Talk Matters – By Lynée Brown

We are very fortunate to have the following post by guest author Lynée Brown.  We met Lynée at the OD Network Conference and she had been asked to attend the conference and do an article on her impressions and thoughts of her experience.  This is the article.

By Lynée Brown writing for the Pacific Northwest Organizational Development Network in Seattle, Washington, ©2009, www.pnodn.org  Used here with permission.

The last minute invitation to attend this year’s National OD Network conference came minutes after I’d thrown a tizzy fit about my life being too busy.  The delay in my son’s after school activity set me back an hour.  That hour was the ‘straw’.  Before locking myself in my room I emphatically declared that all my spinning plates—wife, parent, employee, and student, to name the biggies—couldn’t handle any more disturbance.  I started my catch-up mania by opening email and found the invitation.  The conference, with the theme Now is Our Time, was only a few days away.  The pendulum swung quickly that evening and I decided that now was my time to drop everything for four days to attend a conference—the very one I decided I couldn’t afford last spring.

The conference attracted the full range of participants: students, seasoned practitioners, and even the “gOD parents” of the field, such as Edgar Schein and Edith Seashore.  What a rush to hear several of the authors of my current coursework in Organizational Psychology, Peter Block and Roger Schwartz to name only two.   I participated in sessions that encouraged me to relax into my learning, characterized by following the thread of relationships.  I also participated in sessions that triggered the more familiar mania of needing to know.  My continued reflection on the four days of saturation in various topics and approaches expose tension in my own interpretations and values surrounding the broad discipline of OD. 

The conference started by offering participants a mentorship for the duration of the program, which I immediately discredited.  Back to that spinning plates story of not having enough time.  Something snagged my vein of thinking and I went to the initial session, if for no other reason then to observe how they designed the pairing of the mentor and mentee.  Curious, though not yet convinced of the value of short-term mentorship, I played along with the ‘speed dating’ of sorts.  Intrigued by Candido Trujillo’s work with creativity in organizations, I decided to join his mentee group.  The six of us sat around a small table in the hotel coffee shop.  Only partway into the introductions I knew this spontaneous conversation was a gift.  Over the next four days we shared life and work experiences, reflective thoughts from various conference sessions, stories, and informal literature reviews—a potpourri of emergent learning. 

The unexpected value in the group mentoring contributed to my deepening realization that the most powerful learning is in the relating.  Even before graduate school I thought I subscribed to this ‘truth’—the bulk of my professional life has been facilitating group learning, after all.  The mentoring and a few other significant conversational experiences at the conference built another speed bump of sorts on the travel worn path to my competing values of task and time.  Evidence of this came several weeks after the conference when I received a last minute invitation to a dialogue circle convening over the topic of change.  The dialogue would supplant the half-day of much needed studying I had scheduled, but I accepted with surprisingly little hesitation.  Just as the mentoring conversations had been full of sense making, so was this.  These conversations are my learning.  They frame what I learn from the task—the assignment on the syllabus.  It no longer feels coincidental that these kinds of social processes, wherever they occur, have relevance to what is on the syllabus.

In the context of a work environment, how do we capture the value in these conversations? Near the beginning of the conference I attended a presentation that focused on the application of measuring OD interventions.  In our current economic climate we are especially pressed to justify the expenditures of OD.  Understandably, we adopt management lingo and methods to measure our monetary value.  What is the return on the investment?  How does the intervention expedite production or services?  The resigned part of me goes along with the necessity of measuring outcomes.  After all, if OD gets a spot at the table, then they have to know the ‘house’ table manners and be willing to partake of the meal.  But I left the session feeling unsettled about structuring change within an organization using the existing structures and assumptions of that organization uncritically.  As Einstein is famously credited with having said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.  However, in the face of uncertainty, we resort back to what is most familiar—in this case, choosing readily definable interventions.  Only a fledgling in this field I’m struck with how quickly the human element can be factored out of what is a human equation.

During one of the keynotes addresses Carolyn Lukensmeyer of AmericaSpeaks declared the key demands on all of us in today’s world: the capacity to imagine the non-existent; tolerance of complexity, which includes holding space for paradox; and persistence.  Try to measure that! 

I’m reminded of a time in my career marked by the collective imagination Luckensmeyer spoke of.  Several of the family educators I worked with years ago started having occasional, spontaneous conversations after our evening classes.  Standing outside the borrowed space of our storeroom—or more comfortably in the nearby chocolate café—we swapped stories about the delight and challenge in teaching new families.  We also discussed our frustrations of feeling invisible, even marginalized in our large organization.  These informal conversations fueled tremendous collaboration among us.  Today this group looks and functions quite differently.  It serves a much broader population and has its own name, manager, and designated space.  We did not start with these specific ‘ends’ in mind—they evolved organically out of our self-organization.  Ironically, in the moment we rarely recognized progress because it was messy and uncertain. I’m guessing the only certainty I would have claimed in those years was the strengthening identity of our team—the pushing and pulling, coming along side of, lifting one another up.   Looking back, these early, unmanaged conversations of imagining the non-existent were undoubtedly the catalyst for the transformation in our microcosm.

The tension between visioning OD outcomes and trusting the value of emergent conversations may be the proverbial chicken and the egg.  However, the less familiar of the two captures my awe: initiating and fueling spontaneous conversations about what matters most to the participants in the discussion.  When such interactions are a regular part of everyday work and life, conversation is placed at the very core of organizational change.  Applying traditional economics to human relationships is not only difficult—as Peter Block mentioned in his keynote address—it is detrimental.  Starting with the answers we’re working towards—what vision statements can turn into—has its appeal because we’ve been steeped in a mechanistic model that promises victory for the problem solvers.  However, prescribed destinations leave too little room for the kind of ingenuity Luckensmeyer so poignantly called us to.   The extraordinary creativity emerges from the social processes of those seeking to identify relevant questions.  Because we are social meaning-makers the power in these conversations allows us to get to the deeper complexity of our most fundamental challenges and issues.

I arrived at the last session feeling overwhelmed by how to situate the more holistic, conversational OD in our mainstream mechanistic paradigm.  Serendipitously, that session gave a name to this different dimension I’d been struggling to express: Complex Responsive Processes.  I suspected this OD paradigm was counter-cultural based on the lively push back during the presentation from a handful of seasoned practitioners.  The conversational structure of this approach supports self-organization through the chaos of relating to each other—up and down and across the board.  It resonated deeply with my churnings and my experience.

All the processing of the distinctions in the paradigms and the various coordinating and opposing concepts strips away even more of my certainty.  In her session, Edith Seashore spoke of a similar feeling in her earlier days as a practitioner.  To her more seasoned colleagues she admitted her worry that she didn’t know the concepts.  They reminded her that the concepts are embedded in her stories.   We are still working to validate and incorporate into our organizational structures the relational-based practice she embodied some fifty years ago.

Back to the serendipity of learning, I didn’t choose the Complex Responsive Processes session based on the title—of which I’d never heard.  It stood out in the myriad of offerings because I’d had several inviting and meaningful conversations with one of the presenters, Bonnie Cooper of Team Management Systems-Americas.  We met at the orientation and kept spontaneously ‘finding’ each other throughout the conference.  I followed my intuitive sense that she was a part of my learning—yet another illustration of the power in our interactions.   Whether in conference rooms, hotel coffee shops, workplace hallways, or formal dialogue circles, my most profound learning can be traced back to conversations.  Conversations that won’t happen unless I loosen the grip that time and task have on me.  As untidy of an assignment, Now is Our Time to show up to these conversations.

Lynée Brown lives near Seattle and is a MA candidate in Organizational Psychology at Antioch Seattle.  For the last 15 years she’s been a family educator in a healthcare setting.  Her most profound learning comes from daily life with her husband of twenty years and their three spunky children.

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