Rettig’s Notes
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Rettig’s Notes

Notes on Dialogic Organizational Development

This is not a piece of thoughtful writing. It’s a place for me to take notes, which I’m making public in case it helps someone else. This collection will change (though maybe not very frequently). It’s a work in progress, the cookies are still dough, standard disclaimers apply.


Identified, but not harvested…

  • VIDEO: Gervase Bushe, Dialogic Organization Development

Some key resources

Still much to be harvested!

Academic overview: Bushe and Marshak, The dialogic mindset in organizational development

Management overview: Bushe, Accelerating transformational change

Consultants’ overview: Bushe and Marshak, The dialogic organization development approach to transformation and change

SITE: Dialogic Organization Development

BOOK: Bushe and Marshak, Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change (Amazon)

From Marshak and Bushe, “An Introduction to Advances in Dialogic Organization Development” — the first article in this issue of OD Practitioner.

Diagnostic organizational development

Broadly speaking, Diagnostic OD emerged to improve the functioning of overly bounded, hierarchical organizations by thinking of them as living, open systems. Following Kurt Lewin’s and Ron Lippitt’s theories, small intact groups were considered to be both the target of and vehicle for planned change using data-based action research methodologies. …Because of the early focus on the functioning of teams OD consultants of that era were expected to have highly developed competencies in small group dynamics and process consultation. …Change was the result of a normative-re-educative process of increasing awareness through accurate diagnosis and engaging members in formulating changes based on that new awareness.

Dialogic organizational development

Dialogic OD is based, in part, on a view of organizations as dialogic systems where individual, group, and organizational actions result from socially constructed realities created and sustained by the prevailing narratives, stories, metaphors, and conversations through which people make meaning about their experiences. From this perspective change results from changing the conversations that shape everyday thinking and behavior by involving more and different voices, altering how and which people engage with each other, and/or by stimulating alternative or generative images to shape how people think about things. Thus instead of change driven by diagnosing how to objectively align or re-align organizational elements (strategies, structures, systems, people practices, etc.) with the demands of a broader environment as suggested by open systems theory, the dialogic systems perspective invites considering how to induce new ways of thinking by altering the ongoing organizational conversations that continuously create, re-create, and frame understanding and action.

School case: Second article in the series linked above is a story about applying this approach in a UK school. Slides from one of the authors — “Changing culture through conversations” — can be found here.

For me, a dialogic approach means hosting both one to one conversations with clients as well as group or organisation-wide conversations helped along by processes like World Café and Open Space. I use the term hosting deliberately and prefer it to using the term consultant that tends to imply, in my mind, a more expert advisory role than that of host which offers more possibility of a co-created process emerging between myself and those I am invited to work with. A conversational host pays attention to how spaces are co-created in which mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart exchanges generate new shared futures.

Bushe, Dialogic OD

Third paper in the collection linked above.

A generic model of dialogic organizational consulting

Distinction between “community” and “team”: “In this article I will use the word community to describe any size group of people that does not exist to accomplish specific, interdependent tasks. Teams, by definition, have interdependent tasks and win or lose together. Communities and teams are different, and most groups in organizations are not teams, even though that is what they are usually called.”

This generic model of Dialogic OD rests on the assumption that change occurs when the day to day thinking of community members has altered their day to day decisions and actions, which leads to a change in the culture of the community that entrenches those new ways of thinking. Their thinking is changed when the language, stories, and narratives the community uses is altered in a profound way (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Grant & Marshak, 2011). This alteration occurs from a generative image.

I advise using Dialogic OD when leaders want to transform a social system, be it group, organization, network of stakeholders, or society. This is not about incremental change, which is how to make the current system better at what it already is and does. Transformation changes the very nature of the community to be better at what it aspires to be and do. There has to be a big problem, issue, concern, or challenge for leaders and community members to bring the energy and provide the resources real planned transformation requires.

You cannot plan transformational change like you can plan a project. When you begin you do not know exactly where you want to end up and you can be assured that unexpected things will happen. I find attempts to transform to some predetermined end almost never work and most often result in negative, unforeseen consequences (cf., Ogbonna & Wilkinson, 2003). You can, however, identify the challenge you want to address and you can plan how to address it.

Normally, the problem, issue, or concern motivating the change effort gets reframed in a future-focused, possibility-centric way. While Dialogic OD is concerned with problems, it does not deal with them through “problem-solving.”

The nature of generative images

I think Dialogic OD addresses problems and produces change through generative images. I define generative images as ideas, phrases, objects, pictures, manifestos, stories, or new words with two properties:

1. Generative images allow us to see new alternatives for decisions and actions. They have the “…capacity to challenge the guiding assumptions of the culture, to raise fundamental questions regarding contemporary social life, to foster reconsideration of that which is ‘taken for granted’ and thereby furnish new alternatives for social actions” (Gergen, 1978, p.1346).

2. Generative images are compelling images — they generate change because people like the new options in front of them and want to use them.

Theory of change

The change sequence, shown [below], assumes that the decisions and actions we take are based on what we think. Over time as we witness our own and other’s decisions and actions, we develop shared attitudes and assumptions. These become taken for granted and form the culture, which in turn shapes what we think. A generative image disrupts this pattern both by altering what we think, and by motivating new decisions and actions.

Getting ready, and the necessity of sponsorship

(Detailed points in the article, then…)

From the outset, sponsors need to understand that the point of these events is not to identify, agree upon, and then implement THE change. It is to unearth, catalyze, and support the multitude of motivations and ideas that already exist in the community, in the service of transforming the community in the desired direction. The design of the change process has to ensure that two key things happen:

1. The people who will ultimately embody and carry out the change are engaged, along with leaders and other stakeholders, in discussing what changes ought to occur.

2. Members self-identify, individually and in groups, the changes they want to take responsibility for.

Convening, containers, conversations of repair,…

“I think that whenever one of my clients has failed to transform it is because we were missing one of these key conditions.”

The article goes on to list a set of methods [many / most of which are already in our kit, some worth exploring, and in my opinion many are missing]. He notes that often before there can be a community conversation about transformation, there must often be conversations that lead to common understanding. And sometimes “unacknowledged resentments, frustrations, and sources of conflict need airing before people can emotionally engage with the change issue.”

This corresponds tightly with our curriculum structure of four conversations:

  • understanding
  • repairing
  • aligning
  • creating

Bushe describes the familiar hosting concept of “containers.”

A common image used to describe Dialogic OD events is the creation of a container: a time and space where normal, business as usual ways of interacting are suspended so that different, generative conversations can take place. I think what most differentiates dialogic OD techniques are their guidelines for how to create and facilitate those containers. The image of facilitation in conventional OD, grounded in social psychology and small group dynamics, does not fit with the image of facilitation in dialogic change practice as convening or hosting. Often, the work is done in groups too large to facilitate. The design of the event needs to set the conditions for self-generated and self-regulated conversations to take place; conversations that will be productive and useful.

[Hastening through in this note-taking session. Rest of the article is good, but an overview and summary of conversation-craft and facilitation-craft that we already have under our belts.]

To be continued…




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Marc Rettig

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design