Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Changing Conversations

I'm loving Patricia Shaw's Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change.

After struggling to comprehend an an email chain 3 months and 5 pages long, between four parties who didn't know each other, don't work in the same division or time zone, and come from different heritage organizations, I finally set up a conference call "just to talk."

As I was preparing to dial in, DN (senior to me but not my direct manager) walked into the little room I had set up and asked me what we were going to talk about. He stopped me from dialing in until he had provided me with his framework/understanding of what needed to be accomplished. I think he thought that the call was not necessary (I want to confirm this assumption), and that I wasn't prepared to manage the call. Interestingly, I *wasn't* prepared to 'manage' the call! I was trying to get the parties into one place in the time/space continuum just to see whether that kind of synchronous conversation would bring some clarity. Essentially, my 'agenda' was to bring people together and allow some human interaction, with the hope that some common understanding would emerge from that. In other words, I did not know what should happen, I hoped I was facilitating the emergence of that knowledge. I think DN's expectations were that I would tell the parties what needed to happen and how. (Again, I want to talk to him about this to confirm.)

Last night while reading Shaw's book I realized that she was giving voice to what I was intuitively trying to practice with my agenda-free meeting. She writes about allowing meaning-making to emerge during conversations, and that is exactly where I was yesterday! She describes this as an application of complexity theory to culture change in the organization.

I didn't consciously think of what I was doing yesterday as intentional culture change, but that is exactly what I was doing in my meeting. We have (at least!) two different sets of assumptions and knowledge bases coming out of this merger. That extended email chain - it was a complete clash of cultures.

Epilogue: At the end of the meeting, I think we all came away with a better understanding of what was going on in each others' worlds and how we could communicate a little better. Did I drive the participants to my pre-determined solution? No. But I think we all came away with a sense that we had co-created a solution we could all live with. I like and respect DN, and I'm going to approach him about this process and his perceptions of what happened yesterday.

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