Conversations have been on my mind lately.
Prompted by my friend down under, Matt Moore I’ve been slowly rereading Patricia Shaw’s Changing Conversations in Organizations. She’s able to articulate very clearly a way of seeing change in organizations that feels more human and realistic, and that gets beyond a kind of language trap people can often get into when looking to “change culture”. She writes,
Decades of a certain kind of business school education and writing; the rise of expensive management consulting focused on packaging ‘best practice’ and promising to provide the expertise that will ‘deliver’ desired future success; the professionalization of all kinds of human communication into codified behavioural notions of ‘coaching’, ‘counselling’, ‘teamwork’, or ‘leading’ – all these have given us a curiously rational, instrumental approach to ourselves…
Most of what managers, leaders, consultants and facilitiators are asked to do is ‘to get ahead of the game’, ‘to be on top of the mess’, ‘to manage the process’, to ‘set the boundaries’, ‘to delve beneath the surface to change the deep structure’. It would seem that we want to think of ourselves anywhere other than where we are, in the flow of our live engagement, sustaining and transforming the patterning that simultaneously enables and constrains our movement into the future.
Among the many qualities I like in Patricia’s work is the genuine modesty of her approach. Many of her examples are of projects she worked on, made what felt like progress, and then saw things fizzle out. I think she’s making the point that this is what real life is like, it’s full of these non-linear comings and goings. I often find myself thinking that it’s our efforts to make meeting efficient that make them inefficient, because they suppress our natural gift for exploring and experimenting.
The book opens with a funny story of her being asked to ‘facilitate’ what sounded like an elaborately pre-planned meeting in which the participants would be led (and I’m simplifying and crudifying her language) by the nose to the right solution determined by the client in advance. In contrast, she talks about the notion of a more flowing, organic process. I often see life as a process by which we are continuously making choices in the moment about how to go on together, and Patricia seems to be asking if we wouldn’t do better to engage in that in-the-moment sense of making meaning.
I think she gets to the nub of it here:
The assumption is that in the process of reflection we can learn to design with increasing self-consciousness the patterns that it will prove useful to find ourselves in next time we pause to reflect. This is largely how collective learning is understood in organizations.”
I took a few moments to digest that but I think I get it. We experience a messy process by which we get to some goal or other, figure out (in hindsight) what was ineffiicient, and aim to legislate against that next time. I totally understand the appeal and naturalness of this… but the trap is that we keep creating this idealised notion of what our meetings, organizations, nay our whole lives, should be like… trying to get the mess out of our lives and not seeing that the mess is the life. She argues that
we focus mainly on the tangible products of conversation – the organizational designs, performance profiles, business models, strategic frameworks, action plans, lists and categories with which we seek to grasp the reified complexities of organizational life and render them ‘manageable’. We spend much time… generalising from our lived experience and then trying to apply the abstractions as templates for shaping the future as though we uncritically believe that this is how our future comes to have shape.
So what is the alternative? That’s what the rest of the book is about: the less-easily articulated notion of experiencing culture not as an object to operated upon but as something that we are doing, all the time. It’s a notion that I feel increasingly influences my own work, so expect more later… Meanwhile, I hope anyone who finds this interesting will be tempted to get hold of the book and… have a conversation with me…