Dialogue as a medium for change

shutterstock_284288123In keeping with change that engages both the inner person and outward actions, I was interested to see the Centre for Creative Leadership article on ‘Mediated Dialogue’.

The article highlights the value of using structured dialogue around objects as a means, especially early in the process of change, to build understanding and insight.

These might be postcards, art, photos or magazines, or anything that can be used to provoke different ways of expressing ideas, views and assumptions. They help open up discussion, and generate insights and reflection, provoking a much deeper and more valuable level of discussion and analysis.

The article mirrors my own experience in using postcards, game cards and photos especially in strategy or innovation sessions, where their use to characterise competitors or industry developments has helped to facilitate much more reflection and questioning of implicit assumptions and beliefs about what is happening than would otherwise have been possible.

The impact on groups has been similar to that which scenarios and gaming exercises has had with management teams. A great way to help people to expose and challenge thinking in new ways and provoke the reflection and analysis that is so necessary for real change, whilst often building in the group a stronger sense of identity because of the way that it creates a sense of having found something novel or new.

It’s a great article and CCL offer a white paper that provides more details of the technique and how to undertake it. Worth a read for those interested.



Principle 4: Resilience and relationships


WD-40 – what a great product! I use it to keep my hedge-cutter blades clean, loosen nuts and lubricate hinges. This is just a few of its many uses.

The website of the San Diego based company features over 2000 uses. These have been suggested by customers who have clearly been so enamoured with the product that they have tried to do the most amazing things with it, including cleaning guitar strings, getting tomato stains off clothes (as a pre-treatment) and even making the game ‘Twister’ more difficult by spraying the mat before you start.

WD-40 is a water-displacing (the clue is in the ‘WD’), penetrating and soil removing lubricant spray with myriad uses, all of which focus on helping move things that should be able to move (including stains). This product, in its way, illustrates the value of the fourth principle in generating committed change – and something which I have rarely seen used when major change is envisaged: invest to enable people to be capable to change by building relationships and resilience.

Capability to thrive in change

At a personal level, we often resist a change because of a lack of resilience and trust or confidence in others.

Fear of the consequences of change, of as yet unknown outcomes, of losing our role, position or valued experiences, of broken friendships or failure. All restrict our confidence and desire for change. They crowd in to build resistance, especially as we get older or more established (and have more to lose) or feel more vulnerable.

New technology often puts people off because they do not feel confident of using it and so do not try … in case they look daft or it causes problems. The much publicised problems in our energy market similarly demonstrate the issue well (see energy to change post).

This natural tendency needs to be countered by leaders. People will not commit wholeheartedly unless they feel capable of doing so successfully. They resist the risk and evident personal losses that it will mean. They get rooted in often less important things. They fail to contribute to shaping a change and they will be unable to commit to change early or even at all!

It is therefore vital that leaders build up the flexibility and health of the whole organisation. This requires work on two interlinked elements: the overall quality of relationships across the community and the personal resilience of individuals within it.

Enhancing resilience is about building someone’s ability (and confidence) to get through tough events well emotionally.

Enhancing relationships is about building the social support that prevents isolation and creates a sense of team.

Together they enable people to look forward with greater openness. They provide a better perspective on what’s really important and what less important. They help maintain the health of the organisation.They are fuel for wholehearted change.

Building these is just like treating the organisation with WD-40!


What priorities does this raise?

1 Building a balanced sense of self-responsibility

It would mean equipping people with the understanding, skills and relationships that enable them to take more responsibility for both themselves and their co-workers: understanding and helping people to recognise and manage stress effectively, openly challenging unhelpful attitudes (both in themselves and others), and doing this is in a way that builds teaming and fosters interdependent behaviours.

Stating it like this expresses the challenge. It also highlights how rarely leaders make this investment for change. Successful wholehearted change builds on strong teams and self-responsible individuals. These qualities need enough investment in the run-up to strategic change.

2 Encouraging open and reasoned dialogue and behaviours

Reason and openness often take a hit with change. People react rather than respond. Yet they are vital to maintain the strength of the organisation and to achieve the best outcomes. A reasoned response is always better than an emotional reaction.

Open and reasoned dialogue needs encouragement and example. Leaders need to model it in their approach to problems, facts and possible solutions. We need to expose the reasonable base for decisions under our responsibility and demand this of others.

We should also foster an awareness of the importance of behaviours (e.g. acceptable disagreement, openness and listening), with a focus on encouraging people to play to their strengths and remaining flexible on the specific form of any change as oppose to the vital importance of underlying reasons for changes.

3 Building effective teaming

Radical and strategic changes undermine teaming and relationships. They often break up established teams and provoke an insularity and defensiveness that can poison trust within the organisation for many years to come. This is especially true if current relationships or past history are poor.

Leaders often adopt a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, playing winners and losers off against each other. This all too readily feeds personally defensive strategies. Rather we need to be seen to continue to value people and recognise the losses and emotional hurt that is inevitable in change – even without compromising the move forward. This means teamwork is modelled in the leadership team and cascaded through the organisation. It means continued investment in team activities, social interactions, empathetic dialogue and the ‘tough love’ of good teams.

Wholehearted change flows from a strong meaning (the why) and through questions that help to highlight the gaps and challenges to be addressed. Leaders support these with community strength.

What might this look like in practice?

A specific programme of activities can easily be designed by the organisation itself – bringing an intimate understanding of where it is strong and weak and monitoring the action being taken. The ownership of the programme can itself be a powerful reinforcement of this fourth principle. However, the sorts of things that are likely to be effective are a mix of:

  • Work team development, starting with the leadership team. Identifying and working on problem relationships and behaviours in the team, building an understanding of personal styles, strengths and weaknesses
  • Resilience tools and training (including things like mindfulness training, breathing and relaxation, self-observation and acceptance) with ample opportunity not just to learn the techniques but also to regularly practice them. A programme like that developed by Linda Lantieri in NY schools is a good example of the basket of tools that an organisation might use
  • In a team, individually answer the 12 question checklist from the book “First Break all the Rules” (Buckingham/Coffman, 1999) and identify where issues need addressing on a one-by-one basis
  • Ensure in briefings and meetings that the meaning and reasoning behind the change is discussed with human and business issues addressed
  • Use exercises to promote greater understanding and empathy between staff (e.g. MBTF, style questionnaires, personal history, Strengths/Weaknesses/ Likes/Hates etc)
  • Pull people together to talk about what they find meaningful in their own work, separate out the important from the less important, and identify what they find difficult in the change – with a view to building support networks to discuss and work these through
  • Training on stress management, conflict resolution, assertiveness, negotiation and problem solving  – tools which people can use to avoid feeling helpless in the face of change
  • Build on work team events to strengthen interpersonal relationships and trust (things which, if pressured, task focused corporates and individuals  often cut back on).
  • Set the tone of meetings into and through the change process very carefully – with the aim of allowing ‘processing time’ for people to reflect on what is happening and build a clear story in their heads

It is important that emotions are discussed and given legitimacy in discussions  (something that is not often encouraged!) and that people are encouraged to reflect on challenges and changes and their significance (or not!). In some schools in the NY resilience programme they start faculty meetings with a chime and brief meditation. This helps to set the tone for discussions. Useful because it promotes reflection and thought – seats of reason and empathy.

The aim throughout is to provide a set of processes that enable people to be more assured of good outcomes in spite of any threats that the change might present to them. This helps people to participate more readily and interactively in the change and boosts commitment. People can start to concentrate on the content and handle the stress of change.

Ironically the overall health of the organisation ahead of major change is a key factor in helping people feel able to commit to change wholeheartedly. The most important factors in realising this are the strength of relationships and trust between people and the resilience of the individuals involved.

This enables those things that should move to move more easily. We can all find areas of our organisational commitment that need a good squirt of WD-40. Principle 4 is about this.




Principle 3: Questions before answers

shutterstock_142135432I like the Radio 4 series, The Public Philosopher.

Each episode takes a controversial issue (e.g. welfare, rape crime, morality and the state) and features Michael Sandel, a Harvard academic, in an auditorium. What makes the programme so enjoyable is the story-like unfolding of the plot as he asks members of the large audience questions on the topic.

He makes comments and injects his knowledge into the arena but the programme centres on the answers that audience members give to his questions and the discussion and debate that this then sparks. The to and fro of the questions and answers reveal new and valuable dimensions to the issues under scrutiny. It’s an illuminating podcast to listen to.

Most strategic organisational issues benefit from a similar approach.  These issues are many sided, complex and with undesirable trade-offs or dilemmas and little immediate clarity as to the best answers. Yes – new data is important for choosing the best way forward. But before any of this the key is to find the right questions to answer.

The power of questions

Good questions have an unerring ability to spark engagement, reflection and discussion. They provoke thought and can change minds in a matter of minutes as they excite emotion in the anticipation of discovery.

No wonder that they are at the heart of good education – with many Law and Business Schools using the Socratic method of questioning as the basis for lectures and case analyses.

They are also at the heart of the third principle for leading wholehearted change: to lead with questions rather than answers. Leaders use questions as a key tool for wholehearted change. Indeed they are often the tool that helps people perceive the gap (see last post).

Too often, our image of the effective leader is the macho all-knowing Hollywood hero – the invulnerable character with fantastic judgment and bold moves. A guy with all the answers. I guess, if they existed, these characters would be marvellous but they don’t! Reality is real people who have to deal with other real people, bringing their limited knowledge, talents and emotional issues into a complex situation with other multidimensional people, challenges and lots of baggage.

Yet too often we want to lead with answers.

In reality, to generate change the most effective leaders provide people with the best questions not the best answers. They lead with the questions that challenge people to produce answers. Relevant to the ‘why’. Self-evidently important. A challenge to the status quo.

Their questions engage – emotionally and intellectually. These ‘pull’ people to really look at the most important issues and start to work at them. Rarely is a crisis so visible that the questions are obvious to all upfront. A leader with the right questions helps people to see the crisis and positively engage with it and with urgency. Only then do people begin to themselves see the need for change and only then do answers become important.

Leaders use questions

Leaders therefore should:

1 Identify the agenda on which the organisation needs to work

Good questions set an agenda. As Einstein is reputed to have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” The key is for leaders to adopt a questioning approach and uncover which questions need answers.

How do we penetrate this target market?

Why have we had no significant new product in the last 5 years?

What would a digitally enabled organisation look like?

How can we halve our environmental footprint whilst doubling our business?

Why is inter-function co-operation so poor?

Questions set the territory for exploration and express the challenge. Leaders’ need to keep ahead of their teams in understanding the key questions. The right questions are the right ones even when there are not obvious answers. Too often leaders can be like the proverbial drunk looking for their lost keys under a lamppost because there is light there rather than because it is the right place to look.

Leaders focus on identifying the most important areas and work out the key questions here.

2 Work up questions that unlock and engage people on the key issues

For wholehearted change it is vital to engage people emotionally. Questions are a great way to do this, especially when they are asked  with the full expectation of getting an answer. If done well, the question and the expectation empower and engage.

Questions help to uncover the kind of gap discussed in the last post – they help to flesh it out, and by engaging people and building the communication around it they start to build a common language and understanding of it. Where leaders can keep a measured focus on the gap through posing questions they can build the right level of energy and tension to promote innovation and change.

An interesting recent book, A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger illustrates the power and significance of questions in doing this and highlights how this is only increasing in importance as information floods our environment. As this happens it becomes too difficult for one person to carry all the answers. Good questions becomes even more important.

3 Use questions to press people to take on their own responsibility

Questions also help to avoid the sloping shoulders that challenges can bring, pressing people to pick up their responsibilities. They help to pass the ‘gap’ around with the expectation that each must play their part in closing it.

Too often leaders, especially community leaders, act as ‘rescuers’ to sort out the issues and problems for their teams. This deprives people of fulfilling their responsibility, contributing their understanding and ideas and undermines their commitment. It ‘robs them of their development opportunity’ as a friend of mine expresses it. Leading with questions works against this risk.

Well formed questions hold people to account in a positive way – by expressing your confidence in their expertise, ability and desire to come up with ways forward … and expecting them to work out the answers! It coaches them to solve their own problems.

How might this look?

How you might work on this…

  • Examine how much and how well you currently use questions in discussions with your team. Good questions sometimes need working at. Consider an area of concern and think specifically about what initial questions need answers
  • When talking with people, ask them what questions they have and are working on in their areas of responsibility
  • In meetings, openly consider what are the key questions and share potential answers without offering these as ‘the way we will go’ but challenging others to come up with better answers
  •  In 1:1’s with your team specifically emphasise questions and challenge for answers
  • Strategy development is very effectively question driven and it can be used as a cascading tool to develop a robust and engaging strategy. Start the leadership team off by challenging them to consider what are the most important questions facing the organisation


Asking good questions is hard and not just in the thinking of them.  It needs a shift in our mindset and a degree of confidence in the power of questions so that we let go of the need to control outcomes directly; to prove how smart we are (to ourself often) because we have the answer;  to under-leverage the insight and expertise of those around us and to deny them their opportunity to develop further.

Leaders seeking wholehearted change make maximum use of questions to raise tension and engage people before they start to share any answers that they might have.

Principle 1 provides forward momentum – the wind in the sails that is needed to change – and a direction to press towards.

Principle 2 sparks the need and the urgency. It acts to pull people forward into change. If people are clear and committed to a purpose then the gap acts as a moral imperative. It performs just like a vacuum in nature. People seek to resolve the tension.

This principle is a way of connecting people with these effectively.




Principle 2: Find the gap (or dissatisfaction)

shutterstock_61395928I run –  not long distances but quite regularly, typically twice a week. My standard run is precisely 5k (as measured by mapmyrun.com) and combines road running with a loop through a park. I do have an extended version which adds another 2k to this if I feel like it – then I disappear more completely into the countryside.

Do I think my running is going well?

Is it a good thing or a bad thing? (my wife tells me that running is not good for your knees)

Do I need to change what I am doing?

It depends.

It depends crucially on why I run. (This is why the first principle is such an important starting point in change.) Only if you understand why I run do you stand a chance of understanding if it is really fulfilling its purpose and hence if I need to change. This then is the second principle for wholehearted change – find the gap or, as I have heard it described, ‘the dissatisfaction’ with where you are. Identifying and expressing this dissatisfaction is vital in helping people to see the need to move.

The gap

The gap is what lies between what is the best fulfilment of our purposes and where we are.

You might think that identifying this gap depends on clear visioning. This helps but, as Robert Fritz (a co-conspirator of Peter Senge) highlights in his book, ‘The Path of Least Resistance’, the bigger difficulty is often to see our present reality. The size and nature of the gap that change needs to close can be difficult to spot.

We fool ourselves about where we are. We like reasons and excuses. We prefer to alter our perceptions rather than change an uncomfortable reality. We readily deceive ourselves, even as organisations, about how well we are doing.

A key task in creating wholehearted change is to help people to see this gap clearly. This needs creativity and challenge.

After all without a problem no-one has a need for a solution.

The leaders’ role

The leaders’ role is critical if the gap is to be understood well and in a timely fashion. Leaders need to mine for the gap and help map its shape and express it powerfully.

The gap needs to be painted in full colour. I like mono-causal explanations and answers, they make for good headlines and easy thinking. Unfortunately they are most often wrong. A gap has to be examined from different angles and calibrated if it is to be really understood. Only then can the nature of change be well understood and be assuredly beneficial.

It might be to do with poor execution, a lack of focus or energy, weak outcomes, misunderstood needs, or downright failure.

The gap can be positive (there is an opportunity for us to grow significantly if we move quickly…) or negative (our margins will be halved unless we address this challenge…) .In practice, it helps for it to be both, because different people take to different messages and each group needs it expressed in ways that are relevant to them.

This encourages an approach that:

1. Reexamines the strategy

This may be captured in writing or simply in the priorities and action of the leadership team. Either way gaining clarity on the strategy that the organisation is following and the results that it is producing – especially in relation to its external environment (competitors, customers, stakeholders etc) is a great place to start to compare reality with purpose and desire. Where are the gaps? What have we agreed that is important are we not making progress with? Where is reality pinching?

2. Draws on multiple sources

There are many powerful sources that can help challenge perceptions. Leaders should use multiple sources of input – internal, external, quantitative, qualitative, financial, illustrative and statistical. The variety is important to unlock perceptions and stimulate the creativity to set new goals. I have seen a face-to-face discussion with a key customer executive expose the enormous gaps in the perceptions of how well this customer was being served. In another instance a new graphic of market share (aka a ‘killer chart’) opened people’s eyes to the need to change market strategy. It can be difficult to anticipate exactly what will open people’s eyes which is why variety is valuable.

Other powerful inputs include ‘voice of the customer’ exercises, staff surveys, key stakeholder interviews, discussions of values, financial and market analyses, and scenario based workshops (to name but a few).

Sometimes the most surprising data point unlocks sight for the blind.

3. Involve people in finding the gap

There can be a tendency to do gap finding behind closed doors. After all, it’s strategic and sensitive. The truth can be painful. Yet finding gaps is a process of learning and for people to move forward wholeheartedly they need to learn. We all learn more easily when we are involved and engaged. Leaders seek ways to involve people in the process.

How might this look?

There are many ways to advance this kind of agenda…

  • Identify different topics with allied questions – by function or stakeholder group – and ask small groups of staff to examine them and come back with the data and issues that these raise
  • Work with people on ‘why are we here?’  to generate a ‘best version’ to aim for and then ask people to identify where they see shortfalls in what’s happening at the moment
  • Organise an ideas ‘jam’ that captures everyone’s input on areas to develop, issues to resolve, ideas or priorities
  • Benchmark with other organisations and use multi-function teams to do the reviews
  • Conduct detailed diagnostics in specific areas and then review the data and hypotheses with involved staff
  • Share your organisation’s ‘best version’ and invite ‘post it’ comments and ideas (in communal meeting places or online) inviting new goals and challenges
  • Use successive leadership meetings to identify and discuss the biggest challenges facing the organisation and to develop challenges that can be parcelled out to teams for solution development

The creative gap

As for my gap?

People run for many reasons. In my case I run for my health – both physical and psychological. I want to keep alert and relatively fit. I do not like gyms. I prefer exercise outside. I do not want to run marathons or go a lot faster. However, I need to be more consistent. For maximum psychological impact I need to run at particular times of the day rather than simply when I can fit it in. Similarly I need to run more consistently – at 2-day intervals.

These are my big gaps….and the music on my iPod needs changing. That is a small gap. Oh and I need new shoes (This blog has just cost me £72.26).


Principle 1 provides forward momentum – the wind in the sails that is needed to change – and a direction to press towards.

Principle 2 sparks the need and the urgency. It acts to pull people forward into change. If people are clear and committed to a purpose then the gap acts as a moral imperative. It performs just like a vacuum in nature. People seek to resolve the tension.



McKinsey highlights value of digital technology in helping change

Nice short article on McKInsey.com this month which highlights the value that digital approaches can add to the responsiveness of organisations and the effectiveness of change initiatives. Takes a healthy broad view of what constitutes change management and focuses down on how it impacts behaviour.


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