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The Role of Conversation in Change Management

Bob Little 

November 4, 2016

Conversation – which many people consider, among other things, to be a prerequisite for communal life and one of the pillars of democracy – can be both controversial in itself and a controversial topic.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato found conversation less informative than play. He said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

More recently, Sir Winston Churchill commented, somewhat cynically, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Yet, like it or not, human beings’ ability to communicate – chiefly by conversing with other people face-to-face, or remotely via various technologieshelps us to keep progressing culturally and technologically.

In that case, conversation can also help the world of business to develop. So argue those who champion such concepts as Appreciative Inquiry (AI), Future Search, Open Space, World Café, and Circle. All of these highlight conversation as key to achieving organizational change.

AI is a process for engaging people in organizational development and change management. Based on conversational practice, it involves asking questions, fostering relationships, and increasing an organization’s capacity for collaboration and change. It focuses on building organizations around what works rather than trying to fix what doesn’t and acknowledges the contribution of individuals in increasing trust and organizational alignment and effectiveness.

Its underlying concept is that organizations aren’t the mechanistic monoliths of traditional business theory but are “living human systems.”

Those who want to discover more about AI – and how to shape the conversations and become a “conversational practitioner,” helping to create new (positive) futures for people and organizations – can find some practical guidance in the book, “Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management,” authored by Sarah Lewis, Jonathan Passmore and Stefan Cantore, published by Kogan Page.

The book explains the skills, perspectives and approaches needed for successful AI. It also shows how a practical conversational approach can be applied to organizational challenges in times of change, and includes chapters on how positive psychology can enhance appreciative practice and appreciative coaching.

Furthermore, the book contains case studies from organizations including Nokia, BP and the American Society for Qualitythat have integrated AI into their change management practice. These reveal how to promote, create and generate AI-related conversations.

In the book, its authors say that, “Interest in conversational approaches to change has never been higher. Evidence of this can be seen in the recent publication of a masterly text about dialogic Organization Development which captures many of the developments in theory and practice that are informing conversational change practice across the globe. The authors identify no fewer than 40 different conversational methods, illustrating the popularity and creativity in the field.”

They also point to the growth in interest in the use of positive psychology by organizations, but also stress that AI continues to be a touchstone upon which many other ideas and practices build.

AI relies on the view that people, in relationship to one another, create organizations and that, without people working together, organizations wouldn’t exist. An organization can be said to be “living” in two ways: it comprises living organisms (people), and these people’s joint creation – the “organization” – is itself “alive.”

In that context, organizations have the potential for growth and renewal – and they need “sustenance” to keep them “alive.” This view is also a reminder that organizations are located within, and are responsive to, the environment – and, so, theyre part of the whole ecosphere.

Organizations contain human life – and human life is disorderly, at times chaotic, emotion-ridden, illogical, irrational, and mysterious. Where there are people, there will be confusion, misunderstanding, enlightenment, common cause, conflict, and harmony. There will also be behavior driven by logic, desire, emotion, imagination, tiredness, righteousness, habit, mischief, good intentions, and misjudgment. All this means that, just as humans are “messy,” the organizations they create are “messy.”

Lewis, Passmore and Cantore say that, “This is easily overlooked when the organization-as-machine perspective encourages us to regard people in organizations primarily as either control processes or cogs.”

Turning to consider organizations’ systems, they continue, “Our mechanistic conceptualization of organizations as being made up of many discrete elements – marketing, production, sales, planning, finance and so on – can lead us to believe that we can affect parts of the system in isolation.

“We may believe, for instance, that outsourcing the customer care function will leave the rest of the organization unaffected, or that computerizing HR systems is a purely technical matter. The living human-system of organizations encourages us to look at organizations differently.”

The key, as far as AI is concerned, is the pattern of the system rather than the individual elements. Since it’s a human system, the interesting patterns are those of belief, communications, action and reaction, “sense-making” and emotion. It’s important to discover what, among all of these patterns, are the aspects and elements that give the system its life.

According to the organization-as-machine view, talk happens before change. Consequently, talk is seen as inferior to “doing something.” Consequently, meetings are viewed as pointless wastes of time.

Yet, say Lewis, Passmore and Cantore, from a conversation-based perspective, how we talk about the world affects how we see, experience, make sense of, and understand the world – and, so, how we act. So, when we change the patterns of our conversations, we change the world.

As a result, AI focuses on people conversing in various ways to produce a change in their experience and understanding of the world – which impacts the way that they’re inclined to act together.

Linked to this concept is the power of imagination to produce change, and the power of positive emotional energy to achieve change. AI’s underlying beliefs include that language is creative and that there’s a value in the place and power of stories in organizational life.

Among the other books that deal with this conversation-based approach to organizational change management are the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook by David Cooperrider and others, Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter by Juanita Brown, as well as the more “general” change management book, Managing Change by Bernard Burnes.

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One comment on “The Role of Conversation in Change Management”:

  1. Yolande wrote:

    Thanks for a great post about conversations.
    I work with narrative techniques to bring about change because human beings have two unique capacities:
    1. Capacity of meaning-making
    2. Capacity of story-telling
    By using story-telling and the meaning people make of these stories, we can start re-authoring the story/narrative so that it has a new ending. Although we talk and type all day, we don’t use the power of words well enough or often enough to bring about change by means of the word.
    I’d love to hear how other people use conversations or narrative approaches to bring about change.