Discover and Unleash Local Solutions to Chronic Problems with Discovery & Action Dialogue

Christiaan Verwijs
Nov 2, 2020 · 6 min read

Liberating Structures are a collection of interaction patterns that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how Liberating Structures can be used with Scrum.

How often do you find yourself facing chronic challenges in your work? Perhaps certain skills are missing in your team? Or the work you are doing is impeded by another team or group that you depend on? Or it's hard to involve stakeholders who don’t show any interest in your work.

We often face these kinds of chronic challenges in our work. Sometimes, they are so persistent that we’re about to give up. Or blame others. Or simply don’t see how to possibly overcome it and resign to the situation. This is where “Discovery & Action Dialogue” is at its best.

The purpose of Discovery & Action Dialogue

“Discovery & Action Dialogue” exists to help groups invent local solutions to the problems they face. Rather than giving up or immediately reaching to “best practices” that worked elsewhere, it helps groups carefully analyze the problem, potential solution, and how everyone can contribute to both. It also builds helpful problem-solving skills in groups by providing them a useful structure to think about challenges.

Discovery & Action Dialogue is also about building the skills to analyze problems and discover solutions. Illustration by Thea Schukken.

This structure was created by HENRI LIPMANOWICZ and Keith McCandless together with a group of coaches, and inspired by Richard Pascale and Monique Sternin’s Positive Deviance.

“[Discovery & Action Dialogue] builds helpful problem-solving skills in groups by providing them a useful structure to think about challenges.”

The questions of Discovery & Action Dialogue

As the name suggests, this structure takes the shape of structured dialogue. Small groups answer the following questions (download worksheet):

  1. How do you know when the problem is present?
  2. How do you contribute effectively to solving the problem?
  3. What prevents you from doing this or taking these actions all the time?
  4. Do you know anybody who is able to frequently solve this problem and overcome barriers? What behaviors or practices made their success possible?
  5. Do you have any ideas?
  6. What needs to be done to make it happen? Any volunteers?
  7. Who else needs to be involved?

Although there is a purposeful order to the questions, feel free to deviate if it doesn’t make any sense for the problem you are talking about.

A Discovery & Action Dialogue in progress with multiple groups. The Butterfly Catcher is busy capturing ideas on the flip on the right.

Steps to facilitate Discovery & Action Dialogue

There are different ways to facilitate Discovery & Action Dialogue. We’ve experienced the most success with the following steps:

  • Discovery & Action Dialogue requires a shared problem or challenge. You can use another Liberating Structure, like 1–2–4-ALL or Impromptu Networking.
  • Invite everyone to self-organize into groups of 5 to 10 people and sit in a small circle without tables or other obstructions. Our experience is that smaller groups of 5–6 people are often better than a few larger ones (3 min);
  • Each group picks a “Guide” and a “Butterfly Catcher” (terms by Keith McCandless). The Guide asks the Discovery & Action Dialogue questions while the Butterfly Catcher captures insights and quotes on a flip or on stickies on the floor or wall. The groups also decide on a talking object. Only the person holding it can speak and decides who goes next (1 min);
  • The Guide asks the Discovery & Action Dialogue questions in order and gives everyone the opportunity to speak to each question while keeping track of time. The Butterfly Catcher captures big ideas, insights and action steps on a flip or a piece of paper. The timebox can range from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on how much time you have;
  • In each small group, the Butterfly Catcher recaps the outcomes, next steps and people that need to be included (5 min).
  • When you have multiple Discovery & Dialogue Groups, you can ask the Butterfly Catchers to summarize the findings of each group in a minute or two. You can also use other Liberating Structures to further digest the outcomes (see below).

You can use this worksheet to provide groups with both the questions to ask and the steps to take.

Examples of Discovery & Action Dialogue

Discovery & Action Dialogue can be used in many different ways. Here are some examples of how it can be used with Scrum Teams:

  • Use it during a Sprint Retrospective to help teams find solutions to a persistent impediment they face;
  • Use a quick, 15-minute version of Discovery & Action Dialogue whenever a team runs into a problem. The Scrum Master — or a volunteer — can act as the guide and ask the questions one by one. You can also print the questions on cards and go through the deck one by one;
  • When teams face technical challenges, use Discovery & Action Dialogue to help them find out-of-the-box solutions;
  • Use it as part of a large multi-team Retrospective and have each small group focus on another shared impediment or the same impediment.
  • You can use Discovery & Action Dialogue virtually by asking the questions in a chat or by presenting them on a shared slide in Google Slides or Mural. People can enter their answers directly into the material. As a Guide, you can then pick powerful answers and expand on them.

Combinations With Other Liberating Structures

One Liberating Structure is powerful, but their power magnifies when you string them together with other structures to create a coherent flow of interactions. Here are some examples:

  • Precede with 1–2–4-ALL to identify a significant impediment to focus Discovery & Action Dialogue on;
  • Follow-up with Shift & Share to further refine potential solutions that emerged from Discovery & Action Dialogue;
  • Use Impromptu Networking after Discovery & Action Dialogue to spread ideas that emerged from the dialogue and identify patterns (e.g. recurring solutions and ideas) across the various groups;
  • Use the structure of Heard, Seen, Respected, but let one person ask the Discovery & Action Dialogue-questions in order to the other (2 min per question);
  • Replace the first three questions of Discovery & Action Dialogue with TRIZ-like questions to consider what the group can do to make the problem as worse as possible: 1) What can you do, personally, to make this problem much worse? 2) What are you currently doing that, in one form or another, resembles the things you listed for the first question? 3) What is preventing you from stopping these behaviors? After that, continue with the regular DaD questions.
Laughter is common during Discovery & Action Dialogue as people surprise themselves with creative and out-of-the-box solutions they’d never thought of before.

Closing

Discovery & Action Dialogue is a great way to help groups identify creative solutions to chronic challenges. It also learns them useful problem-solving skills and questions to ask. When you’re faced with a challenge, give it a try! You’ll be surprised by the ideas.

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. And join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.

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