Generating expansive conversations with open space

As previously discussed on this blog, we favour conversational approaches to eliciting the development of leaders. When we’re working with groups who have an ambitious purpose but face a variety of complex options, we look for ways to break free of linear and binary thinking and instead synthesise diverse perpectives. One approach on which we draw for inspiration is open space.

It seems a pre-requisite for these conversational processes that they have mystifying names. This is no exception and its formal nomenclature – given by its originator, Harrison Owen – is Open Space Technology. Beneath the name lies gold. Put simply, it is a method for a group of people to self-organise multiple, simultaneous conversations around a related theme. It is energising for the participants and, in our experience, produces more interesting outcomes than laboured discussions led by facilitators.

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Taking the pulse of an organisation

If there’s one signature intervention that characterises how we work at Vogel Wakefield, it is the diagnostic enquiry into what’s going on in an organisation. This draws on skills developed over the course of our careers in journalism, strategy and coaching – and, in my case, my epistemological formation as a sociologist.

Put simply, it entails getting lots of people to talk to us about their working lives. And trying to understand what it is they need to talk about together that they’re not discussing. Many of our engagements begin this way – particularly when a team or organisation is stuck in some way, which is usually when they turn to consultants.

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Going deep in conversation with insight dialogue

If I’m working with a group that is highly committed to improving the quality of relationship between them, I might reach for Insight Dialogue.

This is actually a meditation practice developed by Gregory Kramer, a meditation that is conducted in relationship with someone else. Its essence is that it interrupts the normal routine of conversation with deliberate pauses and reflections, so that we might connect with the perception that we hold that might otherwise lie just beneath conscious awareness.

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Dancing with nonviolent communication to change the conversation in organisations

One of the methodolgies we use to change the habits of conversation in organisations is nonviolent communication (NVC). This is a clunky name for a practice, developed by Marshal Rosenberg. It is deceptively simple but also profound in the insights it generates about what’s going on when people talk to each other.

Marshal Rosenberg’s key insight is that often in communication, people are seeking – consciously or unconsciously – to satisfy needs. It’s the frustration of these needs that can cause relationships to become mired in conflict. The route to understanding needs is to notice the feelings that are at play in a situation. So Marshal Rosenberg proposed a four-fold grammar for communicating in a way that could help people bring empathic attention to these factors.

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Conversation matters more than structure in organisations

A lot of our work in organisations focusses on getting people to show up differently in conversations. This is because it’s through conversations that organisations exist. People often think of organisations as structures which have a solidity beyond the people who comprise them. There’s some truth in this construct. The BBC existed long before I joined it and seems to be managing to survive quite adequately even though it’s a decade since I left.

But it’s also true that organisations are enacted into being by their members. The day-to-day interactions people have with each other in organisations are much more material to how things get done than the structures, strategies, documents and plans that people imagine to be their work.

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Vogel Wakefield: the movie

We often get asked, “What’s it like to work with you?” So we’ve attempted to answer that question in this video, showcasing our work in universities.

Thanks to contributors Professor Frank Finlay, Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of Leeds, and Katherine Bond, Director of the Cultural Institute at King’s College London. And to our friends at the production company, Impact Video.

Higher education round-up

art and tech

Here’s a round-up of our series on higher education. People were asking us, “What’s it like to work with you?” So we wrote this series to provide an answer. In the posts below, we explore what we’ve learned from working in the sector and what our counter-consultancy approach has to offer universities and those who work in them:

Image courtesy University of Salford.

Reconnecting universities to their public purposes

obu

This is the final post in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore how interdisciplinarity and external collaboration can revitalise the public value of universities.

Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships provide a foundation for universities to renew their public value. This is because they grow out of the genuine and distinct strengths of a particular institution and point to how it can make a unique contribution to addressing society’s challenges. But this contribution can be realised only if there is clarity about the institution’s public purposes: the generic ones it shares with other higher education establishments and the distinct one that arise out of its own particular circumstances.

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The emergent route to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration in higher education

networking

This is the third in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore the complex nature of university cultures and how we use conversation and reflection to mobilise distributed leadership.

Interdisciplinarity can address a university’s need for funds and a distinctive marketing proposition but also the individual academic’s need for compelling research opportunities. If each university has unique research strengths, these can be synthesised into interdisciplinary ventures which pursue approaches to research excellence that can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. This creates compelling reasons for funds, students and academics to gravitate to particular institutions. It counters a view of higher education as a largely undifferentiated, instrumental business with one which construes it as comprising diverse institutions each with intrinsic value and distinctive contributions to make to the world’s knowledge.

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Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships: components of revenue generation and public value in higher education

library

Over recent years, we have developed a focus on supporting academics and managers in universities who are trying to foster greater interdisciplinary working and greater engagement with external partners. This series of blog posts reviews our learning in this area and explores how our counter-consultancy approach is especially suited to resolving challenges that higher education institutions encounter in pursuing interdisciplinary objectives.

Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships are distinct but closely related areas for universities. While disciplines represent communities of practice that transcend the boundaries of any one university, the idea of disciplines also serves as an institutional heuristic that facilitates internal ways of organising. But in their pursuit of research outcomes that deliver tangible value to society, universities are finding that questions that range across disciplinary distinctions are increasingly salient. This is largely driven by the complexity and pace of change of the modern world. Governments and other funders of research are searching for solutions to big global challenges that are best approached through joined-up interdisciplinary enquiries. Funding is increasingly focussed around themes such as demographic change and wellbeing, food security or climate change. External partners too, caught up in this complexity, are bringing research questions that range across disciplinary distinctions.

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