Interactive Dialogue as a Tool for Change
by Michael Maccoby
Published in: Research Technology Management, Vol. 39, No. 5. September-October, 1996. pp. 57-59.
My previous article in this series emphasized the need for organizations
engaged in change to develop the appropriate learning process ("Resolving the Leadership Paradox", RTM May June 1996, pp. 57-59). Interactive dialogue is a critical part of such learning, and in this article I shall explore what it means to engage your organization in interactive dialogue
as a way of leading change.
The following fictional dialogue is based on a number of conversations I
have had at organizations engaged in change. The manager I am talking
with is a professional who might be an engineer, banker, administrator,
physician or scientist.
Manager: I read your article "Resolving the Leadership Paradox", but I am still not sure what you mean by an interactive process.
MM: It is a dialogue about how to close the gaps between the ideal design
of the organization and its present state.
Manager: What do you mean by a dialogue? The dictionary says a dialogue
is just a conversation. Why use such a fancy word?
MM: The second definition given by Webster's New Unabridged Dictionary is
an "interchange and discussion of ideas, especially when open and frank,
as in seeking mutual understanding or harmony." This is more than a
conversation. It is a good way of learning and testing our knowledge with
people we respect. In Plato's dialogues, Socrates attempts to elucidate
truths by questioning the logic of different points of view. Furthermore,
the dictionary defines "interact" in terms of acting mutually, performing
reciprocal acts. An interactive dialogue has a goal of discovering the
different meanings people give to organizational attributes, and arriving
at better views about what needs to be done.
Manager: Does everyone who participates have to agree about what needs
to be done?
MM: No, people may express different views about:
Manager: What happens when you have these differences? Do you vote? Do
you try to reach consensus?
- Which goals are the most important to reach,
- The importance of the gaps.
- What steps are needed to close the gaps.
MM: Consensus is fine, but even if a team achieves consensus, it doesn't
mean that the leader will agree. An interactive dialogue does not change
the fact of hierarchical authority and accountability. The dialogue should
be led by the team's leader with help if necessary, for facilitating
discussion. Some decisions can be made by that leader, but others may
require support by upper levels. An example would be large investments.
Even a CEO may need to gain approval from a board of directors.
Manager: You mean, after all that dialogue, top management can just say
no? That could be extremely demoralizing. It might be better not to have
the dialogue and just let leaders give orders. Otherwise, the leader may
raise expectations that will not be met.
MM: If you are the boss and say no to a team, you are required to give
reasons, and the team is encouraged to question your logic. One very
important result of the interactive dialogue is a common understanding of
organizational strategy and priorities.
Manager: But it may take a lot of time. Is it worth it?
MM: With knowledge workers, this is the best way to communicate the
reasons for change and to engage people in making change happen. It takes
time, but it saves all the time organizations take in explaining and dealing
with misunderstandings and inefficiencies because of people's distrust
and concern about what change means for them. People need to understand
the leader's ideas, and have their views addressed. The dialogue both
informs and motivates.
Manager: So the dialogue is just a clever technique for persuading your
people to change. As I recall, this is what Socrates did. He found reasons
to reject everyone else's arguments and presented himself as the wisest
man in Athens, with of course, appropriate statements of humility.
MM: The interactive dialogue requires mutuality and reciprocity. Although
the participants may not be equal in terms of formal power, neither are
they equal in terms of knowledge. Socrates knew more about philosophy
than did his young students. Today, in a knowledge-based organization,
everyone probably knows more about his own job than his boss does. If the
boss does not treat the subordinate respectfully, if people are punished
for their views or news, the boss will not learn what that subordinate can
teach him or her.
Manager: Are leaders capable of this kind of dialogue? I think you may be
rather idealistic about what we can expect from leaders.
MM: In some of my other articles, (Human Engineering Leads to Operating Principles for Global Management". Research Technology Management, Vol. 38 No. 5 September-October, 1995. pp. 58-60, "Teams Need Open Leaders" Research Technology Management, Vol. 38 No. 1 January-February, 1995. pp. 57-59.) I have described corporate leaders who have led interactive
dialogues. I'll admit that most Western leaders have not learned how to
lead an interactive dialogue. We expect leaders to study data and make
decisions. That is what we teach in business schools. Some Asian
companies have benefitted from the tradition of developing leaders
capable of participating in a dialogue.
An ancient Buddhist story describes a king speaking to a scholar:
The King said: 'Venerable Nagasena, will you converse
with me?' Nagasena: 'If your majesty will speak with me
as wise men converse, I will; but if your majesty
converses with me as kings converse, I will not.' 'How
then converse with the wise, venerable Nagasena?' 'The
wise do not get angry when they are driven into a corner,
While I may be an idealist about what it is possible for an organization to
achieve, I am also a realist about the kind of leadership necessary for this
achievement. And I recognize that leaders may need coaching as well as
Manager: I'd still like to know how the king would have reacted if Nagasena
had told him that the main gap was the king's leadership style.
MM: If that were the main gap, you would probably see one of two
alternatives. The leader would either finesse the process or see it as a
great opportunity to connect with the organization. One objective of the
process is to develop leadership that does not just collect data or listen
to people, but determines with them what should be done and in so doing
gains their support. By leading the dialogue, a leader may also learn the
facilitation skills essential for team development.
Manager: That sounds fine, but this process might attract managers who
like to talk and never make the tough decisions. There are some of those
around here who are always having workshops where people vent their
feelings and nothing changes. How does the interactive process deal with
that kind of manager?
MM: The process tends to force decisions, because everyone, including the
leader has to take a position on every issue. One manager said, "before we
begin to use the process, we used to hear a lot of opinions. Discussion
might go on for weeks. Now we make decisions more quickly and
Manager: I hope you don't mind my asking more questions. I'm afraid this
concept still seems a little fuzzy to me.
MM: Not at all. If you begin an interactive dialogue, your subordinates will
probably ask some of these same questions, and you will need to provide
answers. However, I find that understanding increases rapidly when you
begin the process People learn what others are thinking. Then it gets
Manager: I've been in a number of conversations about change which don't
seem to go anywhere. People talk a lot, and a few people dominate the
conversation. There are a series of monologues, not a dialogue. How does
the interactive dialogue deal with an aggressive participant with an
extreme viewpoint who is sure he or she is speaking for others?
MM: The process I have developed structures the interactive dialogue so
that those participants with extreme views are exposed with a minimum
of conflict. Let me give you an example from ABB of Canada. The executive
team first described their ideal future in terms of strategy, structure,
systems, skills, leadership style and shared values. They then constructed
a questionnaire with these organizational attributes.
Part of the questionnaire looked like this:
"Consider the following. How important do you consider each of these
organizational qualities to the success of ABB Canada, and how would you
evaluate them for your team today?"
Each participant scored these questions and others. They then prioritized
the most important gaps and compared their scores. For example, suppose
the most important gap was "Understanding customer needs." Everyone
scores it 5 in importance. However, the scoring for level today varied
from 2 to 4. Those with the modal score, say 3, explain their reasoning.
Then those who scored 2 describe their reasoning. They maintain that the
team still does not understand what some customers want. They say that
customers' needs are changing. Others are not convinced this is so. The
team agrees to a systematic dialogue with selected customers and this
results in a new consensus. I could go on and describe concrete steps they
might agree to take to close the gap and increase business. These might
require new skills, measurements, etc. They might agree on both short
term and longer term actions. They might determine that they can do some
things themselves but need to engage other parts of the organization for
|low high||low high |
customer needs||1 2 3 4 5||1 2 3 4 5 |
commitments||1 2 3 4 5||1 2 3 4 5 |
|||Teamwork||1 2 3 4 5||1 2 3 4 5 |
|||Communication||1 2 3 4 5||1 2 3 4 5 |
Manager: Does this process produce all of the organizational goals?
MM: It depends on whether or not there is a crisis. Some Japanese
companies use a version of interactive dialogue as a normal way of
setting and interpreting goals. Some companies may need radical
treatment to stop the bleeding before they can begin a plan to bring the
patient back to health. A year after beginning the change process, some of
the general managers at ABB of Canada described interactivity with the
following three overheads. They seem to be a good summary.
What is Interactivity?
- Dialogue - meeting of the minds
- Constructive engagement
- Seeking logic
- Full trust - openness
- Understanding each other
- Common language
- Openness to different perspectives
What it is not
- Telling people
- Explaining to your staff
- Just listening
Why use the interactivity process?
- Interactivity is the "glue" that makes the whole bigger than
the sum of the parts
- The strategy is not fully understood
- Interactivity continuously develops and improves the strategy
Manager: It's getting clearer, but I still need coaching about how to
facilitate the process.
MM: Why don't you try it out and then we can meet and have a dialogue
about how it went.
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