How conversation radically transforms organisations

Do you believe in resistance to change? Is there a magic communication strategy that will help you make the change initiatives sustainable? It’s all about sharing though conversation says Dijana Vetturelli

An ordinary self-help book has between 30,000 and 50,000 words, and with various studies indicating we share around 15,000 words a day, that means we could write a book every third day of our lives, and that would be quite a remarkable accomplishment. We could share our ideas, our values, our discoveries and our observations, and everybody who reads the book would possess the same comprehension of the world as we do and would view the world the same way we do. We might even provoke change.

However, sadly, this is just a dream, but not the part about writing the book, because with a bit of dedication and practice, it could become reality. Yet, the part about obtaining the same comprehension and sparking change is an illusion, because every word and phrase in the book could have a completely different meaning for both the reader and the writer. Every reader has a different lived experience and reads in a different context to other readers.

Ask the following three questions: Why do they need a change, why now and what do they understand by the term agility?

You may be wondering what this to do with the corporate world. When in a boardroom with say the average of nine members, discussing change or agility, ask the following three questions: Why do they need a change, why now and what do they understand by the term agility?

They will give you as many different answers as there are people in the room. How then can we expect hundreds or thousands of employees to have the same understanding if those in the boardroom struggle to agree?

Conversation might sound simple, yet it is an arduous task. The work of three scientists: Dr Gerhard Wohland, Mary Parker Follett and Kurt Lewin has helped us understand the power of people and conversation. Let’s explore three questions though the work of these experts.

1. Why do we need conversation today more than ever before?
2. Where does the conversation in the organisation take place?
3. Who should be invited to the discussion, that is who are the change makers?

1. Why do we need conversation to conduct organisational change

Dr Gerhard Wohland, a German physicist, has conducted research on high-performing companies in the last three decades. He noticed that there are two types of issues that come up in any organisation. The first kind of problems can be tackled with knowledge. For instance, if you need to go to the Colosseum in Rome, you need a map and someone who can interpret it. Similarly, if a car is taken apart, you require somebody knowledgeable to put the pieces back together and get the same result.

The second kind of problems has to do with imagination and ideas. Unexpected events in the market come from the inventive concepts of your direct and indirect competition, prompting your organisation to become more progressive. You can’t figure out a solution to this with just information and knowledge, and if you try to solve it with standardisation and instructions, your employees will only become discouraged. Therefore, these situations can be resolved using a project-oriented approach, not processes, and you need principle-based guidelines rather than regulations for such issues.

Let’s take the pandemic two years ago as an example. Most firms put together crisis teams that had varied members with different specialisations since they were attempting to come up with a response to that particular situation. However, if they had used the same answer three weeks later it wouldn’t have had the same outcome. The primary factor to be aware of is understanding difference as related to time. If look back 100 or 120 years ago when industrialisation took place, and the markets were slow, most of the problems faced by companies could be solved by expertise. But move forwards to the start of globalisation in 70s and 80s and the arrival of the internet in the 90s this was when firms started to grapple with unforeseen issues.

The markets have been throwing curveballs, and now there are even more issues to contend with. To tackle these challenges, conversation is more important than ever!

2. Where does the conversation have to take place

Mary Parker Follett, a scientist born towards the end of the 19th century, focussed her studies on economics, law and government, as well as being deeply intrigued by group and social dynamics. After watching people work in factories, she made a remarkable observation: that everyone is part of three distinct types of leadership. This doesn’t refer to leadership styles, but rather to the process that occurs in a company, involving all employees, all the time, with every individual being a part of all three structures.

The three leaderships are: the leadership of position, the leadership of personality, and leadership of function.

The kind of leadership we usually see in an organisation is leadership as position. Generally, communication follows a waterfall approach. But, it’s important to remember the difference between communication and conversation.

The second type of leadership is personality-based leadership. This is the informal kind of communication, like the informal chats people have at the water cooler or while they’re having lunch. Everyone takes part in this.

The third, leadership of function, has a misleading name, since it’s not about functions or job descriptions. It’s really about the roles that people take on in the process of creating value. It’s about an employee using their skills in the moment.

According to the observations of Follet, most of the communication and attention is directed towards the initial two kinds of leaderships, but if we desire to be successful especially in the modern era, we ought to place a greater emphasis on the third type.

Change makers

The third story and findings come from Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, known as one of the pioneers of organisational development and human resources. During World War II, he was asked by the US government to conduct a study to determine the urgent needs of people to enable politicians to deliver customised solutions to lower poverty.

For example, the people were asked to limit their meat intake to provide support for the war. The study was asked for ways to persuade individuals to switch their dietary and cooking habits. The Research Council attempted to convince housewives to make use of ‘inferior foods’ like offal, that was generally thrown away as they were considered inferior goods.

With the assistance of the Red Cross, Lewin and his associates gathered 120 female volunteers for the research. The women were then separated into smaller groups; several of the groups heard lectures given by a nutritionist on different recipes, while the other groups were permitted to converse freely and exchange their thoughts and worries about how they could make the most of what was perceived as inferior meat.

The results revealed that the participants who were allowed to communicate and share their ideas and worries modified their dietary and cooking practices (over 30%) to a greater extent than the first group (3%).

The major explanation for why the housewives in the nutritionists’ cluster failed to alter their dietary habits was that they were not permitted to express their own stories and worries; instead, they were only given instructions on what dishes to prepare; the peer function of the group was reduced, as it was unable to exert any pressure to bring about a change. On the other hand, in the second group, the pressure to change came from their peers: the housewives discussed ideas among themselves and combined their powers to support the transformation process. This led the researchers to suggest that group decision is beneficial for social change. This led to a significant insight that social change requires change agents: people with a strong faith in their ideas of change and who can back up the change. In the first group the change agent was the nutritionist, in the second it was all participants.

So, before conducting your next change initiative take into consideration all three findings, and start change with your next conversation.

Dijana Vetturelli is CEO and co-founder of qohubs

Dijana Vetturelli

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