Can We Talk?
by Pat Craig
From the Summer 1997 issue of the Complexity Management Chronicles
"I was working with the ninth president of my career. Every president
that came along had good intentions and promised to fix things, but there
was an atmosphere of fear, a kind of rusting out and dying on the job....
Why do we talk about real problems in the hall instead of in front of each
other? Why do I feel so burned out?" from the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,
compiled by Peter Senge and others. Many people working in software development
know the feeling of rusting out and dying on the job only too well. "Rusting
out" impedes companies by causing slower times to market, lower staff morale
and higher rework costs.
Senge's MIT Organizational Learning Center tries to solve "Wicked Problems"
like software development. Imagine a simple X and Y axis with Human Complexity
along the X axis and Dynamic Complexity along the Y axis. "Wicked Problems"
are in the top right hand corner with high human complexity and high dynamic
In this newsletter we will briefly summarize the human complexity issues
that motivated the comments in the first paragraph, issues exemplified
by the chapter called The Cauldron in Senge's book. Then we will describe
three success stories and suggest how to prevent burn-out and build productive
GS Technologies' employees jointly wrote The Cauldron chapter
about their steel manufacturing plant based in Kansas City. For 20+ years
management and the union battled, "All we knew how to do was beat up on
GS Technologies' worked with a dialog facilitator associated with MIT,
Bill Isaacs. During the dialogue sessions, union leaders and managers discussed
problems, values, and vision. The outcome of those sessions was building
a virtual container of shared meaning, a cauldron. To foster the use of
dialogue as an integral part of doing business, representatives from management
and the union attended three offsite training session. Then for more than
a year following the offsite meetings, they held bi-weekly meetings that
lasted three hours. When the parent company sold the plant, the good relations
between the union and management were key to the sale. Rob Cushman, the
head of the Kansas City division, said "If it hadn't been for what we did
with dialogue, we would not exist as a company today."
We have participated on client teams that practice dialogue like that
at GS Technologies. These clients discovered that taking the time to develop
shared vision, shared values, and ongoing good communications proved key
to their success. While working with a very productive automated telephone
service group, we watched a VP create a culture of open communications
by encouraging everyone to speak at the weekly meetings. If we ran out
of time at that meeting, management would often call a second meeting during
the same week. At one point, everyone involved with this group went offsite
and worked with a facilitator on improving teamwork.
Another prolific group we worked with, developing imaging applications,
also utilized the weekly "anything goes" type of meeting. When management
formed the group, they held a kick-off meeting that created a foundation
of shared vision and shared values.
Our suggestions for improving software development teamwork follow:
1. Join the Association for Quality and Participation (AQP) for ongoing
2. Staff projects with the correct mix of needed skills. The wrong
mix of skills hampers many projects.
3. Read the Peter Senge 5th Discipline books for team learning exercises
and great references.
4. Get talking (!) with regular weekly meetings and dialog-facilitated
offsite meetings to establish a shared vision and shared values. We trust
this information will help you get high productivity from your staff (and
help prevent burn-out, too).
©Complexity Management 1997
Located in Metropolitan Boston
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