Monday, November 30, 2009

Discussing Christakis' Structured Design Process (SDP)

Christakis’ “How People Harness their collective wisdom and power to construct the future in co-laboratories of democracy.” has provided me with a new-found appreciation for consensus tools, not that I had been particularly exposed to this topic prior to my reading it. I’d like to share.

There have been common buzz words in the upper management levels that recur, such as Delphi, modified or not. It appears to be the choice consensus tool. It might be that I simply have not had sufficient exposure to know differently.

Although chapter 3 was not part of our mandatory reading, I am glad I chose to read it anyway. There, I found material that, in my opinion, sets the stage for everything else that is covered in the book... and then some. Chapter 10 details how structured design process (SDP) lessens the burdens of dialogue, especially when a variety of stakeholders convene about a problem, no matter how complex. But, chapter three explains where those burdens come from. In my opinion, that’s more important than anything else. It’s about people chemistry and those intangibles that are so challenging to work with. This is because we humans are such creatures of habits. Even our most heinous character traits plague us over the centuries.

As a native French Canadian living in the USA, nothing could strike me as more important then relieving the burdens of dialogue. I’m including a brief synopsis to revisit the salient points.

The unshakable burdens of human dialogue.

The limits of human cognition

Officially recognizing the limits of human mind capacity back in 1956, Miller established that the human working memory would generally deal with 5 to 9 items at a time. This gave birth to a notion labeled “7 +/- 2” (Miller, 1956). Ignoring these constraints, said Miller, causes us to loose the capacity to “recognize differences that make a difference”. I can envision this conclusion becoming further compounded while sitting in a meeting, among many who don’t even share expertise. Too many times I have tried to get out of a meeting because they felt so gruesome and unproductive to me. Introduce an element of linguistics and you find yourself with an even bigger mess. Never mind the problems caused by subject matter lingo.

Group Pathologies

Social-emotional problems are highly visible in any group. Logically, groups created for the sake of finding solutions to implement change in a corporate or government setting have to be no different. In 1951, Bales summed up social-emotional behaviors witnessed in a meeting with five categories:

  • Venting anger and frustration
  • Perceiving situation as threat
  • Wanting to get attention
  • Dominating the group
  • Inappropriate strategizing for self-gratification

I would personally summarize the gist of it all with even fewer words: providing protection for personal interests and ego. All are well recognized flaws of the generationally rehearsed human character.

A bit later, in 1965, Tuckman demonstrated patterns of group activities:

  • Forming the group
  • Storming – most groups do not pass this stage of discussing issues in themselves. Outside facilitators are in demand to get past this stage. This helps reach norming state but mostly for simple design situations. Otherwise performing stage is never met. OUCH!
  • Norming – consensus is reached
  • Performing – change in itself is implemented

I find this information alone rather disturbing. It’s no big surprise that effective change seems so difficult to implement, especially for complex problems.

Group pathologies are typically exacerbated by the pressures of the choice between systemic or episodic change, Christakis says. This causes the most dominant and/or powerful discourse to win in order to subvert embarrassment for not meeting deadlines. (Argyris, 1982) In other words, the wrong set of rules is used to come to consensus on “what differences will make a difference". Hmmm... This is definitely a recipe for disaster.

This brings up the next topic.

Unequal Power Relations

I don’t understand why Christakis states this pathology is the least understood. There are many examples in the armed services alone to illustrate why unequal power cannot work in a meeting. There are also times when unequal power is a necessity. This is particularly true in life emergency situations.

Dialogue is usually muted by the presence of multiple rank levels and pre-established final authority. This is possibly the most deeply ingrained social behavior of all times. I’m no philosopher but, at the very least, this problem dates all the way back to the medieval era.

It is true that upper levels are assumed to know more. I think a lot of us know better now. Nothing could have shed more light on this matter than the arrival of a highly technological society.

Also demonstrated is that, successful leaders can be classified in two clans: those who recognize they don’t know everything and, those who believe they know it all. The later type might find their career plateau at some point. There might be a third type. Those who feel they should know it all. God have mercy on their souls.

That upper management levels expect deferential treatment is merely a byproduct of social behaviors mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Anything different shows a significant level of maturity and wisdom in my eyes.

It is particularly astute of Christakis to point out that mere verbiage about social reality construction and the need for equitable power relations would simply not be enough to reach valuable consensus. That is, provided consensus was reached at all. Much like a court system, order is necessary.

Fumbled Opportunity

Lack of proper scientific practice is often at the root of disasters. Outside of organizations such as NASA, this caused the many management echelons to adopt buzz-word methods of the day. DELPHI would be one of them. According to Christakis, “assuming that bringing the parties of interest to the table is sufficient for the resolution of a complex issue is erroneous.” This assertion is based in 30 years of development in the “science of complexity”. Great! Now what?

My searches on the internet revealed a lot of variations of SDP but, none as crystal clear as the case studies in the back of his book. It may have been a not-so-lucky day for me.

“Don’t trust knowledge of experts instead of the wisdom of the people.” is another strong statement. I agree whole heatedly. “People science” in the Clinton west coastal forests debate failed because there was not enough trust in people and inappropriate science, the author says. That Clinton and his sidekick Eades had vision is one thing. That the vision wasn’t carried out is not a story solely associated with the former president. The point is well taken.

Perhaps someone in the upper echelons can shed more light as to how successful consensus methods have been, including if Christakis' SDP is being used. Case studies contained in a text book are good. But, to me, nothing could be more valuable than first hand experience shared with peers, independently from power relations.

Finally, what is clearly a superior contribution to me are the three phases and the three key roles. They are, in my estimation, very crucial to relieving the burdens of dialogue. Yes indeed, Mr. Christakis, they are unique to this process. The distinction between content, process and context is akin to separation of duties necessary in information security. If all stick to their role in the “game”, wonderful results could and, probably will, materialize.

The cartoon seen above is from Dharma Consulting's Web site. They provide leaders with tools to help implement resistance-free change. Their blog can be found at: Dharma Consulting

No comments:

Post a Comment