Peter M. Senge, in his 2006 book, The Fifth Discipline, discusses the keys to organizational learning. There are five major components, or disciplines, necessary to build a learning organization. This includes personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking.
While many advisory firms have individuals who exhibit one or two of these first four components, truly successful learning and adaptive firms also have the fifth-the systems thinking discipline to integrate all components. A firm utilizing all five of these disciplines continually expands its learning capacity. In fact, it goes beyond adaptive learning (survival) to generative learning (creating the future).
DIALOGUE VS. DISCUSSION
In order to use team learning and encourage systems thinking, our firm has put teams together to work on different parts of a project. As you can imagine, not every team effort has been equally productive.
Why is that? The answer lies in understanding and mastering dialog and discussion, the two ways that teams communicate.
* Dialogue. Senge puts it this way: "In dialogue, there is the free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues, a deep listening to one another and suspending of one's own views." Put another way, dialogue is a free flow of ideas between a group of people in order to access a larger pool of common understanding-insights that one individual could not develop all on his or her own.
* Discussion. In dialogue, "different views are presented and defended, as each party searches for the best view to support decisions that must be made at this time." The goal of discussion is to examine an idea, see if it is coherent, and assert and defend a position.
The problem is that most teams move freely between dialogue and discussion without ever distinguishing between the two. Dialogue and discussion have different end results, but if the team does not understand the difference, effective team learning simply cannot take place.
Dialogue goes beyond any one individual's understanding. There is no winner or loser. A successful dialogue creates new insights; it is freewheeling communication bringing to the surface the full depth of people's experience and thought without any type of stereotypical mental models.
In its best form, people become impartial observers of their own thinking. Dialogues are divergent; participants do not seek agreement. Rather, they seek a better understanding of complex issues.
Therefore, for successful dialogue to take place, three actions must happen:
* Participants must suspend their assumptions completely;
* Participants must regard each other as equal colleagues; and
* There must be a facilitator who holds the context of the dialogue.
Believe me, this is harder than it sounds. First, you have to be aware of your own assumptions. You cannot do this if you're in a heated discussion and defending them, or if your position is based on those assumptions rather than on incontrovertible facts.
How can you tell if this is happening? When someone digs in his or her heels and says, "This is the way it is," dialogue is blocked. This was the position taken by the naysayer I wrote about in my November 2009 column. We've certainly seen it happen in our firm.
Similarly, to be equal colleagues in a dialogue sounds simple. It may prove difficult, however, if experienced professionals don't signal to the younger staff members that their input is welcome and necessary.
To be a colleague doesn't mean you have to agree or share the same viewpoint, but you must see one another as equals on the team while suspending assumptions and mental models. If your team can't do this, true dialogue is not possible.
IN THE LOOP
When I studied at Harvard Business School, we used the case method of learning. At first, case presentations were discussions, not dialogues. Everyone was competing for air time, trying to crack the case, solve the problem and generally make points with the professor.
That worked only to a point. By the end of the second year, we had learned to use dialogue to get more deeply into problem solving. It wasn't that we were smarter; we just started practicing "double-loop learning," developed by Chris Argyris of Harvard University. More on that later.