Changing Organizations One Conversation At a Time

To change an organization you have to change the conversation, that is, what is talked about, who is invited into those conversations, how frequently those conversations occur and even the space in where those conversations take place.

Extract from an excellent article by knowledge management expert Nancy Dixon.

From my work with the City of Utrecht as well as with many other organizations, I have found that the way to bring about change is to create conversations within an organization about what needs to change and how to do it.   And in this time of rapid technological advances and increased complexity, where change is continuous, those conversations need to be on-going to course correct and respond to new demands. But not all organizational issues require conversation.  A useful rule of thumb is that employees need to be involved in the conversations about issues that impact them directly.

To change an organization you have to change the conversation, that is,  what is talked about, who is invited into those conversations, how frequently those conversations occur and even the space in where those conversations take place.

In studying organizations that have made such a change I have identified a core set of propositions that guide the change. They include:

  1. Employees come to work wanting to do a good job.
  2. Employees possess the collective knowledge to solve the difficult problems they face in their work.
  3. Problems/issues get solved through conversations. It is where we discover what we know, share it with our colleagues, and in the process, create new answers and insights.
  4. Employees are more committed to change when they have a voice in planning that change.
  5. The deepest and most generative conversations occur in groups where members feel psychologically safe. To feel psychologically safe members need to have a strong enough relationship with each other to learn each other’s strengths, weaknesses, expertise and abilities.
  6. A scaffold is needed to support organizational conversation, but it requires a light scaffold, not one that is completely filled in. Whether that scaffold is based on Agile, Appreciative Inquiry, Theory U, the Toyota Production System, or Via B, it must be flexible enough to adjust and improve as the organization learns.

The City Government of Utrecht started with this set of propositions and over the next four years changed the organization one conversation at a time.

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