ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

January 1999

Emergency Quality Management

Mission Impossible: The Ultimate Facilitation Challenge

Do You Believe In Magic?

Remembering Root Cause Analysis

Conversations For A Change

by Peter Block

Fox Shows Employees It Has Heart
by Lynn L. Franzoi

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Sites Unseen

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Book Review


Conversations For A Change
By Peter Block

Whether in a society or an organization, the culture is in many ways defined by the way we talk, the language we use, the nature of the debate and dialogue we engage in. In fact, one of the first things we notice when we move between cultures is the change in language.

There has been a lot of attention given to the power of language, recently focusing on the difference between dialogue and discussion. I want to offer a very specific device for realizing change through the way we speak to each other. How we talk about our experience may be as equally important as what we “do” about it.

Too often we try to change a culture by focusing on the structure, on the rewards or on the roles and core competencies. These carry a certain logic, but are best preceded by an effort to talk about things that matter in a way that we have not done before. It is the newness of our words to each other that creates the groundwork for changes in practices. Joel Henning nicely frames it with “the way to change the culture is to change the conversation.” Optimism is born the moment we are surprised by what we say or surprised by what we hear.

Ending the Broken Record
The first step is to agree to stop having the old conversation. When you are in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. As a start I would like to see a six month moratorium on the following conversations:
- The importance of having the support of top management
- How workers do not want to be empowered
- That leaders need to provide a good role model
- How to hold people accountable
- How to get people on board and aligned
- The need to be customer focused
- How to do things faster and cheaper
- How to give more choice to the people close to the customer
- The need for a clear and common vision
- The ground-rules for dialogue, consensus, teamwork, decisions and feedback
- The importance of systems thinking and whole system change
- The call for servant leaders and the end of command and control
- The need for continuous improvement

All of these points are true. It is just that they have become useless to talk about. They have become habitual language and we have become anesthetized to their meaning and depth. These words, because of their popularity, now belong to someone else, not to us. The phrases get used for persuasion and political advantage, not for their capacity for human connection. They have become the party line and evoke unconsciousness and keep us frozen in the comfort of routine.

What You Can Do When You Bring People Together
The task, whether you are facilitator, boss or member of a group, is to evoke a new conversation. Here is a recipe for change you can cook tomorrow:
1. When you are convening a meeting of five to a 100 people, set the simple goal of having them engage in a conversation they have not had before. You do not need to know what the new conversation will be, only that having it is the point of the meeting. It does not matter what the avowed purpose of the meeting is. It can be anything: goal setting, problem solving, team building, state of the union, whatever.

2. Get rid of the tables, if at all possible. Tables are good for leaning and eating, but the absence of tables is best for surprise and unrest, which is the essence of change. Ignore the typical complaints that they will have no place to put their water bottle or notes or elbows. Just chairs. If they feel too exposed, tell them to cross their legs and arms.

3. Begin the meeting as you normally would. Welcome them, state the purpose, set the context. At some point put them into small groups, no larger than 10 people.

4. Let them discuss the agenda in whatever typical fashion they are used to. After 10 minutes, ask them how it is going? What are they learning? What has surprised them? What you will mostly hear is that the conversation was business as usual.

5. Now it gets interesting. Tell them that for the next few minutes you want them to have a conversation they have not had before. It has to be related to the purpose of the meeting. But tell them that any hope, change or growth they might have come for, will only occur through a new conversation.

6. Tell them to sit in a circle with their knees no more than nine inches from the person to their left and right. Not 10 inches, not 14 inches. Nine inches. You walk around the room to urge them into this configuration. You will notice that this forces them to lean forward and engage. Diabolical, but effective. For those who complain, smile and offer a glazed look. Think of the last meeting you attended and the look will come naturally.

7. Now tell them they have 20 minutes to have a conversation, related to the agenda, they have not had before. If they cannot think of anything new to say, ask them to sit in silence. Better to be quiet than return to a routine that has no meaning. This is the space where we stop digging deeper the hole that we are in.

8. After 10 minutes, stop the talk, and ask them how it is going. Many of the groups will say that it is still the same old conversation. Tell them you understand, but this time you are serious. Have them continue the conversation, but you will be coming around to check on them. Restart the groups. Now walk around and ask each one if it is a new conversation. If it is not new, ask them to be silent until it is. Tough love here.

9. Tip: If they are struggling, suggest they agree to not talk about anyone not in the room, to focus on their part in creating the world in which they find themselves, or talk about their feelings about not being able to find a new dialogue for themselves. Make these suggestions as a last resort.

10. Bring the whole group back together and ask them what they noticed.
This structure will bring life, tension and energy into the room. I have tried it many times, often in moments of desperation, and it has never failed me. If it does not help, you can call my hotline at 1-800-DISAPPOINT.

If it does help, it gives hope that each time we come together, we have the capacity to transform our experience. This is how culture changes in the moment, and if we do it often enough, maybe even the larger national debate that is numbing in its predictability, will start to shift. Change and its cousins, surprise and unrest, are always within our reach. They are just waiting for us to design them into existence.

Happy New Year......and if you try the above, let us know how it goes.

January '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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