Teaching Smart People to Learn with Dialogue Mapping

Tags: dialogue mapping, issue mapping, misalignments, tools

This morning I came across an article by Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris, Teaching Smart People to Learn, over Twitter that describes the dilemma of defensive reasoning among professionals within an organization.  This is the tendency for people to displace blame from themselves in the face of criticism - what we might more commonly refer to as blamestorming. Despite being highly educated and competent in all other respects, they do not possess the skills for critical self-examination , partly out of fear of appearing a failure.  As a result, they don't know how to build a shared understanding of their problems and themselves.

For Argyris, the solution lies with open dialogue and reflection of one's behaviours back to oneself through others in order to promote more intelligent and effective problem-solving.  Sometimes we need to see that we can be part of the problem and that changes in our own behaviour or reactions are required to remove impasses.

Upon reading and reflecting on the dialogues between managers and consultants that Argyris uses to illustrate the problems with defensive reasoning, it struck me that these were perfect circumstances to apply the technique of dialogue mapping, a process of illustrating and exploring a problem with a group in real-time through the use of a simple set of idioms on a shared display. (For more details, see my previous post, Making Sense of Wicked Problems with Issue Mapping and Scrum, for a review of the main features of Dialogue Mapping)

Map as a Mirror

Jeff Conklin, notes in his book, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, that dialogue maps can act as a sort of 'mirror' for a group, allowing them to easily see disruptive patterns in their conversations that can act to limit or shut-down exploring various avenues of thought:

"Disruptive behaviour patterns show up rather obviously. If a participant goes off-topic with a comment, the dialogue mapper can work with him or her to find out how to capture the comment either as a new question or as a node linked to an existing part of the map; either way, the topic shift shows up clearly in the geometry of the map. If a participant challenges the whole frame of the meeting (eg. 'Why are we talking about this? This isn't the real issue!') the dialogue mapper can recapture that comment in a clear way… that captures the participant's concern and any discussion about it without undermining the rest of the meeting's discussion. If someone asks a closed question (eg. 'Should we abandon the product line?') the yes/no options in the map reflect the limiting frame of the question. Thus the dialogue map allows the group to see the conversational patterns it uses." [p. 160]

Take this instance below where Argyris notes how consultants and their manager "talk past" one another on the issue of improving their delivery of value, resulting in a deflective and unproductive blamestorm that goes nowhere:

Professionals: ‘‘The clients have to be open. They must want to change.’’

Manager: ‘‘It’s our task to help them see that change is in their interest .’’

Professionals: ‘‘But the clients didn't agree with our analyses.’’

Manager: ‘‘If they didn't  think our ideas were right, how might we have convinced them ?’’

Professionals: ‘‘Maybe we need to have more meetings with the client.’’

Manager: ‘‘If we aren't adequately prepared and if the clients don ’t think we're credible,  how will more meetings help?’’

Professionals: "There should be better communication between case team members and management."

Manager: ‘‘I agree. But professionals should take the initiative to educate the manager about the problems they are experiencing."

Professionals: ‘‘Our leaders are unavailable and distant.’’

Manager: ‘‘How do you expect us to know that if you don't tell us?’’

With a facilitated dialogue Mapping session, the inconsistencies and disruptive behavioural patterns in this conversation would become glaringly apparent - recall that this is projected on a screen for everyone in the meeting to see and focus on as a tool for building shared understanding during mapping:

If you've never read a dialogue map before, it's quite easy: You begin with the question node at the left and read to the right.  Ideas are presented in response to questions, which in turn may have subsequent questions or pro or con arguments.  This map has a lot of hanging con arguments (the red "negative" symbols) which illustrate the dysfunctional nature of the conversation.  There's no real resolution - it wanders off course and dead-ends:  Do we need more meetings? Are managers really unavailable and distant? It's a lot of conjecture with little substance.

Before moving to the next dialogue, a few quick observations about the key features of dialogue maps that make them so well suited to facilitating these conversations:

  • First (and most importantly) none of the comments are attributed or directed to a particular speaker.  This is by design - it allows the comments and responses to stand independent of those who made them, removing bias and the potential for ad hominem attacks.
  • Second, this map opens with an Instrumental Question focused on exploring the means and methods for achieving some objective - in this case how to improve the value of services provided to the customer.  From here, three ideas are presented  in response that are met with a lot of challenges (the red dashes are "cons" or statements that contradict or disagree with the ideas presented).  It's a bit of a struggle to get toward the real nub of the problem which is "How can we convince our customers to be more receptive to our analyses and services?" - A potentially wicked problem if there ever was one!

    This is where dialogue mapping shines:  It provides a conversational and intellectual roadmap to surface and "pin" exploratory questions, ideas, and supportive and critical responses.  It helps take the starch out of potentially defensive reasoning situations by making the validity or absurdity of what's being said visible.  Once this is done, finding a path out of the mire becomes more attainable.

Mapping Toward Productive Reasoning

Argyris describes the polar opposite of defensive reasoning as productive reasoning, in which involved professionals apply rigorous soft-skill analysis techniques to learn surface how they react to the problem domain and project those reactions to others. To accomplish this, Argyris recommends an approach where an individual writes a case study about their problem and uses it as a simulation to assess their own reactions and those of others against.  It's a means of "reflecting back" how the individual thinks they project concerns and how they are actually received by facilitating a context of shared understanding.

While a good idea, I think dialogue mapping could be used to greater effect in this respect. Consider the following dialogue Argyris relates in the article between a manager and his team about an unresolved issue concerning the perceived arrogance of customers toward consultants:

Manager: "You said the clients were arrogant and uncooperative. What did they say and do?"

Professional #1:  "One asked me if I had ever met a payroll.  Another asked how long I've been out of school."

Professional #2:  "One even asked me how old I was!"

Professional #3:  "That's nothing.  The worst is when they say that all we do is interview people, write a report based on what they tell us, and then collect our fees."

Manager:  "The fact that we tend to be so young is a real problem for many of our clients. They get very defensive about it.  But I'd like to explore whether there is a way for them to freely express their views without getting defensive.

What troubled me about your original responses was that you assumed you were right in calling the clients stupid.  One thing I've noticed about consultants - in this company and others - is that we tend to defend ourselves by bad-mouthing the client."

Professional #1:  "Right. After all, if they're genuinely stupid, then it's obviously not our fault they aren't getting it!"

Professional #2:  "Of course, that stance is anti-learning and overprotective. By assuming that they can't learn, we absolve ourselves from having to."

Professional #3:  "And the more we all go along with the bad-mouthing, the more we reinforce each other's defensiveness."

Manager:  "So what's the alternative?  How can we encourage our clients to express their defensiveness and at the same time constructively build on it?"

Professional #1:  "We all know that the real issue isn't our age; it's whether or not we are able to add value to the client's organization.  They should judge us by what we produce.  And if we aren't adding value, they should get rid of us - no matter how young or old we happen to be."

Manager:  "Perhaps this is exactly what we should tell them."

Here's how this exchange could be mapped:

As with the previous example, this map only traces the conversation and not the actors, but differs in that it reaches a conclusion or decision point which is illustrated with the larger handshake icon.  A few other notable characteristics:

  • First, the map is opened with a deontic question, or one that asks "what should we do" about a particular situation or scenario. This is inferred from the manager's opening comment.
  • Second, the examples that the consultants provide are tucked under a Background? question node to keep them visible, yet distinct from the main root of the map. In this way we don't diminish or disregard what the consultants are saying by omission, while keeping the "signal-to-noise" ratio low for exploring the real problem.
  • Third, we can see that this dialogue flows from identification of a root problem ("youthfulness" of team as a customer concern) to a supportive statement ("no perception of value-add") to subsequent questions on how the problem is being addressed now and what could be done to change customer perceptions going forward. Disruptive behaviours are identified ("bad-mouthing the customer") and made visible along with reinforcing arguments, taking the starch out of them.

While I have reconstructed this map from the written dialogue, a similar outcome could be achieved in real-time if I were facilitating the conversation.  By making statements, questions and responses visible, the group is able to see their behavioural responses and test their validity.  In this way, they begin to learn more about themselves, how they are perceived and the latent causes and/or solutions to their problems.

I'm not sure if Argyris was familiar with Dialogue Mapping or the work of Horst Rittel (inventor of the IBIS form notation used in dialogue maps) at the time he proposed his solutions within Teaching Smart People to Learn, but I think he might find the exercise at the very least interesting if not in simpatico with his objective of making the dysfunctional behaviours behind defensive reasoning visible and in plain sight while building skills in participants to work toward productive reasoning.

What do you think?  Could Dialogue Mapping help your organization or customers resolve these types of issues? Feel free to comment below or over Twitter to @DerailleurAgile.

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