Skillful Design disrupts the patterns by changing the way a meeting is designed and how the topic of conversation is framed. The environment in which the conversation takes place (e.g. the meeting room, the configuration of chairs and tables, how a meeting starts, who stands and who sits, who is in charge, who is allowed to talk, who controls the agenda, etc.) all act as cues to participants to interact in familiar patterns. To break the pattern, participants need to meet in an unfamiliar setting, with unfamiliar conversational activities, and to significantly alter the type of topics that are discussed. The topics need to be altered from 1) how to implement an already constructed solution, to 2) identifying issues the unit is facing and jointly developing solutions for those issues; and from 1) being objective and impersonal, 2) to being relational.
The designer, facilitator or leader of such meetings must themselves hold the values of valid information, free and informed choice and internal commitment to that choice, to be able to create a design which is commensurate with those values.
Valid information –
- Convene participants who hold multiple perspectives on the issue including people from different parts and levels of the organizations, as well as stakeholders
- The design enables all voices to be heard
- The design provides adequate time to explore differences
- Dissenting views are encouraged
- Where possible, participants make their knowledge visible through boundary objects (e.g diagrams, lists, drawings, charts) which creates common ground when expertise-based knowledge is involved
- Both senior management and participants make available all the information that is pertinent to the issue, including that which is financial, political, and strategic
Free and informed choice –
- The convened group is free to reach its own conclusions, the outcome is not pre-determined before the meeting is convened
- The issue is framed in a way that opens it to new ways of thinking – a solution is not contained within the question.
- Participants have the opportunity to connect with others in order to know, who is in the room, what knowledge others hold, and that others are trust worthy
Internal commitment to the choice –
- Participants are free to commit or not, to the solutions the group develops
- Participants are more likely to commit to those solutions they have a part in developing and are often willing to commit to an outcome that is not their preference, if their views have been given a fair hearing and they fully understand the reasoning behind the outcome selected
Collective Sensemaking is based on the principle that knowledge workers are capable of understanding events and information rather than having to rely on the interpretation of someone who claims authority through force, tradition, superior intellect, or divine right. It affirms the wisdom of attending to the relationship between people for human kindness, support, new ideas, comradeship, feedback and help. It is an affirmation of the intellectual capability of not only the individual but also the collective. It acknowledges that everyone, including leaders, is blind to his or her own tacit assumptions and requires the help of others to see those assumptions. It acknowledges that each person, no matter how smart or capable, sees the world from a perspective and that there are other legitimate perspectives that could inform that view.
Such conversations can and do result from skillfully designed convening which enables participants to trust other members and feel psychologically safe to raise difficult issues, admit mistakes, ask for help and feedback, and offer views that oppose the prevailing view.
Note: this post will appear as an article in the upcoming issue of iKnow, published by The Institute for Knowledge and Innovation SouthEast Asia (IKI-SEA)