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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:

  1. Which goals are the most important to reach,
  2. The importance of the gaps.
  3. What steps are needed to close the gaps.

Manager: What happens when you have these differences? Do you vote? Do you try to reach consensus?

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, kings do.'
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 education.

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 effectively."

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 interesting.

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?"
low highlow high
Understanding customer needs1 2 3 4 51 2 3 4 5
Meeting our commitments1 2 3 4 51 2 3 4 5
Teamwork1 2 3 4 51 2 3 4 5
Communication1 2 3 4 51 2 3 4 5
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 other things.

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 itself

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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