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Gervase's story:
The first experience I had that I would now call Dialogic OD was with Charlie Seashore in 1987. My partner had asked him to work with our client, the 80+ professionals of the quality department at Chevrolet/Pontiac/GM of Canada (CPC) divisional headquarters.  Charlie asked them to self-organize into the following 4 groups, in whatever way each of them defined themselves:  parents, grandparents, children, and black sheep.  He then asked each group to take a turn sitting in the center of the room, talking about their experience of the department.  The consultants asked them questions, and there was an open chair for anyone else to enter and talk with the group.  We spent that morning in very powerful conversation.
My diagnostic mindset at the time marveled at how this intervention allowed for the collection and processing of data in the same moment.  It collapsed the action research process quite substantially. How much more efficient than interviewing individuals, summarizing, and then feeding it back, to then try and create this kind of conversation!  Later, I began to question whether any feedback process could re-create the quality of that conversation, which was more exploratory and emergent than anything I could create in a data feedback meeting.  Even later I came to think that having any consultant in the middle of communication between people or groups in organizations is unlikely to do any good.  The only people who can fix A and B’s relationship are A and B, and acting as a go between of information and problem-solving creates, at best (or worst) a job for life.

Now, with a dialogic mindset, I look at that intervention quite differently.  I notice how the image of department as family privileges some narratives and mutes others. I notice how the design surfaces a multitude of narratives about the same issues, some very different from each other, in a relatively safe way. I notice how it supports greater expression of the emotional and the irrational wants in people’s experience, and greater acceptance of differences. I notice how the image of family allows for a multitude of people with different identities and purpose to still identify with the group as a whole. I notice how it invites both differentiation of individuals and integration among those with common identities and stories.  I notice how it does not create conversations for convergence or catalyzing action but it can create conversations that heal relationships.

Since 1989 I’ve worked with and studied Appreciative Inquiry and large group interventions and come to believe that hosting large groups of people who care about something can lead to emergent, improvisational and transformational change on a scale and at a speed that normal action research cannot muster.  I’ve also come to believe that everyone, at all times, is having a different experience, and has a different story of the organization.  Trying to agree on the “right” story (diagnosis) of the organization is an exercise in privileging one narrative over another, and not really that useful for promoting change.

Bob's story:
My first orientation to Dialogic OD came in the decade 1986-1996 when I began paying attention to, and working with, metaphors and covert processes in my consulting practice. One day I was talking with Linda Ackerman (now Linda Ackerman-Anderson) about her recent article differentiating development, transition, and transformation types of change (Ackerman, 1986).  I wondered about what I called a fourth type of change exemplified by a phrase I had heard for years in my consulting practice: “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  Later, it struck me that when people used that phrase they were implicitly thinking of the organization as a machine and whether or not it needing fixing or maintaining. And the name for that type of change became “maintenance”. From that moment on I found myself “deep listening” with a third ear for the explicit and implicit metaphors people were using to talk about whatever change they were involved in. More often than not, I thought they were explicitly calling for one kind of dramatic change, but implicitly describing it using machine-like, “fix and maintain” language. For example, “we need to completely transform our business,” but “because we need to get things up and running quickly, let’s not waste our time looking at things that have been working successfully in the past.” To me, this incongruity led to incongruent demands and commitments (e.g., total transformation in three months with no real commitment of resources) and therefore the likelihood of an unsuccessful change effort. So I began acting on the metaphors and implicit word imagery people were using, both during contracting and later during engagements and interventions of one kind or another. Bob: “Gee, it sounds like you are looking for a quick fix, is that right? Client: Well, yes, no, maybe…” And, then we would have a very different kind of interaction than we had had up until that point.

Now, in 2014, from a Dialogic OD mindset I would say I was teaching myself a form of Dialogic Process Consultation where my dominant focus is on how metaphors, storylines, and discursive processes shape individual and organizational realities and responses. It also has meant relaxing or altering some of my Diagnostic OD ways of consulting, including the need for “valid data collection” in advance of “intervening,” and facilitation towards a specified outcome. Instead, I find myself more interested in, and most effective, when I am drawing attention to and confronting deeply held conceptual metaphors or storylines that are implicitly framing experience. From a dialogic perspective I am seeking to “disrupt” the prevailing storyline (draw attention to or break the taken-for-granted frame) while creating a context or container that is safe enough for people to explore new possibilities. In my case this is often through consideration of alternative conceptual metaphors that serve as generative images allowing new storylines and possibilities to emerge. For example, instead of talking about how to fix the organization inviting people to talk about how to transform it - how to re-new, or re-imagine, or even re-engineer it. I also find that I am doing deep listening and raising alternative framings from the very first contact. These early “interventions” often serve to help reshape the direction of the consultation and/or suggest where deeply held implicit beliefs are preventing innovation and new possibilities to emerge.

Gervase R. Bushe more on Gervase

Robert Marshakmore on Bob