Book Review: Changing Conversations in Organizations

Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change by Patricia Shaw is based on the assumption that “conversation itself is the key process through which forms of organizing are dynamically sustained and changed” (p. 10). Patricia Shaw describes and illustrates “conversation as a process of communicative action” (p. 11). She explores at how we can “approach the art of gathering and conversing in ways more conducive to the emergence of meaningful action” (p. 11). It is a way of thinking that “invites us to stay in the movement of communicating, learning and organizing” (p. 20).

Stay in the midst of playing
When Patricia Shaw talks about “a complexity approach to change”, she draws attention to “a spontaneous artfulness at work in the self-organizing shaping of organizations and society at large in which we are all engaged” (p. 28). Patricia Shaw suggests that we can approach “organizational change as improvisational ensemble work of a narrative, conversational nature” (p. 28). In our everyday communication, “we are creating who we are and what we can do together” (p. 30). Rather than “designing changes”, she encourages us “to stay in the midst of playing our part in the ongoing shaping of our situation” (p. 31). We are “simultaneously shaped by and shape our conversations” (p. 31).

Over-specification vs. under-specification
Conventionally meetings in organizations are “over-specified in advance, so that the experience of constructing the future together in interaction … is muted” (p. 32). “Outcomes … agendas, roles … presentations, room layout, all conspire to reduce the experience of uncertainty” (p. 32). Participants “know what they should do and know what the outcome should be” (p. 32). “Under-specification”, on the other hand, increases the “experience of diversity”, disturbs “routinized responses”, and increases the “potential for novelty” (p. 32).

Sustain open-ended exploration
Over the years Patricia Shaw has developed “a keen sense of the move towards and away from agreement, of shifts in power difference, the development and collapse of tensions, the variations in engagement, the different qualities of silence, the rhetorical ploys, the repetition of familiar turns of phrase or image, the glimpsing and losing of possibility, the ebb and flow of feeling tone, [and] the dance of mutual constraint” (p. 33). She tries to participate in conversations in a way that help “to hold open the interplay of sense-making” and “the experience of not-knowing” (p. 33). “In organizational settings the pressure for closure can seem enormous” (p. 33). She has learned “how to help people sustain an open-ended exploration and begin to notice the way they are generating useful ways of knowing and acting together as they do” (p. 33). It is the “disturbance of repetitive patterns that allows new ones to emerge” (p. 34).

Culture cannot be imposed by an act of will
A different culture “cannot be announced or imposed by an act of will” (p. 35). Instead, the culture “develops itself day by day in the practical interaction of doing business” (p. 35). Patricia Shaw pays attention to “the way influence arises in webs of relationships in particular contexts” (p. 38). It is “the process of relating itself” that she is attending to (p. 38). She considers it “necessary rather than detrimental” that there is “ambiguity rather than focus in the formulation of the inquiry” (p. 39). The point is “to work with the potential for change”, tapping into people’s “interests, enthusiasm or frustrations” (p 39). She is not trying to “set up a special kind of interaction” (p. 39). The conversations have an “everyday quality” – they are “messy, branching, meandering, associative and engaging” (p. 39). They involve “jargon, speculation, anecdotes and personal revelation” (p. 40). They are “shot through with feeling tone and bodily sensations” (p. 40). It is a “very active, searching, exploratory form of communication” (p. 40). The participants are constructing “a complex web of stories in which they themselves and the activities in which they are engaged are evolving as meaning shifts and evolves” (p. 40).

Not just talking but acting
It is important to notice that the participants are not “just talking” (p. 40). They are acting together to shape themselves and their world. They are “acting into the opportunities” that are opening, “conversation by conversation” (p. 42). The art lies in “moving into what might be emerging without too fixed an idea of what each move will lead to” (p. 42). It is “not solo work, but ensemble work in which situations that are always not fully defined are further elaborated and evolved from within everyone’s participation in them” (p. 42). It is the need “to sustain relations with a diverse range of people that enables a self-organizing form of control in the movement of organizing” (p. 42). “This process is always at work creating innovation in organizations” (p. 42).

Narrative sense-making is at work at all time
Patricia Shaw draws attention to “the way narrative sense-making works and is at work all the time” (p. 43). It is “exhilarating and enjoyable and satisfying at times”, but also “frustrating, tension-filled and anxiety producing at times” (p. 43). Our experience of “shaping and being shaped” is a charged emotional process in which “strong feelings of inclusion and exclusion are stimulated” (p. 43). We may feel “purposeful and also lost” (p. 43). Our joint enterprises “flourish and collapse” (p. 43).

Simultaneously forming and being formed in interaction
The way Patricia Shaw works is unique to her since she is emphasizing her experience of personal participation. However, what is not unique is her way of “thinking from within the movement of our participation” (p. 46). Her book is one in a series of books on “Complexity and Emergence in Organizations” edited by Ralph Stacey, Douglas Griffin, and herself. The editors don’t take an “individualist cognitive view of humans”, but a “relational view of [humans] forming and being formed simultaneously in interaction” (p. 68). They propose that “we think as participants in the patterning process of interaction itself as the movement of experience” (p. 129). The “conditions” that affect the patterning process of interaction are “relational factors” such as ”the movement of affinity/antipathy, inclusion-exclusion, identity/difference, competition/co-operation, power relating and experiences of anxiety/spontaneity” (p. 68). We create between us these “conditions” in which we experience our conversations as “stuck and repetitive” or “free-flowing” (p. 68).

Shaping and shifting the web of enabling-constraints
People in conversation are “shaping and shifting the web of enabling-constraints in which they are enmeshed” (p. 51). They are “constructing their future not as a single ‘vision’ or a set of goals, but in terms of what courses of action become possible and sensible for them in their evolving circumstances as they communicate” (p. 51). The situations we construct together involve “incomplete, developing tendencies” which “cannot be wholly grasped in mental representations” (p. 52). Rather as we converse we “give form to feeling”, so that “what at first is a mere felt tendency can be eventually realized” (p. 52).

Actions evolve as we communicate
Change occurs in the move from “conversation to conversation, connection to connection, association to association in which the ‘terrain’ of action is being constructed” (p. 52). This enables people to “agree a next practical action with very little of the usual rational justifications about goals and outcomes” (p. 53). This is very different from “trying to model … our understanding of a situation” (p. 55). Then we risk “creating an enclosed and mechanical form of social life in which we risk trapping ourselves” (p. 55). Doing this distracts attention from the “prospective sense-making, by which we creatively respond to each other over time” (p. 56). The point is that “our actions are evolving as we communicate” (p. 56). That is “how our organizing changes over time”, which is not be confused with “developing policies and blueprints for redesigning” organizations (p. 56). This attitude, that says “I cannot know the meaning of my activities before acting, invites me to be as present as possible to the improvisational possibilities of what I am doing” (p. 63). In “free-flowing communicative action”, we experience “meaning on the move, neither completely frozen into repetitive patterns nor fragmenting and dissolving into meaninglessness” (p. 68).

Qualities of conversation are emergent properties
It is important to remember that we “cannot recreate the role of the programmer, the person who sets and hold the conditions we want, sets up the ‘right’ rules of engagement” (p. 69). Problems arise if we think of “the list of rules” either as “rules that are actually governing individual behaviour” or “rules of interaction that are creating a ‘group culture’” (p. 69). If we do so, we are “accepting an individual cognitive model of human beings as autonomous rule-following entities as adequate” (p. 69). Then, we are “deluding ourselves that we can delineate a ‘system of communication’ and condition it as though from outside of it and then subject ourselves to it” (p. 69). The trouble is that “the different qualities of conversation that we experience as we converse” are “emergent properties of interaction” (p. 69). We are “shaping and shifting our co-created webs of mutual constraint-enablement in our ongoing interaction” rather than attempting to “set these constraints-enablements in advance as formative guidelines” or rules (p. 70). It is also important to remember that “acting without clear outcomes in mind does not mean acting randomly without intention”, and that “clearly agreed roles are not always needed for useful participation” (p. 70).

Appreciating the politics of organizational life
Patricia Shaw describes a mode of working that “does not proffer a blueprint for practice”, and “does not define roles or select working models” (p. 70). She draws attention to “vital, informal, shadow processes that more dominant systematic perspectives render rationally invisible” (p. 71). These are “ordinary, everyday processes of organizational life that offer endless opportunity as we move from conversation to conversation” (p. 71). Her view leads to a particular way of appreciating “the politics of organizational life”, since all our relating can be understood as “sustaining and shifting power relations, with all the anxieties that entails” (p. 71). “We are daily involved with others in forming and being formed by the evolving ‘situations’ which we experience as the sensible interweaving of our actions with one another” (p. 72).

Being in charge but not in control
When we try to order “the essentially vague and open nature of our communicative action in the living present”, aspects of our experience become “rationally invisible to us”, and a “certain kind of voice is literally unable to speak” (p. 97). The “silencing of certain aspects of experience” diminishes our “sense of self, the kind of person we feel we can be” (p. 98). Traditionally, we tend to “focus on leadership and influence in terms of our ability to articulate strategies, goals and desired outcomes which we impose on an imagined future as templates in the form of project plans” (p. 116). In contrast, Patricia Shaw emphasizes the “paradox of being ‘in charge but not in control’ as we strive to play out creatively the evolution of our interdependent and conflicting responsibilities and aspirations, forming and being formed in the process” (p. 117).

Continuously constructing the future together
It is commonplace to “create concepts of roles and … practices, … all of which we can map out as patterns of activity” (p. 120). This “common parlance … is a way of thinking” (p. 120). As an alternative to this way of thinking, Patricia Shaw writes about “speaking, imagining, remembering, moving, feeling, designing, persuading, making connections, using tools, developing strategies, analysing situations, forming narratives, taking action in relation to others “ (p. 120). She uses a “logic that distinguishes and relates concepts as emerging in a continuous flow of present experience” (p. 121). Conceptual maps, for example process maps, “show dynamic patterns of interactions”, but they remain removed from the “flow of present experience” (p. 121). “Process becomes a repetitive dynamic that can be isolated and observed” (p. 129). “The ‘task’ is something that can be conceptually distinguished from the ‘process’, … the ‘what’ can be distinguished from the ‘how’ and even from the ‘who’ …” (p. 129) “This thinking is very much alive and well in organizations” (p. 129). Patricia Shaw argues that “this kind of conceptualizing is not essential” (p. 129). “It is only is essential if creating maps as guides to action is felt to be essential” (p. 129). She proposes that we bring “our attention to the way we are continuously constructing the future together as the movement of sense-making in the present”, instead of “thinking as if systems behind or below or above our immediate interaction are causing our actions” (p. 129). “The potential for both stability and change is arising between us as the constraints of history are reshaped spontaneously” (p. 129).

Engaging paradox
Patricia Shaw asks what happens when “spontaneity, unpredictability and our capacity to be surprised by ourselves are not explained away” (p. 132). She notes that the “rational self-conscious reflection … always seems to shy away from dealing with issues of power, control and potential destructiveness” (p. 134). It is precisely in “engaging the immediate conflict of taking the next step that … the transformation of power relations” are taking place (p. 150). The paradox is that “every inclusion is simultaneously exclusionary, every exclusion simultaneously inclusionary, every expression of identity is simultaneously an expression of difference” (p. 150).

Simutaneous continuity and change
When Patricia Shaw talks of “transformation”, she means “evolving forms of identity, of persons, groups, societies, emerging … in the non-linear processes of human relating, in which both continuity (sameness) and change (difference) occur simultaneously” (p. 155). She encourages people to “rely less on pre-set agendas and ready made presentations and to engage one another in exploratory conversation that generates stability and potential shifts in what we are holding one another to and how we are doing that” (p. 165). Our interaction is “always evolving in ways that we cannot control or predict in the longer term, no matter how sophisticated our planning tools” (p. 171).

Intentional fellow sense-making
Patricia Shaw emphasizes the “living craft of participating as an intentional fellow sense-making in conversation after conversation … encounter after encounter, activity after activity” (p. 172). She calls it a “craft because, just as we can learn to conceptualize … we can also learn to participate … as co-improvisers, and in so doing, locate our competence as leaders differently” (p. 173).

Thought provoking
Patricia Shaw has a different way of thinking about change and organizational life which I find very interesting, thought provoking, and useful. The book is somewhat repetitive, but I give it my warmest recommendations.


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