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Organizational discourse as an instrument for effective change

In an increasingly complex world, there is a need for change approaches that also recognize organizations as complex systems, enable joint reflection and allow genuine debate between adults. Organizational discourse as a process can be exhausting and irritating for some, but the effects are tremendous – if a few conditions are fulfilled.

What questions mark the beginning of a change initiative in your organization? Very often they are as follows: How do we get from here to there? How do we bring people along? How and when do we communicate the change to the organization? How do we deal with resistance? These and similar questions are often discussed, but they stem from a linear way of thinking about change and assume that change will occur when the individual changes. This is a classic misconception in organizational development that often leads to unhelpful answers.

Which relevant problem should be solved?

An organization is a complex system. It cannot be explained merely by the sum of its members and their characteristics. It is a system with established structures and routines that have proven themselves over time. With such a view of the organization, different questions arise for change, transformation or whatever you want to call it:

  • What relevant problem is to be solved with the endeavor in the first place?

  • What processes and structures might prevent or inhibit the change?

  • What does our ‘collaboration agreement’ look like?

  • How do we create a major impact?

  • Is there sufficient energy in the system to provide the necessary instability?

One instrument for finding effective answers to all these questions is organizational discourse.The assumption that this is a specific type of discussion that takes place within a certain framework and setting seems plausible at a first glance. However, organizational discourse is much more than that. First and foremost, it is about establishing mutual, shared thinking throughout the entire organization.

“On behalf of the organization, the small groups reflect on applicable norms, structures and routines of action.”

In many organizations, people ‘don’t talk to each other appropriately’ in meetings and workshops because  the art of thinking has been forgotten. Thinking has become more of an individual achievement and ‘conversations’ are meant to convince others of one’s own point of view. However, what profound change requires are intelligent evaluation patterns, and that is a collective effort.

Becoming aware of evaluation patterns

The practical discourse, i.e. the actual discussion, takes place in small groups. These can be seen as a so-called ‘community of inquiry’ and reflect on their collective patterns of thinking and evaluation patterns. On behalf of the organization, they reflect on applicable norms, structures and routines of action. They become aware of the common evaluation patterns, examine them for current and future fit and, if necessary, agree on new ones. This is collective sense-making. The discussion always provides an inventory of what is actually being discussed on the topic within the organization. Relevant questions can be, for example: How is it discussed? What exactly are the relevant aspects? What is not reflected in the communication? A look at the actual discourse helps to identify the strong leverage points for change.The organizational discourse brings forth and sheds light on ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘who’ people are talking about, i.e. the applicable rules of an organization. This influences practical discourse, which in turns has an impact on the organizational discourse. (see figure 1). As a multidisciplinary instrument, the organizational discourse is a system-theoretical stance and at the same time an analytical instrument with respect to the collaboration that actually takes place as well as a recommendation for setting up practical discourses within the organization.

Complexity-oriented implementation of change

The heart of it is the practical discourse, the reflective, communicative debate between people within the framework of a specific topic of change. In general, an organizational discourse is a complex response to a complex task. I will outline some of the central aspects that make up the complexity-oriented implementation of change below.

The what for

What is the goal of the change process? What relevant problem is meant to be tackled and solved, or are fundamental communication and behavioral patterns affected? This distinguishes between optimization and change, i.e. change of 1st and 2nd order.

Figure 1: Organizational discourse reveals ‘what’, ‘how’, “who” is being talked about, i.e. the applicable rules and regulations of an organization. This influences the practical discourse and this bounces back to the organizational discourse, having an impact, too.

“Agreeing on identical points of view too quickly does not allow for real debate.”

Organizational discourse then unleashes its power when it comes to fundamental change.Instability is needed to change routines and patterns. Without instability, there is no pattern change. For example, managers and owners can voluntarily invite their organization to engage in discourse in order to increase networking and create instability. This needs to be deliberately provoked and collectively endured. A central aspect of this is that the discourse does not take place at the level of abstract values or detached ‘What is our purpose’ debates, but in concrete terms. The participants deal with value creation, their specific work and current problems. Organizational discourse is goal-oriented, invitation-based, concrete and open-ended.

Figure 2: The RIDA loop of practical discourse (‘Reflect’, ‘Irritate’, ‘Declare’, ‘Agree’)

The roles

The sponsor probably has the most important role in the entire process. He or she is a person within the formal power to call out the discourse and make decisions. Typically, the sponsor is responsible for the overall change process. Together with a team of other managers, organizational developers and employees, the practical discourses are designed and didactically set up in terms of self-organization skills. The sponsor issues the invitation to potential participants and puts together the small groups for the practical discourse. This role cannot be delegated. The groups that exchange ideas in the practical discourse consist of four up to six people. They remain in existence for a period of a few weeks and meet around five times for a 90-minute discourse. Participation is voluntary for each individual. Every invited employee can and may decline. At the same time, participation – once confirmed – is binding. ‘Times I come, sometimes I don’t’ is not provided for.

The requirements

There are not many prerequisites that need to be created for the organizational discourse to succeed. If they are missing, however, the approach sometimes turns into a theater of mock participation.

  • The ‘why’ of the change is transparent to everyone.

  • It is clear who makes which decisions.

  • Organizational discourse is an ongoing process, not a project.

  • Organizational discourse is organizational development. Personal development or knowledge training is not its purpose.

  • Participation is taken seriously and the groups’ ideas are processed.

  • Participants are regarded as adult individuals.

The practical discourse

There are many questions surrounding the practical discourse that depend on the context of the respective organization. However, the process is clearly describable, as the participants should feel invited to share their opinions, assessments, points of views, hypotheses, beliefs and evaluations with each other and to explore them mutually. For the group to become a ‘community of inquiry’, the discourse itself is an iterative process (see Figure 2): ‘Reflect’ (raise awareness), ‘Irritate’ (disturb), ‘Declare’ (expound), ‘Agree’ (negotiate).This social process leads the groups to individual and collective reflection through discourse. This is exhausting and fun at the same time. Irritation is an essential step in this process, because without ‘scandalously different’ interpretations, we all too easily interpret new things as ‘not much different, actually’ and thus miss the opportunity to renew our convictions.The group searches for suitable collective patterns and routines and must present the various points of view. Consensus is the basic attitude, but not the necessary goal. On the contrary, agreeing on identical points of view too quickly does not allow for real debate. In the end, ideas, measures and projects that the group deems suitable are negotiated. No decision is made here. It is the responsibility of the sponsor to aggregate the various ideas in a meaningful format.

The effect(s)

The entire organization is invited to develop the implementation of the change project or initiative in discourse and thus to question and update the fundamental patterns and routines. In plain language, this means that the density of networking increases. This in turn increases the complexity of the system and therefore also the formation of patterns and speed. Ideas are conceived across functions, interrelationships become clear and systemic thinking takes place. For people who still hope to be able to control organizations, this is a nightmare. Because thinking that you can have control over ideas and results is an illusion.Discussions do not adhere to set frameworks, ideas that resonate strongly can escalate. They are discussed across the board, in the coffee kitchen as well as during board meetings. This means that leadership becomes an issue. The intelligence of the collective is clearly being used here. Formal managers are no longer the ‘knowers’. They are the ones providing the framework – a damn challenging role.However, to ensure that the organizational discourse does not become arbitrary or lead to ongoing instability, a clear, transparent, binding process is needed in which everyone knows their role (sponsor, group) and the decision-making process is unambiguous. It needs a strong framework so that creativity can unfold freely within.

The impositions

There are, of course, countless ways to implement the practical discourse. Personally, I prefer an approach that is more suitable for organizations and offers some thorough ‘change scandals’ within when it comes to terms with conventional understanding of change.

“Formal managers are no longer the ‘knowers’! They are the ones providing the framework.”

  • There is no facilitator, coach or trainer.

  • The groups are guided through questions, but without the presence of a group facilitator. The work material can be provided or the groups can use a virtual platform on which the content is prepared accordingly. The established games, which often occur between the facilitator and the groups should not even be accessible. The group should not be particularly cozy and should not be able to shift responsibility to the facilitator at any time. Even when the group ‘gets stuck’, it must find ways to move forward. I am deeply convinced that people are perfectly capable of engaging in discourse without being ‘pampered’.

  • There are no funny warm-ups or ‘parking lots’ for upcoming topics.

  • The groups are focused on the topic for the practical discussion right from the start. You can start with a short briefing or introductory round if the participants have never met before, and then you can get going. The discourse is established, the agenda is clear and the participants are ready to rumble. Breaking with the usual elements of seminars and workshops such as asking for expectations or gamification helps maintaining the focus. In my experience, this is an aspect that should never be underrated when several people with their own opinions engage into an exchange.

  • One doubt I often encounter is confidence in the ability to reflect. “Our people can’t do that without further ado,” they say. My experience teaches me otherwise, however. Of course, people are trained to reflect, change perspectives and think in scenarios to varying degrees. But that doesn’t matter, because that’s exactly what they train (quite incidentally) once they get into practical discourse. If the participants have a didactically well-developed discourse at their disposal, then they are able to discuss their everyday work and the become proficient in doing so. We don’t have to learn the discourse in order to conduct it.

A complex instrument for complex answers

Organizational discourse is a complex instrument that requires careful consideration. Therefore, the first question is what company managers and/or other executives actually intend. Do they want to impart knowledge? Then training may be more appropriate. Do they want to ‘pick up’ people in terms of content or ‘turn those affected into participants’, while the change is shaped by a small group of executives, then this should be made transparent. If you want to do something good for people, have a party. But when serious participation and complex-oriented change is your goal, then organizational discourse may be the appropriate way forward. qo

*This article was published in the German magazine "changement!" in March 2024

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