Creating Network Competence

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 43. No. 3. May-June, 2000. pp 57-59.

The human side of R&D has been changing. A generation ago, development projects were designed into piece parts which were parcelled out to technical staff. Individual work was assembled by managers up the hierarchy into a final product. Today, however, projects are highly interactive, from start to finish.

Hierarchical structures are giving way to heterarchical teams made up of people from different disciplines, including marketing and production. In heterarchy, who leads depends not on position in a hierarchy, but on who has the appropriate knowledge at each point in the process. In a hierarchy, communication is vertical. In a heterarchy, everyone communicates with everyone else.

Learn to Dialogue

People from different disciplines with different experiences communicate well only when they take the time needed to understand one another. Technology can help or hinder communication. For instance, PowerPoint presentation may dazzle with information but leave little time to explore its meaning. E-mail messages are good for scheduling meetings and sending summaries to the participants. But an e-mail exchange does not stimulate the creativity that can be sparked only by face-to-face conversation.

In a good dialogue, we hear the passion expressed about an idea. We can be sensitive to feelings and challenge someone's ideas without rejecting that person. We can be playful, reduce tension with humor, try out ideas that take us far out of the box without making a written record that can be ridiculed by someone who wasn't part of a spirited exchange.

However, few people learn how to do dialogue. In particular, engineers and scientists tend to distrust the unpredictable world of human relationships and feel more comfortable in the more predictable world of matter and energy. In a good dialogue, everything can't be measured and you don't usually get quick results. However, by making use of everyone's knowledge, you are likely to get better results.

Lines of Communication

Lines of Communication

In my article, "Interactive Dialogue as a Tool for Change" (Research • Technology Management, Sept.-Oct. 1996, pp. 57-59), I described the use of dialogue by leaders to communicate a vision and shape its implementation. Interactive dialogue can be a method of planning. Furthermore, it greatly increases the buy-in of managers who have an opportunity to interpret the meaning for them of a strategic vision.

Dialogue Can Transform

In his new book, The Magic of Dialogue (Simon and Schuster, 1999), Daniel Yankelovich gives examples of dialogues that have transformed conflict into cooperation, such as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland. He suggests principles essential for good dialogue. These are: equality among participants, listening to each other with empathy, and bringing assumptions into the open. He writes that, "Equality in dialogue means that status differences and coercive influences are suspended so that participants can weigh one another's points of view on their intrinsic merits rather than on authority, power, or prestige of the speaker." Listening with empathy can be tested by repeating to another speaker what you heard him or her say, in your own words.

Untested Assumptions

People are sometimes not aware of their assumptions. They may harbor assumptions about customer behavior or employee motivation that are never questioned, much less tested. Such a common untested assumption is that employees are best motivated by economic incentives.

Also, different parts of a company may not share their assumptions about each other. Yankelovich cites a case where a marketing department believed that the R&D department would have little interest in developing a variety of mundane peripheral products and wanted only to work on large, innovative projects. Because of this assumption, marketing was outsourcing a big chunk of its projects and crippling the ability of R&D to work on systemic customer solutions. A dialogue brought the two departments closer together.

Develop Interactive Skills

Good dialogue requires interactive skills. Recently, I participated in a leadership institute of the Canadian Pacific (CP) Group of Companies. Managers from different CP companies were combined in heterarchical groups of six and challenged to design new solutions to transportation problems. The managers discovered that to work together effectively, they needed to take time to introduce themselves to one another, not only to explore their assumptions, but also to learn about one another's knowledge and experience.

The teams worked together for four days. After they had presented their ideas to top management, I met with each team to evaluate with them how well they had worked together. I separated them into pairs and had each person describe what the other's contribution had been to the project and then reflect on how he or she might have improved his or her participation in the group. The pair arrived at agreement about themselves and joined the other two pairs. Each person then summarized his or her contribution to the team and developmental challenges. In this way, all criticism was self-generated.

Incidentally, I find that few managers need critical feedback from other people. After years of experience and evaluations, most of us know our own weaknesses. In fact, many of the CP managers found they were harder on themselves than were their colleagues on them. However, strong group members testified that they had to learn to balance holding onto ideas they believed in strongly with allowing others space to criticize and present alternatives.

Correspondingly, less expressive group members had to push themselves to share their views and relevant knowledge. Some of them recognized that they were comfortable when they felt they were safely in control within their subject matter area. The heterarchical dialogue shoved them out of their comfort zone. But it also forced them to learn.

The participants also concluded that they needed to share responsibility for facilitating the dialogue. If an idea was dropped too quickly, or if someone took too much airtime, all shared responsibility for keeping the conversation on track and making sure everyone was heard.

Essential for Success

The CP managers came to understand that many of their business ideas which called for partnering among their own companies, customers and with other companies required the same kind of heterarchical competence they had been developing in their groups.

Many companies are finding that in this age of learning, heterarchical competence is essential for success. And before a group can create heterarchical competence, it must learn the principles of effective dialogue.

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