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This is a second case example of what Wu Wei Coaching might mean in the practice. In the first example I presented a case of facilitating a planning event of a program. What happened in that case was a pattern emerging in the planning event which changed our facilitation approach to something we called “Planning Boxing“. It provided some useful examples of what Wu Wei Coaching although I think that some people might think about that case more as an facilitation or organizational development case than a usual coaching case.

I present here another example. Also here the context is very close to organizational development. In my work this is usually the case. The reason for this is that the mind, or the creation of meaning, is a social process. Like Norbert Elias put it, an individual is the social process in singular, while a group is the same social process in plural. In practice this means that in essence, coach is always working with a social process. Work with people in organizations always means work within the larger social process also.

Case: Dialogue vs. Survey

Top management presented a task to organize survey in the RnD organization. They wanted to understand what was going on within the development and this was the tool that they were used to have in order to find out. So, in effect, this was an operative mode review.

The people responsible for organizing the survey consulted me about how this survey should be handled. After talking about the case for a while I suggested that we could do it as a form of dialogue. Instead of focusing on the excel sheets and powerpoints and carrying those to the top management, we could focus on the dialogues happening at the present moment. We should facilitate “group interviews” where there would be also some senior managers present in the discussions. Then we could have other rounds of discussion where the people who participated the first group interviews would tell what were the key things they heard in the previous discussions. This was also a good approach because the organization was divided to multiple sites in different countries.

So that was what we did. In the group interview we invited about 25 people from the development teams and different parts of the organization. We had few people as facilitators taking some notes and taking care of the discussions. I was one of the facilitators too. We decided to divide the people in two groups that had separate discussions at the same time in different parts of the facility. There were two facilitators participating each group as well as few senior managers.

In the discussions the people raised up lots of problems they had faced in the develeopment teams and in the integration and tools organizations. All the problems were discussed as well as the things that seemed to work well. Facilitators made some further questions and raised up new topics if the dialogue seemed to stop. The senior managers also made some questions and listened with great interest the emerging dialogue. After a hour of discussion we mixed the two separate teams a little bit. The new participants then presented the main topics their previous groups discussed. At the end of the session we put all the people together and reflected upon what was discussed during the whole session.

After this first round were organized a second round of discussions on the site. All the senior managers located at the site and the facilitators were invited. Managers that participated the first group interview presented their (mental) notes from the discussions and raised up the topics they found to be the most important ones. All of these matters were then discussed – as well as other things that emerged from these discussions. Also the facilitators raised up topics they felt were important ones.

A third round of discussion was organized in a way that the senior management of each sites were present together. This included those managers that had participated the previous two rounds of dialogues. Some sites had done the survey more usual way, providing just readily analyzed powerpoints of the discussions, but from our site we presented only the topics where the managers were actually participated the discussions. At the end of this third meeting we agreed that we’d organize another set of dialogues in the development teams where the discussions on the management level would be presented and discussed about. This would close the loop so that the dialogue would be a two-way street.

Reflections on the case

I think that there were many qualities of Wu Wei Coaching present in this case. The most profound insight was that instead of delivering a “readily analyzed” summary of survey questions and the respective action list for the top management, we could try to involve them in the dialogues. In fact, there were really no need to make any kind of documents about these dialogues. Instead we invited senior managers to participate the discussions and hear for themselves what was going on in the development teams. This would mean that they would better understand the topics. It is a well known fact that written communication can only include about 10-20% of the information that is present when you engage in face-to-face conversations. It is also possible to give feedback and make more detailed questions when you are participating the discussions yourself. And the actual feelings and emotions involved in the face-to-face discussions should not be underestimated either.

In my surprise there weren’t a lot of challenging of this approach. Instead the managers seemed to feel that this was actually a sensible and probably also quite refreshing way to do the operative mode review. This was clearly visible also in the discussions. They were really interested to hear what was going on and in the following rounds of discussions they could talk about the findings from first-hand knowledge, pointing out the actual discussions where they heard these things. It was also very helpful for them to see who were the actual people saying those things. This provided them opportunities to put the comments in a context and see for example what was the actual team where the specific problems existed. They could also better understand the meaning of what had been said. If something was said with intense feelings by a person who usually is quite calm it meant a different thing when compared to a comment made by a person who is usually quite cynical and making negative comments from everything.

I tried to listen to the discussions from many perspectives. My main goal in the interviews was to make sure that there was a polyphony of perspectives present. I sometimes asked questions that seemed to call forth more details on the case, but mostly the real goal was to get other opinions and perspectives on the table. When the conversation was slowing down we mixed the teams in order to get new perspectives on the table: What was it that the other group was discussing about? How did it differ from the discussions on this group? In essence this was an approach of using reflective teams – the new group members provided different viewpoints and meanings to what had been previously said. It was interesting to note that in some cases the separate groups had quite different views. It seemed that the problems were very different in the different teams. Thus it wouldn’t have been possible to make a summary of these problems in the “organizational” level, as they varied so much.

In the management level rounds my intentions were quite similar. I wanted to hear people talking about the things they had heard for themselves so that they were more personal for them. This put a very different emphasis on the topic under discussion compared to some anonymous comments in the survey. There were much more emotions involved and this affected how seriously the topics were taken. I also tried to emphasize the importance of continuing the dialogue when going forward. We were participating a social process where the meaning is always created in the dialogue – it doesn’t exist anywhere else. So, my thinking was that making a difference to the way how the organization is operating can only happen if there will be changes in the dialogues happening in the organization. The changes in the public dialogue between people lead to changes in the thinking of individuals also, which then naturally affects the whole product creation process. The ways of working and ways of thinking are different viewpoints to the same ongoing social process.

So, the real goal of all these rounds of dialogues were the dialogues themselves. Even though there was a agenda where we would “find out” what is happening in the organization and where the problems are, this was only a secondary agenda for me. The real goal was to engage the management and the team members in a dialogue. By having these dialogues they were already changing the “organization”. In essence, the “organization” really is nothing more than multiple dialogues happening locally everywhere in the organization. In these dialogues the power relations, the identities and the values of the groups and individuals are changing. By making these dialogues more transparent and involving participants that are usually not talking together, the dialogues themselves are quite different. The relationships between the people participating are different. There are new emergent patterns happening in the social process, where the singular is the individual and the plural is the group.

Summary of “Wu Wei Qualities” in the case:

  • Creativity and improvisation are more effective than planning and using methodologies
  • Don’t go to the diagnosis, leave the case open as long as possible – and even longer
  • Multiple voices: Try to hold several different viewpoints visible all the time
  • Not-knowing mind: Be curious of what it is that you are talking about. And when you get it, change the viewpoint so that you don’t get it anymore…
  • Put focus on the language and conversations, not on the abstract tools and processes
  • Keep the focus on this moment: How to affect things here and now, with these people in hand?
  • Empower the client, enforce his agency (step aside with your fancy thoughts and “killer interventions”)
  • See the organization and the roles as dynamic processes, not static entities and structures
  • Use reflecting teams to create polyphony

I hope this post helps to understand the Wu Wei Coaching approach a little better. Like I wrote in the introduction, what I write here is more like finger pointing to the concept than the concept itself, but I still feel that there are some patterns that can be shared and used by others also.

Please feel free to comment this post in order to continue creating and negotiating the meaning for what I write here!