Is an organisation a kind of ‘organism’ surviving in a changing environment? That metaphor has gained a great deal of currency over the years. However, organisational development innovator Dr Gervase Bush thinks it’s outlived its usefulness. It invites a “diagnostic” mindset among those in leadership roles, wherein a disruptive change is seen as a problem in need of objective diagnosis. And that’s where the difficulties begin: business leaders adopting this mindset tend to want a framework that reduces complexity and efficiently drives the organisation toward a pre-designed desirable endpoint.
For Gervase, the “organism-in-need-of-diagnosis-and-treatment” paradigm gets it fundamentally wrong. Organisations, he believes, are better thought of as composed of multiple conversations occurring day in, day out. He and his co-worker, Dr Bob Marshak, have developed a theory and practise of organisational development based on this conversational metaphor. Their “Dialogic OD” embraces approaches to organisational development (such as Appreciative Inquiry, Search Conference, Open Space Technology and more), which violate the central tenets of the diagnostic mindset.
The new Dialogic mindset eschews the diagnostic delusion that organisations are rational, controllable entities run by autonomous rational individuals. Instead, it holds that reality is dynamically constituted and sustained by the conversations of those who act within it and that such conversations are inevitably laden with emotion. The Dialogic leader doesn’t seek to drive change but to create the conditions in which new conversations can emerge that may counter and deconstruct the prevailing status quo.
In this new model, the emphasis is not on “how did we get into this predicament?” but “what would a good future look like and how do we get there?” And the conversations enlisted aren’t simple repetitions of the dominant ones – the ones people feel comfortable reiterating in the boardroom. They include those informal, more improvisational “hallway” conversations that may or may not coincide with officially-sanctioned narratives.
In part 2, I’ll explore how Dialogic OD enables new conversational realities to emerge out of disruption and apparent chaos.