photo of people talking to each other

Managing Change by Changing the Conversation

I've always liked Peter Block's statement, "To change the organization, change the conversation." Creating organizational change is largely about organizing the right conversations between the right people—that's how relationships and ways of working together are altered. Deepening that notion, I was at a dinner with Peter at a friend's house the other night, and I got a new insight into what Peter really means.

Peter was careful to distinguish that his change approach applies when "you want tomorrow to be distinctly different than today." In other words, it is not the approach for when you think things are going well and just want to improve them. Rather, Peter's advice is directed toward radical change.

His approach focuses on changing the conditions of the conversation. In particular, he stresses the importance of the arrangement of the physical space and of organizing people in small groups that will encourage more intimate connections than are typically created in standard business practice.

Small group collaboration
One my insights from the evening was that, although Peter often expresses a general disdain for training, performance reviews, and 360-degree feedback, he's not suggesting that we convince others to drop those methods. Instead, where possible, he says we should architect small, intimate gatherings that will enable people to relate to each other more authentically. From these, innovation and new insights will emerge.

Peter has for some time also offered Six Conversations that can be used to develop the right conditions for authentic conversation. These conversations, detailed in a pdf on his website, are

  • Invitation. What is the invitation we can make for people to participate in and own the relationships, tasks, and process that lead to transformation?
  • Possibility. This conversation creates a framework for focusing on the future, not the past. It is about postponing problem solving until the the interests of the group are "spoken with resonance and passion."
  • Ownership. We must see ourselves as the cause of the present situation and "believe in the possibility that this organization, neighborhood, community, is mine or ours to create."
  • Dissent. We must also respect diversity and differences of opinion. Peter says that "'No' is the beginning of the conversation for commitment." Until we can express our true beliefs and perspectives, we are not ready to form real commitments. He says, "The leadership task is to surface doubts and dissent without having an answer to every question."
  • Commitment. Once the conditions are right, we can discuss "What promise am I willing to make?"
  • Gifts. And finally, Peter calls for a focus on the gifts that each person brings. "The leadership task is to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center."

I've met with Peter several times, and I'm always struck by the similarities between his view and that of my mentor and dissertation chair, the late Dr. Bela Banathy. Dr. Banathy was also strong advocate for creating dialogue groups and transcending the current system by focusing on an ideal future state. Like Peter Block, Dr. Banathy believed that focusing on the current problems only led to more of the same.

There are strong parallels between the notions of participatory systems design and the conditions for forming community that Peter Block discusses. In each, we seek to unleash the "expert" that is in each of us and bring it together to form a new and mutually inspiring vision of the future. Once the community is formed, and only then, it has the potential for engaging in a design conversation that works out how we will organize our human systems for a better future.

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