A perspective: organisations as conversations

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

In the more than 20 years that I have been working with my clients I noticed that traditional management theory, much fuelled by and taught in the many global MBA courses, seemed to suggest that by applying certain pre-defined practices we can “be in control” of our organisations. Determine the outcome of the whole of what we do every day.
This view was, and mostly still is, expressed by the metaphors we use to describe what we are doing and what we want to do. Metaphors that suggest our organisations act as machines and can be operated and controlled as machines. Our people are “cogs in the machine”, they are “human resources” that can be “outsourced”. We “align” our work to our “objectives”. As if management set a dial to “To Be” and wait for the “As Is” to reach our set point.
We created the great delusion of control that (still) is the basis for our decision-making processes.

My experience suggests that approach based on the mechanical metaphor ignores the reality of what organisations are: we don’t see actual cogs or levers to grab hold on.
I started to apply the observation that every organisation -small, large, local or global – seems to consist of people that are continuously interacting. Talking, phoning, emailing and so on.
It made sense therefore to explore models that would pay attention to what happens within these complex organisational dynamics.
I thank Ralph Stacey and his Complexity & Management Centre for the insight that it helps to look at organisations as continuously evolving conversations as opposed to a “thing” or “system” that can be “controlled’. Look at it as processes of conversation in which we can choose to participate. Or not. Becoming aware that “changing an organisation” becomes “changing the conversation in that organisation”. From a “thing” to a “process”.

I started to introduce creating this awareness in my work in the late 1990s. We started talking to people about their understanding of -and intentions for- any business initiative with the purpose to enhance our own and other people’s understanding and use that understanding to create effective action. I noticed that slowly the conversation in the organisations started to change: the language from management and the workforce became much more coherent and started to converge. The evolving change intentions started to be understood because they started to resonate with the day-to-day experiences of all involved. Effective action started to emerge.

One of my clients was the site manager of a large production plant. He was frustrated that no real progress was being made with his soliciting for ideas for a Europe-wide operating cost challenge. His question “please help me identify ways to reduce cost” did not seem to resonate with people’s day-to-day experience. What does ‘European operating cost saving’ mean for compressor operators, for instance? His “To Be” set point remained elusive.
Actively participating in the continuously evolving conversation, meant walking through the facility. Daily. To talk about each other’s work, intentions and what the cost challenge could mean for everybody. After a while, one compressor operator suddenly realised that his idea to lower the inlet pressure of a certain compressor (that required a small modification that he had been unsuccessfully trying to push for years) would reduce the overall operating cost significantly. Suddenly both his and the site manager’s intentions had converged. This one example triggered a whole range of initiatives, many that had been lying dormant on shelves for years. Many more inter-disciplinary teams popped up. These ensured that the site became a leading example for operating cost reduction. Without management asking for it. This could not have been “re-engineered’. The conversation had changed. The organisation had changed.

My experience is that starting conversations around a subject that is important enough for people, rather than posing ‘engineered’ solutions, can lead to sustainable changes in ways of working.
And we see that because the conversations have changed from “what does management really mean?” to “what can we do to improve our day-to-day work?”.

Do you have examples like this? Where changing the conversation introduced the ability to change the organisation?