Dialogic Organisation Development views organisations as meaning-making systems, continually recreated and sustained by multiple conversations occurring between the actors and agents who populate them.
“Reality” in this new paradigm is neither an objective fact nor a singular entity but a collective, constantly socially negotiated human construction. Conversational realities are always multiple realties, dependent upon who is talking to who within the organisation and across which organisational boundaries. As Gervase Bushe puts it, “Organisations are stories. When you change the story, you change the world.”
Perhaps it’s truer to suggest that complex organisations are sites where multiple stories circulate, some more dominant and status quo-maintaining than others. But when organisations face disruptions, adaptive challenges, the status quo stories become open to question, to redescription and even to revolution.
Gervase advocates three fundamental change levers that can pave the way for successfully reformed organisational stories (and therefore organisations).
- Stimulate “emergence” – the process by which an increasingly complex (and therefore more adequate) order can arise from apparent disorder and uncertainty. Disruption isn’t seen as a failure in these emergent conversations, but an opportunity for new ideas to be improvised and shared. The role of the leader isn’t to impose new answers but to tolerate the ambiguity of the improvised conversation.
- Invite imaginative changes to the “core narrative” – the dominant story that people have of the organisation and of themselves. That means helping people to call into question stories they currently hold as true and encouraging them to articulate new stories.
- Introduce or encourage the construction of a new “generative image” that enables people to act and think in ways that the core narrative disallowed (or couldn’t see).
Bushe often cites the example of “sustainable development” as an especially potent generative image which allowed hitherto implacably opposed interests – ecologists and business leaders – to collaborate on new technologies and products.
Dialogic OD is itself a generative image that disrupts conventional narratives about navigating change, allowing new stories – and new successes – to emerge.