Russ: Gervase Bushe, it’s a great pleasure to meet you finally after many, many years of hearing about your work. We have some colleagues in common given my 22+ years in OD. When I first heard about your work, you were at Simon Fraser University. Tell us a little bit about your background that brought you into your position academically.
Gervase: I was an undergraduate student, involved like a lot of people were in the early ’70s in student movements of various kinds. My university was in Montreal and it had a very powerful student union. We thought the Dean of Arts was the source of all evil and if we got rid of him, everything would change. We got rid of him and then nothing changed. That was quite an enlightening moment for me. I wandered into a course we created for ourselves on leadership and change in educational institutions. The first model that went up on the board was Benne and Chin’s three approaches to change. I realized I was using a power-coercive change strategy. All of the negative consequences of that were playing out for me and I thought, boy, this normative re-education stuff looks really good.
Then I just happened, again totally by chance, to wander into a T Group course about a year later. One thing led to another and I just became very enamored with – and this is the early ’70s – all the work that was being done at that time on the planning of change in organization development and laboratory learning. I was fortunate enough to get a couple of mentors, one of whom was Hedley Dimock who, at the time, was the Dean of Organizational Development in Canada. They were running NTL-style programs up in the Laurentians and I got involved in all of that. It’s hard to believe looking back right now – but even at 22 I was co-training T Groups and going behind and taking notes in action research projects.
In ’76 I was still an undergraduate and I got a chance to go with Hedley to the OD Network Conference that was being held in Vancouver that year. The first night of the conference, there was a cocktail party. I was there alone and I’m just 21 at the time, and of course, didn’t know a soul. Everybody else was much older. I went up to one person and I said, “Well, I’m interested in studying systems change, group dynamics and laboratory learning. Where do you think I should go for graduate school?”
It turned out to be a great question, because everyone had an opinion. They would introduce me to other people and by the end of the night, I’d met about 50 or 60 people. I kept hearing “You should go to Case, Case Western.” I’d never heard of Case, I’d never heard of organizational behavior. I was not at all sure I wanted to go to a school of management at the time. But Case seemed like the place to go and I applied. By the skin of my teeth I got accepted when I was 23 into the Doctoral program at Case, which was, of course, amazing.
Russ: David Cooperrider was there at the time?
Gervase: Well, Coop joined as a student the following year.
Russ: You are peers!
Gervase: Yes. We used to play racquetball together. We used to get together on Tuesday nights at my place with a couple other students and talk ideas. So yes, it was an amazing time at Case. Case was connected into the American corporate elite. At the time, the big thing was quality of work life. I got hired by Dave Kolb, who had a business partner by the name of Dick Baker and who had gotten the contract to design General Motors’ Quality Circle program.
So we designed General Motors Quality Circle program. At the end of that, I said, “GM wants to be studying this!” and I was just starting to look for dissertation topics. I started banging on doors and I got introduced to Howard Carlson. He was the number two guy in the OD Department at that time and he hired me. For the next two years, I had an office in the GM building in Detroit. Along with a couple of people from GM, the three of us were the Employee Participation Groups Task Force. We could basically do whatever we wanted. We just wandered around the organization studying what was happening with the roll out of all the stuff. We would do some intervening and I developed some consulting clients. That was what my doctoral dissertation was on. So that was an amazing launch.
And one of the impacts of that – when I went to Case – I already had a very strong background in T Groups and action research. But what I didn’t know anything about was more of the macro stuff: organization design and the work that was coming out of Tavistock on future search processes and socio-technical systems. Bill Pasmore was working on this at Case then.
As a result of that work at General Motors I became totally intrigued with how to transform a company of 800,000 people. You can’t just do some survey feedback and get some people in a room. So my work at that point really was looking at organizational design processes and, more specifically, how do organizational structures drive developmental change in organizations. I ended up writing a book on that with Rami Shani called Parallel Learning Structures.
All through the ’80s, all my work was about helping large old bureaucratic companies that were trying to empower employees and redesign themselves to become team-based forms of organizing. That was fun! I was doing that work and then the process re-engineering revolution hit. Within the space of ten months all of the organization design work for people like me dried up. It just went away. That was true for everybody who was doing this kind of work. It was like in the past there’d be one guy and we’d go in and work with the senior team. Now all of a sudden Price Waterhouse was coming along and saying, “We’ll just do it for you” and they would send 300 people in.
And of course, what happened with process re-engineering was it just became, unfortunately in a lot of cases, a cover for downsizing and eliminating jobs not very thoughtfully. At the same time as that happened, the data was starting to emerge that a lot of these really collaborative organizational forms, fantastically well-designed team based-plants and companies, were reverting back to command and control. This was very disturbing to me. This was what I had put my heart and soul into.
I started thinking about why that might be. One of the ideas that came to my mind at the time was that maybe it’s the effect of ego development, which I know is a core piece of integral theory. I had done a study while I was consulting with General Motors. I was working with the Quality Department in one of their major divisions. We had been training their Quality Engineers in learning how to be change agents, learning how to be more effective consultants in the organization. Around that time, I became interested in Jane Loevinger’s work on ego development. What we ended up doing was measuring the ego development of 80 people. We found a correlation between their level of ego development and their competency as change agents.
So, I became very interested in the whole theory. The hypothesis I developed at the time was that this new team-based organization required somebody at a higher stage of ego development to be running the organization. New, team-based plants would be initially run by someone at a higher stage of ego development and then they would get promoted on and someone else at a lower stage would get promoted into their position. That was really sort of the — I don’t know the colors that integral uses but I use Bill Torbert’s labels. Torbert gave them different names to make them more understandable to a business audience] so what Loevinger calls I4, Torbert calls the Achiever Stage – Orange in Spiral Dynamics.
So my hypothesis about what was happening was that in order to really run a flat organization it requires someone at a higher stage of ego development who can manage the paradoxical realities so that they would get promoted on. Then, the next person that would come in could talk the talk, but they couldn’t really walk the walk, because they were really at that Orange-Achiever stage. Then the whole thing would fall apart. I never had a large enough data set to be able to test that proposition, but I had three anecdotal experiences in which I’m pretty sure that’s what was going on.
At the time – around 1990 – I was describing the theory of ego development to different groups and then asking them to think about how they would design an organization that would match the different levels. Everybody got it right away. This Orange stage of ego development emerged out of the Industrial Revolution. It was required to run the kind of organizations that we have now. This new form of organizing needed a new level of ego development. They bootstrap each other.
We’re at a time when we’re trying to create a new form of organizing. It requires a next stage of ego development. A lot of attempts to create collaborative forms of organizing are failing, because we don’t have leaders in place who can manage the complexity of that. I ended up having a series of experiences that led me to write a book a called Clear Leadership. I have a clear leadership training program, which can take people who are at that achiever stage and knock them out of that so that they can move to the next level. They develop the kind of competencies and attitude to do that and I’m having some success with that.
Russ: I’d like to come back to the leader question in a minute, but one of the things that I’ve seen in your writing that has emerged as a result of the perspective you’ve just shared is this whole notion of dialogic mindsets. I’m wondering if you are using the concept of dialogic in the Vygotskyian sense or is more in the Bohmian-Bill Isaac sense?
Gervase: Neither actually. The dialogical OD thing is a separate project that’s really come out of my work in Appreciative Inquiry. That’s the other thing that happened around that time when process re-engineering led my organization design work to fall apart. David Cooperrider ran the first conference on appreciative inquiry at Case in ’89. I went to that and that conference really impacted me. One of my consultant colleagues at the time – we were doing a bunch of work at GM – we started trying to bring that appreciative approach into our work.
By the mid-2000s, my research was convincing me that people who use appreciative inquiry but are operating out of a traditional OD mindset weren’t really reaping the potential of it. It required a different set of ideas. There was one paper in particular where I really laid that out. I started working different set of ideas about what are organizations and what is change? Around the same time I was doing that, Bob Marshak was writing about what he called the New OD. He was coming from an organizational discourse point of view. We ended up bumping into each other sort of figuratively in the work we were doing and thought we should try writing something together.
We wrote a paper. Bob was calling it the New OD and I was calling it Postmodern OD. We weren’t having any luck getting that paper published. The editors would say “Well, if it’s new OD then the other stuff must be old OD. Newer is better than old and you don’t really have any data to support that.” So they turned down the paper. When I called it post-modern OD, editors would send it off to their post-moderny reviewers and they would all hate it, because I wasn’t quoting Foucault.
Bob came up with this distinction between dialogic OD and diagnostic OD. It slips off the tongue and that was a winner. The editors loved it! We got published and we won awards. Dialogic OD seemed like an appropriate title, because the core of what we were seeing was that all these different technologies were focused on changing conversations in organizations. The primary mechanism for change in organizations is to change those conversations.
This term, dialogic OD, groups together a whole pile of innovations that have emerged in the last 20-25 years, appreciative inquiry being a major example, open space technology being another. Now you look at those two and they look really different. We’ve uncovered what is similar about them. We’ve also uncovered the secret sauce around what makes them transformational. We’ve labeled that dialogic OD, but it isn’t about “dialogue” because you’ll notice in both those techniques, there’s not a lot of attention given to trying to teach people how to talk or listen well.
Those interested in dialogue tend to focus on questions like How should people talk to each other? How should people listen to each other? In Organizational Development you can do a little of that, but if you spend too much time focused on that you’re asking people to step out of their normal way of being. And in fact, there are some people in the dialogic OD tent that would say, “That, in fact, gets in the way.” We need to take people and organizations as they show up. They’re in a flow. We need to step into the flow that’s already in flow. Our job as interveners is not taking a stable system, changing it and then putting it back together as a stable system. We’re stepping into a system that’s in a continuous process of self-organizing change.
Russ: This is built on the old OD saw that you have got to start with where they’re at?
Russ: That’s really an important point to make, because in the field of OD that’s been a principle that has been espoused, if not practiced.
Gervase: Yes. Interestingly, what happened was that Bob and I wrote a paper and it identified that there has been a bifurcation in OD practice. Old OD, classical OD, is based on what philosophers call a “modernist” set of principles. This new form is really based on postmodern thinking, interpretivist philosophy and complexity science. These are the basic underlying ideas. But in that article we didn’t say how you do dialogic OD.
We have spent the last three or four years working that one out and we have a book coming out this spring on both theory and practice of Dialogic OD.. One of the things that happens when people learn things like appreciative inquiry, open space, future search, world café or any of these potentially dialogic practices, is that initially they learn in a kind of paint by numbers way and they go and try to do it. Here’s the way you run a world café. You do this; you do that; and so they go and do it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and they don’t really know why.
What we’ve identified is what’s required for those things to work consistently. One is developing a dialogic mindset, which is just a way of thinking about how change happens, what’s going on in an organization. Coming out of the transformation that organization development was a part of was this movement from a mechanistic mindset to an organic mindset. We think of organizations as having more or less healthy processes. It is hard not to imagine an organization needing to adapt to its environment and having the different components fit with what the environmental requirements are, its capacity to adapt and on and on. And that’s fine.
But a dialogic mindset thinks about organization somewhat differently, as meaning making systems. It’s not about figuring out the correct fit. From a dialogic mindset, there is no one correct fit. There’s a range of possibilities. What’s possible in our ways of organizing is just constrained by our imagination and our agreements. We’re constantly negotiating social reality and so on and so on.
Russ: The whole piece about process, an organic process of change, relates to that. When I asked if the dialogic was in the tradition of Vygotsky, I was thinking about the difference between Western psychology and some European psychology, especially what has emerged out of Russia, comparing the dialogical and the monological assumptions that we have about our own experience and about the developmental process.
For example, in a monological mindset, in our ways of thinking about ourselves, how we make meaning and how we make sense of things we make the assumption that that’s all part of an internal dialogue or an internal conversation. In the Vygotsky-ian sense and in the dialogical perspective in psychology, sense and meaning-making emerges out of the relationship between the individual and their human and non-human environments. It seems to me that what you’re talking about very much is aligned with those kinds of sense making dynamics that we don’t see much of in Western psychology.
Gervase: Yes, I think that’s right. I think it’s growing in Western psychology. I think Europe’s quite a bit further ahead in a more systemic approach, which looks at relationship as being the key driver of things, as opposed to the interiorized individual. And of course, Kenneth Gergen’s latest work is just taking that to the extreme.
The dialogic mindset is much more attuned to relationship and into the social construction of reality that’s taking place moment-by-moment in every interaction, and to the importance of language and words and how those impact. The other thing that the dialogic mindset has tuned into is complexity and the dynamics of complexity in self-organizing systems. Dialogic OD is really a melding of these two things – of social constructionism and complex adaptive systems theory.
What we’re claiming is that any particular OD consultant is going to have a melding of these diagnostic and dialogic mindsets in some way and everyone’s got their own way of making sense of this. The choices they make for how they use any particular technique is going to be influenced strongly by that. You can take appreciative inquiry and use it in a classically-diagnostic way. People do that and they write about it that way. Or you can do it from a very dialogic standpoint. And so that’s going to be influenced by the mindset of the consultant.
Second, the idea we have is that underlying any of those techniques, whether or not you get transformational change, depends on at least one of three things happening. One is that the system has to be disturbed, disrupted to a point where it can’t go back. It has to be a level of disruption to “the way we do things around here” that’s so great that we can’t go back. Now what’s going to happen is that some kind of self-organizing process is going to get engaged. We’re at the edge of the chaos boundary and change is going to be emergent, not planned. As practitioners, what we do is that we help create the best holding environment for that to be more likely to lead to a new reorganization at a more complex level that’s more adaptive. But without that disruption, transformation is not going to occur.
The second underlying change process is a change in the core narrative that people in the organization use to make sense of themselves in the organization. The third is that a new generative image emerges or is brought into this mixture that allows people to see and talk and to think and make decisions about things in ways they could never imagine before.
So that’s our perspective, those are the three underlying core transformational processes. And if at least one of them doesn’t show up in your Open Space Technology or your future search, you’re not going to have transformational change.
Russ: Gervase, there’s so much richness here. It’s like 40 different roads we could go down at the same time. And the overlap in your work and my own is really standing out for me. I’m about to finish up an article that’s dealing with the language that we, as academics, use in relationship to leadership that has kept us in a very stuck place as a field of study.
I’ve already published things in World Futures and elsewhere in which I talk about the way we use terms related to leadership like leader, leading and leadership. I suggest that rather than definitions, which emerge out of context, what we need to do is make distinctions with which we can clarify the definitions we’re using in a particular context.
The distinctions that I’m talking about include that the concept of leader is not about a person, it’s about a role. I prefer a role perspective on the term “leader”. Leading is what people do when they step into that role. And leadership is not just about the person and not just about followers, but also about the context – stakeholders, systems, and cultures. If we as academics, as people who are studying the field of leadership and doing research in it, could get some kind of agreement about distinctions among these terms, we could accept the fact that as Barbara Kellerman talks about there are 1500 definitions of leadership and 44 different theories (and I think she missed 2 or 3) and have some kind of holding pattern that would help us generate a new stage of our thinking in development around the field of leadership.
Much of the writing on language in leadership is really about how people in leader roles use language to support them in achieving the things that are important to them or to the system that they’re operating in and not about how we think about leadership. And the fact that you’re so focused on sense-making and meaning-making in your own work is so very important. How do you apply that not just to the systems we’re intervening in and the ways we’re doing research about them, but in terms of your own thinking about how we make sense and meaning out of leadership in change dynamics?
Gervase: I’m coming at it in a couple of different ways. One way is in looking at how do we build and run collaborative work systems; that’s one conversation. And I’m coming at it from the point of view of transformational change; that’s a different conversation.
So let’s talk about the change one. What I’ve noticed is in the past ten years there have been a lot of similar ideas emerging about what the nature of leadership is in a world where the right answer is not obvious. Richard Pascale has been using complexity theory as a place to stand on. Even Jim Collins’ last book looked at companies that thrive in conditions that have high degrees of uncertainty.
There’s a lot of overlap in what has come out in understanding what that kind of leadership is really about. My own way of thinking about it is when we don’t know what the answer is and we can’t really figure out what the answer is, then leadership’s job is not to try to figure out what the answer is, but rather to create a process in which we enrich the social networks amongst the stakeholders we’re concerned with, whatever the issue is that we’re concerned with. We want to enrich those networks and allow people who are motivated and have ideas to find each other and take action on those ideas without us picking winners. I think this is what happens in effective large system change processes
Leadership’s job is not to vet proposals, so to speak, but rather it’s to create the conditions that will launch as many little innovations as possible. Collins and Hansen call it, “Fire bullets and then cannonballs.” Take a bunch of shots but don’t use up a lot of ammunition doing it. Then, when you hit something you can get behind it. I like in particular, David Snowden’s Cynefin model, I found —
Russ: I’m sorry, what model?
Gervase: He calls it the Cynefin. It’s a Welsh word so it’s pronounced one way and is spelled a different way. He was at IBM’s Knowledge Management Group. When they developed it he got this model of different decision spaces based on our understanding of cause-effect relationships. He says we’re in a complex decision situation where we don’t really understand cause-effect relationships except in retrospect.
So when you can apply technical expertise to a situation and on the basis of that figure out what effects what, then you’re in a complicated situation where you want to diagnose this and figure out intervening variables so that the traditional managerial process makes sense. But when you’re dealing with something that no one really knows what the right answer is, because you don’t really understand what the cause-effect relationships are, he says the appropriate way to make a decision is to probe-sense-respond. So by probe, he means try something. Try something and see what happens.
Russ: That’s the bullet.
Gervase: Yes, that’s your bullet. The purpose of these large dialogic change processes, and where they make sense is for leaders in dealing with adaptive challenges. Diagnostic OD makes sense when you’re dealing with a problem where technical expertise can be applied to figure out a good solution. But when you’re dealing with messy, complex adaptive challenges, the best thing to do is try to engage your stakeholders, get them fired up, find the people who are motivated and have an idea, let them go. Don’t wait for leadership; go and do something. Then the leadership puts monitoring and tracking processes in place so they can pay attention to what’s happening. And on the basis of that, if something’s working, get behind it. Start resourcing it and building that up and finding ways to pull it in and institutionalize it in your organization. It is a very different kind of leadership model but it still requires leadership.
One of the big failures of a lot of dialogic change methods is all the effort and time goes into planning for the event where we’re going to bring a lot of people together. We find them and reach those networks. We find those motivated folks and we get them going. At this point we’re very good at running those kinds of events. A lot of people know how to do that really well. People come out of them excited, charged up.
Russ: And three months later, nothing has happened.
Gervase: Yes, exactly! Because where we’re really bad is following up on the things that need to happen after those events. That’s where I think leadership is really important. Leaders have a key role there, but it’s a kind of a stewardship role. It’s a farming kind of thing. You’ve got to pay attention. You’ve planted a whole plot of crops. You can’t just walk away and expect to reap the benefits.
Russ: Right. So people in formal positions of authority have an important role to play. You’re calling that leadership, I think.
I’d prefer to think about leading as a set of functions and that the role of leader is going to vary depending on the context. What that suggests then is that leadership is something that is emergent – that is not only emergent over the movie of change, if you will, but it’s emergent from different parts of the organization. It happens in the context of hierarchical formal systems of authority, which may or may not support its effectiveness.
Gervase: Right. One of the points you’re making is we use the word leader for a lot of different things.
Gervase: Yes, a lot of different things. So when I’m talking here, I’m thinking more of the context of organizations where there is a hierarchy. One of the things I’ve learned is that organizations don’t work without hierarchy. They might try to get rid of them, but it doesn’t work. I think Elliott Jaques has the best line of sight into requisite authority and what’s required.
When I’m talking about leadership here, I’m only talking about those with authority. In terms of transformational change, I think it requires people at the very senior levels of organizations being engaged. You don’t transform an organization without the people at the top being a part of it. When the people in the middle try to do that without the people at the top being a part of it, they just end up running into walls. The actions that are required of people at the top to support transformational change are not that emergent. They’re pretty predictable in terms of the kind of things they need to do.
How that will play out in any particular scenario is emerging. Part of what they need to do is to be able to work with emergent processes. They need to be able to let go of control and to understand, like I said, that their job is not to manage the front end – their job is to manage the back end. It’s in some ways completely different from what they’ve been trained to do while moving up the corporate hierarchy. Whereas dealing with a technical problem, it’s exactly the opposite – their job is to manage the front end and to get the right question, the right data and the right answer, and then to drive that down through the system.
But in an adaptive challenge, that’s not going to work. In fact, that gets in the way, because then you end up trying to do something and you get all these unintended consequences, which we see over and over again. Often, things get worse rather than better.
Russ: Yes. When you think about this whole orientation to ego development that you brought up early in our conversation there are several different models and examples of that. One of the advantages of some of those models like Spiral Dynamics, Clare Graves’ work, is that it attends to the context that changes, not just an individual process. It’s a biopsychosocial development process. I’m wondering if you have particular individual developmental models, be it still Loevinger or Kegan or whoever, that play an active role in your work?
Gervase: I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular model that plays an active role in my work. But I am influenced just by the whole notion that there’s this series that I call a mental map, like metamaps. Each one is a metamap. What’s really cool about it is that each is predictable; it’s a predictable sequence. As long as you can knock someone out of their current metamap, you can predict where they’re going to go next even if you don’t do anything to take them there. If the theory is right, they could regress back or they could progress further. I’m very influenced by the thought that this next stage of organization is going to require the next stage of ego development, a median kind of level. It’s the one after the Achiever stage.
Russ: Strategist is the next one.
Gervase: Yes, to use Bill Torbert’s model.
Gervase: Where I have been going with that is thinking more about the nature of the kind of organization and the skill set that’s required to do it. In my career, what I’ve noticed is that every manager I’ve worked with wants to be a collaborative leader – who’s going to call me up who doesn’t? There’s a sorting thing there – and most of them are having a hard time doing it. For all the people I work with, it’s not a motivation problem. And that’s what lead to Clear Leadership.
Now people lower down their organization, if they don’t experience being in a collaborative system, the story they make up is that the leaders are control freaks or something like that. But when you work with those people, the last thing they want to do is be in control; they want other people to step up. It’s just become clear to me over the last 10, 15 years that there is a series of ways in which people who are motivated and want to do this, pull the rug out from underneath themselves. There are a series of basic assumptions that they have about the way the world is that doesn’t work in a collaborative system.
As you move into higher stages of ego development, there is a shift in worldview that makes it more possible. Most fundamentally is understanding that relationships are important in and of themselves. The Achiever looks at relationships as basically means to get somewhere and that’s not going to work in a collaboration. What I’ve been using as my dependent variable for studying of all this stuff is the idea of partnership. I like Barry Oshry’s definition of partnership: a relationship in which you and I both feel responsible for success in our common purpose.
I’ve been studying what needs to happen in leader-follower relationships to be in partnership. By leader, I’m talking again about the hierarchy. To organize requires a hierarchy. What got me started on this is that about six years ago I was working with a CEO who was like the poster child for dysfunctional collaborative leadership. I started to realize that even if you’re a collaborative leader, the people who work for you want you to do some stuff. They want you to act like a leader. People in a hierarchy, have expectations coming from those above them and then there’s expectations coming up from those below them, and those need to get fulfilled for the organization to work well.
But the way to go about meeting those expectations for “leadership” in a collaborative relationship is quite different than how you go about fulfilling them in a traditional command and control system. Most people stuck in “collaborative leadership doesn’t work” don’t understand how to do that. So I started working on identifying what were the core expectations that people had of their “leaders”, “managers”, whatever you want to call them, in an organization. And they are basic things like “We want to know what our goals are. We want decisions made in a timely manner. We want resources allocated in ways that seem appropriate.” Here’s an interesting thing, “We want people held accountable for the work they do.”
And I think we could say generically, that in a collaborative situation, it isn’t so much the leader does those things but they ensure that those things get done.
Russ: One of the things that’s really key about what you’re talking about in terms of the distinctions I was making earlier is that when we think about leader as a role, really what we’re talking about is a complex set of expectations of stakeholders as well as the people who step into that role. And those expectations include the things you’ve been talking about. They include a whole bunch of other things that are based on archetypal images, personal needs, stylistic assumptions and so on. It’s a pretty complex set of expectations. If you’re talking about someone in a formal position, their stakeholders often are found also beyond the boundaries of an organization. Those stakeholders may not be attended to in the kinds of processes you’re talking about.
Gervase: No question about it. It’s not easy. I mean, leadership isn’t easy.
Russ: No, it isn’t!
Gervase: I started working on this problem and I identified the skill sets. Then I started working underneath it. What are the basic kinds of psychological processes that allow this to take place? I think I have identified some of those.
I started to write the book. It was kind of the companion to Clear Leadership, which is about how to lead learning and how to sustain partnership. The new book is about how to lead performing in a partnership-based organization. Whenever you have authority the tendency is to suck up the responsibility and for the people below to give you the responsibility. This is really difficult –sustaining a relationship in which we both feel responsible for the success of what is going on, even though I have the authority.
As I started writing that book, what emerged was a theory of partnership-based organization design. I realized for this thing to work, it couldn’t be done in isolation. What happens is that when we design organizations, we design them based on roles. What we don’t recognize is that that’s really an assumption that came out of the Industrial Revolution (IR) – like the whole role-based form of organizing didn’t exist before the IR and really continues to drive this sort of individualized way of thinking about things. And it’s still essential; we can’t operate without those roles.
But what I was thinking is that what we need to do is place another layer on top of that from an organization design point of view and identify what are the key partnerships that need to exist for this organization to be successful. When we do things like goal setting for the year or budgeting, we don’t do it through the individual roles; we do it through the partnerships. We have partnerships that have accountability for the goals.
And so what would happen for example on goal setting is that there’s a whole bunch of pieces to this thing. I’ve written this book, The Engaging Leader. But I’m not releasing it yet because it’s too over the top. It’s like I developed this whole new theory of organization design and all that stuff and I don’t know, can this actually work? Was it just some academic wet dream? What is this?
Now I am experimenting. I’m just about to walk into my first experiment, because I kind of put it on the shelf while I was finishing the Dialogic OD book. I’m about to walk into my first experiment where I have an organization that’s already got the clear leadership capacity and the ability to have those kinds of conversations.
We’re going to try different ways of doing design, figure out what the partnerships are, work the goal setting process through as an experiment. We will try it out, keep our eyes open, fix it as it goes on. I need a few of those first and see whether or not this stuff really works. Of course, there’ll be things that don’t and we have to figure it out. Once I feel more confident that I know what I’m talking about, then I’ll look for a publisher.
Russ: What would you like to add, Gervase?
Gervase: You were asking about leadership, so I think in terms of thinking about how to be a collaborative leader, that’s my cutting edge. I keep getting stuck between thinking that we need to focus at the relational level and I agree with that on a lot of levels. But I also still think people have experiences and that regardless of where those experiences come from, our experience of ourselves is as individual experiencing units. The kind of relational work that’s way out on the edge – there is no individual experience or it’s not worth paying attention to, we should just pay attention to the relational nexus – is too far out there for me.
What I’ve been doing for the last 15 years is working with leaders at all levels of organizations to step into the idea that we each create our own experience. Everybody’s having a different experience. Leading does not require us to all be having the same experience. In fact, we build stronger teams and organizations when people are allowed to have their own experience. The biggest impediment to that is this way many of us manage our anxiety by trying to change your experience so I can feel okay. There are a lot of different labels for that, but I see that as the main impediment to using all the interpersonal skills required to manage people well. Learning to not do that is fundamentally the core kind of personal growth leaders need. It’s like my capacity to contain my own anxiety and not have to have others be managing my anxiety for me and however I go about doing that.
Most fundamentally, the way that shows up in organizational life is that I try to change your experience before I actually understand it so that I can feel okay. So it’s just taking it down to those micro-level things. People who really understand that start to step into it and stop themselves from doing that. When they start doing that, the capacity to sustain partnerships, and manage collaboratively, really increases.
Russ: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wish I had.
Gervase: Well, my Dialogic OD book’s coming out next April, everyone should buy a copy! I don’t know if you have noticed this – in academic OD, Dialogic OD has become a big meme and it’s like everybody who’s writing now is writing for it or against it, in some way trying to cope with it. About two years ago Bob said, “We need to write the book because if we don’t write it, somebody else is going to write it.” And I said, “I’m not ready to write the book. I don’t feel like I know enough.” But we just finished editing a journal on Dialogic OD, a special issue, and I said, what if we did this? Let’s list what we would want as a table of contents for the book and then reach out to the best people we know in the world to write those different chapters.
Russ: Like Frank Barrett.
Gervase: Like Frank Barrett. And we said to them, we want you to write the first draft of the chapter, but we don’t want this to be your typical edited book where it’s a whole bunch of different voices that are disconnected and maybe there are a couple good chapters and the rest is crap. We want this to be a book that actually reads from beginning to end and is coherent. The different chapters talk to each other. What we’re asking you to do is to write the first draft and then we’re going to aggressively edit it. And we’d probably go through multiple drafts and at the end of the day, we get to decide what goes in the chapter.
We got enough people to say yes, so we’ll have this book. It’s been like a two-year process and I worked a tremendous amount on it. Every chapter has gone through multiple drafts and when you read it, it does read like one voice as you go through it. It’s all integrated and it’s a wonderful book. So I’m very proud of this book. I’ve learned so much from the global team of academics and practitioners who wrote chapters for us. It’s going to have a big impact. Our target is graduate change programs of any sort as the primary audience and then thoughtful practitioners. So it’s got a Theory section, like Frank wrote the piece on social constructionism. It’s a great piece. Peggy Holman wrote the piece on complexity and Ralph Stacey on his stuff.
Russ:. I’m looking forward to the book and I just am so appreciative of this conversation. I have this feeling that hours could go by and I still wouldn’t be finished. But I hope this is enough to give people a good solid taste of the scope of your work and I’m very appreciative of your taking this time.
Gervase: Thanks, Russ. Thanks for offering to interview me. I appreciate it.