Sarah Beart
14 March, 2019

In the “University of Heathrow” (as an esteemed academic colleague of ours refers to it), waiting for a flight to the current round of difficult meetings, it’s easy to get tempted into buying the latest expensive, glossy book promising the secrets of leading successful change. Full of case studies illustrating the successes of improbably wise and prescient leaders, not to mention impossibly diligent and capable consultants, these books suggest that if only you applied this model or that framework to your organisation then the holy grail of change, lasting success (and a large bonus) could be yours.

Call us cynical? Go ahead! Any of these books will do – in the hands of a skilled practitioner. Of course, the realities of what goes on in your organisation will be different, and the people you work with may be less glamorous and assured than their case study counterparts. But our provocation is that any change or strategy model will do as long as it is used with skill to stimulate and contain productive conversations.

In our view of the world, an organisation is not merely a machine to be re-engineered, an ecosystem to be cultivated or a political system to be manipulated. We think of organisations as essentially conversational phenomena. An organisation is the emerging pattern of all the conversations that take place between all the people who are in some way shaping and shaped by what the organisation is and does ( so yes this includes customers, suppliers, your local community, the CEO and the cleaners) . And culture is something an organisation does, rather than has.

The role of leaders and change agents is to convene and configure conversations that offer the prospect of change. And in our view (shared by consultant and author Peter Hawkins) the change has to begin to happen within the conversation itself – otherwise nothing is changing. (See Peter Hawkins’ 2011 book “Leadership Team Coaching”). This is unconventional in a world dominated by a “diagnose-plan-implement” mantra. It’s controversial to put forward the idea that things might and do change as you begin to talk to people about the current situation, rather than waiting for the plan to be put into action.

Conversational skills

When we talk about convening, we mean identifying and gathering together the necessary people to participate in the conversation. And by configuring we mean the art of structuring a series of conversations, and making good choices about who needs to talk with whom about what. Convening and configuring are crafts – it’s not enough just to get everyone in a room. But they are crafts that can be learned and, we would argue, need to be learned by leaders everywhere. As one client for a rather fraught partnership event put it “You are the people who know when we need to go from pairs to cabaret tables.” We laughed and agreed at the time, but later were troubled. It seems that while leaders undoubtedly need the skills and confidence to convene and configure conversations for strategy and change, we’ve rarely seen this in the curriculum of a leadership development programme

If any old change model will do, why do we use change and strategy models at all? We think they actually do serve an important purpose, by prompting leaders and consultants to create and convene conversations around particular issues of importance to the organisation, describing them in particular ways. The model chosen describes the problem as seen by the organisation’s leaders or consulting team – so you may find yourself working with a model around competition (e.g. Porter’s Five Forces) or one around culture (a culture diagnostic – is culture a disease we wonder?) or a directional policy matrix. There are general models of change too – for example John Kotter’s step model. The purpose of ALL these models, in our view, is mainly to stimulate conversation. The framing of the conversation is important, as those of you who’ve read our research into Organisational Transformation will know (if you haven’t, just click HERE

The effects of conversations

Are you sceptical about the idea that conversations change things? If, like us, you have been to a lot of fairly dull meetings then we can understand your view. Lots of ritualised and pre-scripted exchanges – the detail may differ from month to month but everyone knows their part and can take their cue. We are talking about the importance of conversations in which something novel is said or done. As John Shotter reminded us at a workshop some years ago, if you have any doubt that words don’t change things, just think about the first time that you risked saying “I love you…” to another adult. No one knew what would happen next. But that whatever happens next everything is different about the relationship. Conversations with novelty, where risks are taken, change us intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Good starting points for change conversations

So what does make for a good conversation – one with a “center not sides” as Bill Isaacs puts it (in his book Dialogue). In our view, good conversations are convened around a question with a “How” or “what” start rather than a topic. Why? Because if you are trying to DO things differently, then it is helpful to start with a framing that suggests that there will be different action(s) when you know the answer. Examples might include things like “How do we get closer to our customers?” or “How do we organise our people to make the most of the skills we have?”.

Good conversations also have the right people in them, and focus on what is in the gift of the people who are in the room. It is no good having a change conversation that allocates actions to people who aren’t present, or that requires people who aren’t there to change what they do. How often do we hear that a board or exec team has decided that the next management layer down (it is almost always the very next layer down) need to change their behaviour, improve their leadership, raise their game, get better at delegating and generally shape up. So the executive team commission some change work for this group, or perhaps a leadership development programme.

This way of working ignores the contribution to the existing pattern made by the exec team, and indeed of all the other people in the organisation. So we might ask, what is the contribution that you, the exec team, are inadvertently making to keeping things as they currently are? What kind of conversations do you need to have with each other, and with this next layer down, if things are going to be different? What are you willing to change about what YOU do? This is inconvenient to a top team that is comfortable believing the problems lie elsewhere. Sometimes when we pose this question it turns out to be the last conversation we are ever invited to have in that organisation. It’s probably better that way, because if the people commissioning the change work aren’t prepared to contemplate their own part in things then it’s going to be very difficult to change what anyone else in the organisation does.

Power and feelings in change conversations

This leads us on to an important point about power. When things change in an organisation, it means a change in “power relations” by which we mean things like who has and uses what kinds of power. This is often implicit rather than explicit in the change brief: for example, successfully delegating more will involve the “delegatees” having and using the power to take more decisions and responsibility. Taking more leadership may involve speaking up in company town halls, and perhaps contesting senior decisions. This is going to be disturbing to all kinds of people – those doing the challenging, those being challenged and those who are witnesses to what goes on. And it requires everyone to be able to hold their nerve in the face of unfamiliar, unscripted conversations where unprecedented things are being said, and people don’t know the rules about how to respond.

To state the obvious, this creates a lot of feelings. Many years ago we sat in a conversation of about 40 senior managers who were contemplating a huge reorganisation and a change of ownership in a large, traditional, heavily unionised organisation. New things began to be said about possible changes to working practices and the room felt electric. One man commented at the coffee break “I don’t know what kind of talk is, but it’s dangerous and I don’t like it.” It’s a common reaction. People feel excited, nervous, sad, elated, terrified, angry, numb, enthusiastic and indeed more or less any other emotion you can name.

Much of this doesn’t make its way into change models, except perhaps in rather simplified terms where people are described as “resistant” or “bought-in” to change. We argue this is based on a bit of an oversimplification of what goes on; all kinds of emotions are going to stir up in conversations about change, for all members of an organisation, for its leaders and consultants too. So good conversations need to allow the emotions to be expressed, and understood. This requires additional skills of convening and configuring skill, so that people get a chance to notice how they feel, and to express it while also departing from familiar patterns of talking.

At this point, you might moment to think about a change you would like to make in your area, and about what you are trying to achieve. What follows below are the sorts of questions we find ourselves asking when we are being called upon to “do change” – to convene and configure some conversations:

What is the question that we are really working on, or need to?

What relationships are important?

What is the current quality of those relationships?

What conversations are actually possible or realistic at this stage?

Who needs to be part of these conversations?

What formats or styles of conversation need to happen and in what order?

Who has what kind of power in relation to this question?

What constraints are there?

What are the anxieties in relation to this question, and for whom?

How much structure is needed for this conversation and of what kind?

What needs amplifying?

What needs dampening?

How might it be possible to draw on or access wider forms of knowing? (when it comes to emotional matters, try engaging in expressive activities like drawing or sculpting)

Find these questions useful? We’d love to hear it if you do.

Like to know more? Drop us a line or give us a call (07776 171474) – you will have deduced that we love a good conversation.

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