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Tom Devane is a consultant, author, and co-author of provocative bestselling books on achieving extraordinary results using methods that systematically engage people in organizations and communities.
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    The Change Handbook

    Over 60 methods that engage groups quickly and produce extraordinary results.




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    Integrating Lean Six Sigma and High Performance Organizations

    A leader's guide to blending technical and people aspects of performance improvement.


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    Entries in Dialogue (2)


    How to Magnify the Impact of Your Visioning and Strategy Development Sessions with One Little Pre-step

    Before you get together with the top leaders in the corporation to craft a vision and subsequent strategy, let’s think for a moment about how you could magnify the impact of those sessions.  One powerful thing to do to is to call top leaders, and those with additional valuable perspectives, into a session where they explore assumptions and see if those assumptions are still valid as the organization moves into the future.  
    These assumptions could be explicit or tacit.  They could be about topics like the overall market, target niches, the competition, regulation, or internal capabilities.  Anything that could have a significant impact on the organization’s future could be fair game.
    A reasonable person might ask, “But how do you get a diverse group of people in a room and talk about high-leverage assumptions without heated disagreements breaking out, and the overall conversation deteriorating?”  The answer is that we set up the session so this doesn’t happen.  
    We use a method for groups getting together called “Dialogue” where we state up front that we’re not looking for decisions or mass agreement in key issues.  We’re simply looking to collect people’s thoughts and their potential implications, in a non-threatening environment, where even the most shy and timid people can express their view of the situation.  And by stating up front that we’re not looking for decisions or unanimous agreements, we take the pressure off people so they can express their true opinions and thoughts on an issue that impacts the organization.  We state that we’re just collecting pieces of data that can be use later in analyses, debates, and decisions for moving forward.
    By having such a pre-visioning/pre-strategy Dialogue session, we can often gather information that may not have been previously available, because a soft-spoken person wouldn’t speak up.  And we also find that in a group setting people collectively build on each other’s thoughts, and often come up with a new, better thought based on back and forth conversations and the subtle nuances of the individual thoughts presented.  In many organizations these have proven to be extremely valuable inputs for visioning and strategic planning sessions.
    Here are some other norms we state up front going into a Dialogue session.  We ask people to:
    • Suspend their judgments and their “certainties”
    • Respectfully explore others’ assumptions through questions
    • Disclose their key assumptions and how they arrived at them
    • Respect foreign-sounding points of view
    • Ask questions they don’t have answers for, and be prepared to be surprised and learn something they hadn’t known before.
    Dialogue is a versatile group method that can be used in many situations in addition to visioning and strategy development like we’ve covered here.  A short Dialogue blog provides some additional information on the method.

    Dialogue -- An Overview

    A Dialogue session is a dynamic group process in which people seek to understand each other's perspectives, and pool their collective insights.  These sessions can build innovative solutions to problems, foster collaborative action beyond the session, and strengthen the working relationships of those in the session.  

    Key outcomes

    • Deep understanding of people’s assumptions and impacts on the current environment
    • Appreciation of others’ points of view
    • Increased ability for people to “think together” in groups
    • Excellent preparation in terms of content generated and relationships made for later group sessions for planning or decision making purposes.

    Sample client uses

    I’ve used Dialogue sessions to gather input and opinions for an important new product launch, to increase understanding and cooperation between two warring factions (Manufacturing and Quality) in a global pharmaceutical company prior to a billion dollar product launch, and to surface key market and executive assumptions prior to a participative strategic planning session called a Search Conference.


    Time investment

    Preparation: 1-6 months
    Session time: 45 to 90 minutes, or an even longer sustained forum
    Follow-up:  1-3 months

    Number of participants

    5 to 5,000 

    General flow

    There is no set agenda for a Dialogue session.  The convener kicks the session off with some initial groundrules about topics like equal voice, suspension of judgment, and silence being okay while people think.  There is also a priming question that seeks to stimulate thought around a particular topic of strategic significance.  Participants then provide their thoughts and assumptions related to the priming question.  A sample priming question that could provide a great foundation for Dialogue would be “What are the assumptions and implications for our company moving into the markets in China?”


    In a Dialogue people do NOT drive to make decisions and develop action plans.  Rather, these are done in subsequent meetings.  This relieves the pressure in a Dialogue session to come to a decision too quickly.  Instead, ample time is allow to surface and consider all facets of a question.


    For more information

    Additional information is available in The Change Handbook (Berrett-Koehler, 1999, 2004).  Dialogue information can be obtained economically by just purchasing the Dialogue and Deliberation electronic chapter of The Change Handbook.  Another great sources of information is this Wikipedia entry.