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Designing Conversations to Improve Business Theory and Practice


Having a shared vocabulary enables peer coaching, feedback ... 'We are coming to believe that this slip twixt cup and lip' stems, not from weak ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Designing Conversations to Improve Business Theory and Practice

  • Designing Conversations to Improve Business
    Theory and Practice
  • and to Encourage a More
  • Participatory Culture in the
  • Workplace

A presentation by Skip Rowland and Jim
Wolford-Ulrich at the annual conference of the
International Leadership Association, Nov. 5,
Session Outline
  • Dialogue as design process and product
  • Courageous Conversations
  • Definition and conceptual overview
  • Lessons from the field
  • Using courageous conversations in the Seattle
    Public Schools
  • Skill building in a dialogue practice group
  • Using structured dialogue in a business setting
  • Using dialogue to form a learning community
  • Implications for leaders
  • Q A / Discussion

Communication Can Be Designed
  • Organizational members guided by leaders can
    establish norms and protocols for communication
  • Requires facilitated implementation
  • assessment / planning
  • skill training / practice
  • measurement / feedback
  • Intended to complement other forms of
    communication not replace them
  • Purposes served
  • Divergent thinking
  • Root cause analysis
  • Joint application development
  • Scenario planning / rehearse execution
  • Create shared vision
  • Resolve conflict
  • Move beyond impasse
  • Deepen trust
  • Enhance safety and openness
  • Build community

Design as Process / Product
  • Design is what leaders do they create with
    others preferred social realities
  • Design processes are guided by vision / purpose /
    design intention
  • Design is collaborative we co-design
  • Design like conversation has an emergent
    quality we dont fully know at the outset the
    outcome we intend
  • Designs that work become design patterns that
    can be adapted and fitted to new situations

Presenter Bio
  • Educational Credentials
  • Chapman Univ - B.S. Social Science
  • Gonzaga Univ - M.S. Management Science
  • Seattle Univ - Ed.Doc. Educational Leadership
  • Professional Experience
  • Entrepreneur Business Owner
  • Professor of Leadership Studies
  • Global Learner
  • Corporate Executive
  • Government Administrator
  • Race Relations, U.S.A.F.
  • Child and Family Therapist

Courageous Conversations
  • Use of structured dialogue as an intervention to
    address racism within Seattle Public Schools.
  • Transformational Leadership Leadership model
    for institutional change.
  • Culture Groups with a socially shared
    meaningful structure.
  • Institutional Racism Organizational behavior
    that systematically subordinates an individual or

The C.A.R.E. Package Learning System A model for
structured dialogue and courageous conversations
The Human Brain
Preparation of the ImaginationVision Building
Transformational Communications
Bridge of Trust
1. Good Ideas 2. Appropriate Language 3.
Respect the Receiver 4. Read and Listen
1. Open Mind 2. Read and Listen 3. Decode 4.
Respectful Feedback
Feed Forward
Interpersonal Gap
Feed Back
Reciprocal flow of influence
Transformational Attitudes
Self Talk Inner voice Self Image Self
Portrait Self Esteem Feelings Self Expectation
Responsible and Transformational Goals
Strategic Effort
Collaborative Reflective Performance Evaluation
Courageous Conversation Performance Evaluation
____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____
Vision Communications Attitudes Goals Resources Ef
fort Overall Score
Additional Lessons from the Field
Field notes Setting 1
  • Dialogue practice group
  • 7 Training and OD professionals met monthly over
    a period of 4 years
  • Format
  • Check in
  • Dialogue
  • Check out
  • Debrief
  • Outcomes

Lessons Learned Setting 1
  • Having the form (purpose and protocols) and the
    vocabulary facilitated skill acquisition
  • The debrief was an important element that
    promoted group learning
  • After a critical mass of participants gained
    competence in the structured dialogue form, we
    felt more free to improvise and adapt the form
  • When new members entered the group, it helped to
    go back to using the form and protocols

Field notes Setting 2
  • High tech, telecom RD company
  • Fast-paced, action-oriented culture
  • As an outgrowth of a middle-manager leadership
    development program, multiple work groups become
    intentional around learning organization
  • Personal mastery
  • Team learning
  • Dialogue
  • Shared vision
  • Mental models
  • Systems thinking
  • HR learning and development staff
  • formed a community of practice

Lessons Learned Setting 2
  • Expect frustration and a perceived sense of
    failure / irrelevance at first
  • Readiness is key
  • Embed the practice of dialogue in solving real
  • Example two work teams discovering they were
    accidental adversaries
  • Scatter the seeds widely and water liberally

Field notes Setting 3
  • Teaching masters-level students team learning
    concepts skills
  • Left hand column
  • Ladder of inference
  • Balancing advocacy with inquiry
  • These became building block core competencies
    for self-leadership and for productive group

Lessons Learned Setting 3
  • Concepts are relatively easy to understand, but
    frustratingly difficult to practice, let alone
  • Having a shared vocabulary enables peer coaching,
  • Over time, these skills can be instilled in the
    culture of a learning community / cohort
  • Modeling the skills (e.g., by faculty) is
  • These are core self-leadership competencies and
    form the basis for a transforming leadership
    practice as described by Quinn, Kegan, and others

Courageous ConversationsReflective Exercise
  • Pair off in twos.
  • Write the words Black and White on your pads.
  • Write down under each word the emotions you
    associate with that word.
  • Summarize your findings.
  • Report out to the large group.

Implications for Leaders
  • Important conversations can and should be
  • Producing intentional change is facilitated by
    intentional communication (Ford Ford).
  • Change happens in dialogue
  • Conversation is not merely planning for change
    that will occur later.
  • Dialogue and collaborative inquiry promote
    generative learning
  • Dialogue enables followers to do the adaptive
    work leadership requires (Heifetz).

Guidelines for Action
  • Create space for dialogue and conversation
  • Generate awareness, cultivate skills
  • Build in continuous feedback
  • For example, by using facilitators mentors,
    providing open forums, and encouraging reflection
  • Create individual and collective scenarios for
    desired futures
  • Trust the process

Adapted from Kurt April (1999) in Leadership
Organization Development Journal
Your thoughts and questions?
  • Thank You!

Presenter Contact Info
  • Skip Rowland, Ed.D.
  • Professor of Leadership Management Sciences
  • Antioch University
  • 2326 Sixth Ave.
  • Seattle, WA 98121
  • P 253.839.6321
  • C 206.227.7215
  • E
  • Jim Wolford-Ulrich, Ph.D.
  • Team Leader, Leadership Faculty
  • School of Leadership Professional Advancement
  • Duquesne University
  • 600 Forbes Avenue
  • Pittsburgh, PA 15282
  • P 412.396.1640
  • F 412.396.4711
  • E

  • April, K. A. (1999). Leading through
    communication, conversation and dialogue.
    Leadership Organization Development Journal,
    20(5), 231ff.
  • Ford, J. D., Ford, L. W. (1995). The role of
    conversations in producing intentional change in
    organizations. The Academy of Management Review,
    20(3), 541ff.
  • Whyte, D. (2004). Five conversations on the
    frontiers of leadership. Leader to Leader 33,

Additional Slides
The Ladder of Inference
  • Adopt
  • Make
  • Reach
  • Add
  • Start With
  • Beliefs Assumptions
  • Inferences
  • Conclusions
  • Personal/Cultural Meaning
  • Observable Data

Dialogue Mental Models
  • We are coming to believe that this slip twixt
    cup and lip stems, not from weak intentions,
    wavering will, or even non-systemic
    understanding, but from mental models. More
    specifically, new insights fail to get put into
    practice because they conflict with deeply held
    internal images of how the world works, images
    that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and
  • Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Left Hand Column Exercise
  • What Im Thinking
  • (or Feeling)
  • What Is Said

Tacit Assumptions Which Govern our Conversation
and Contribute to Blocking our Purpose in Real
Life Situations
The Left Hand Column (LHC)
  • What led me to think and feel this way?
  • What was my intention?
  • Did I achieve the results? How?
  • How did my comments contribute to the
  • Why didnt I share my left hand column?
  • What assumptions am I making about others?
  • What is the cost of operating this way?
  • What was the other persons LHC?
  • Note Some LHC thoughts should stay hidden!

Advocacy / Inquiry Protocols
  • Improve Advocacy
  • Make your thinking process visible
  • Publicly test your conclusions and assumptions
  • Walk up the ladder slowly
  • Improve Inquiry
  • Ask others to make their thinking visible
  • Use unaggressive language
  • Compare your assumptions to theirs
  • Gently walk others down your ladder

Intentional Dialogue Principle 1
  • Suspend Judgment
  • Avoid categorizing people based on their ideas.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions.
  • Question your own assumptions.

Intentional Dialogue Principle 2
  • Speak from Awareness
  • Be aware of others around you.
  • Listen intently to what is said and what is not
  • Be aware of yourself and how you are feeling.
  • Speak from personal experience.
  • Speak when moved -- not just to break a silence.

Intentional Dialogue Principle 3
  • Hold the Space for Difference
  • Be slow to respond to others' ideas.
  • Entertain multiple views of reality.
  • Accept that others don't see reality the way you

Intentional Dialogue Principle 4
  • Speak to the Center
  • Disassociate what is said from who said it (and
    from what his or her position in the organization
  • Respond to ideas, not to people.
  • Honor the collective mind.

Intentional Dialogue Principle 5
  • Balance Advocacy and Inquiry
  • Share your left hand column.
  • Make your thinking process visible. Walk others
    up your ladder of inference slowly.
  • Publicly test your conclusions and assumptions.
  • Ask as well as tell. Invite others to slowly walk
    you down their ladder of inference.
  • Its okay to wonder out loud.

The Check In Process
  • What is a check-in? How does it work?
  • Everyone (in no special sequence) says something
    about where theyre at -- then says Im in.
  • Members speak when they feel moved, not merely to
    fill the silence between others talking.
  • Comments are fairly brief and may be about their
    personal life, things they are excited about,
    potential distractions, or just how they feel at
    the moment -- whether good or bad.
  • The check-in is not intended to be a
    comprehensive summary of everything that has
    happened to the speaker since the group last met!
  • Others accept whatever is said -- without
    commenting, responding or taking responsibility
    for how others are feeling. Whatever is just
  • Other members acknowledge each persons presence
    with a Welcome! or Thank you!

Benefits of the Check-In
  • The check-in may appear to be an artificial
    group ritual. Heres the substance behind it
  • Encourages participation
  • Symbolically gives everyone a voice
  • Reinforces a climate of safety, since whatever is
    said is accepted
  • Helps each participant become more aware of his
    or her own inner states and feelings and how they
    may be affecting their participation in the group
  • Helps each person be present and focused on the
    here and now
  • Encourages people to speak personally (e.g., by
    using I statements) and thus to take
    responsibility for their own feelings and actions

The Check Out Process
  • What is a check-out? How does it work?
  • A Check-out is often used to conclude a
    conversation, meeting or series of meetings that
    was opened with a check-in.
  • Everyone (in no special sequence) says something
    about where theyre at after and as a result
    of the conversation(s) theyve just
    experienced. The traditional closing words are
    Im out.
  • Members speak when they feel moved, not merely to
    fill the silence between others talking.
  • Comments are fairly brief and reflect how they
    feel at the moment
  • Members share a key insight they gained, a fear
    they have about going back to reality, a word
    of appreciation, or any other thoughts or
    feelings -- whether good or bad.
  • Others accept whatever is said -- without
    commenting, responding or taking responsibility
    for how others are feeling. Whatever is just

Rationale for the Check-Out
  • The check-out is a useful conversational form
    for several reasons
  • Meets a psychological need people have for
  • Reinforces a safe communication climate, since
    whatever is said is accepted.
  • Members will be more likely to participate in the
    group in the future if they experience that their
    thoughts and ideas are accepted.
  • The discipline of a check-out maintains the
    integrity of the conversation(s) which precede
  • Like bookends which keep a row of books upright,
    the check-in and check-out encourage participants
    to keep their conversation focused, intentional
    and purposeful.
  • Note a check-out may be followed by a
    debrief, in which participants comment on how
    well they kept the form of the check-in, meeting
    or dialogue, and/or check-out.
  • Reflections about how well group members
    performed in any of these relative to their
    stated purpose belong in a debrief, not the

Five Courageous Conversations We Need to Have
  • We need to have the conversation were not having
    . . .
  • with the unknown future - what lies over the
  • with a present customer, a patient, a vendor, who
    all represent the future as it's lapping up
    against the side of our organization
  • between different divisions of the organization
  • in our work group, among our colleagues - people
    we see every day, or people we e-mail or talk to
    on our cell phone every day
  • with that tricky moveable frontier called ourself

Source David Whyte in Leader to Leader (Summer
Types of Conversations
  • The what happened? conversation
  • The feelings conversation
  • The identity conversation
  • Source Stone, Patton, Heen Fisher. (1999).
    Difficult Conversations How to Discuss what
    Matters Most
  • Conversations for
  • Initiating
  • Understanding
  • Performance
  • Closure
  • Source Ford Ford. (1995, July). The Academy of
    Management Review.
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