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The Last Ones To Understand Water Are The Fish

Naniette Coleman's picture

My norms and values are not subtle.  They are time tested, “fact” based and I grip them with the strength of a vice.  I am no different from others; we all value some things, look haltingly at others, and better still refuse to consider the norms and values of some.   We all want to be open, malleable to others views but do not always know how to do it.  Norms and values take on particular importance when we are working to build coalitions with others who do not share our way of looking at things. Minor differences suddenly seem larger than they actually are when we face compromise battles with others.   

I recently observed the first few days of a workshop called “Leadership for the 21st Century: Chaos, Conflict and Courage” run by Dean Williams, Public Policy Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and former advisor to the Governments of Australia, Brunei,  Timor Leste and Madagascar on large scale change processes. The program, designed for senior executives in government, business, and non-profit organizations, “helps people who wish to better understand the personal aspects of leadership and to improve their capacity to lead.” One-hundred top-level executives with a history of performance and leadership, from seventeen countries attended. The group was self-selected; they applied to the program and paid a notable sum to attend the workshop and so it is safe to assume that that they were committed to learning and wanted to be there.  I also think it is safe to assume that they would, could and maybe should be open to the information presented and might even have a higher disposition to it than someone who had not applied, signed up, paid and showed up for the training.  I should also note that the workshop was at a reputable University, so we can perhaps assume that the information shared was, at the very least, educated and possibly innovative.   Therefore, can we garner that this group of individuals took to the information like fish to water? Not exactly, and they are not alone in their reaction.

During the brief time I joined them, participants were learning a skill called “Public Narrative” as taught by Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School Public Policy Lecturer and advisor to Barack Obama's campaign on organizing, training, and leadership development. As you may recall, I referred to Professor Ganz’ work several weeks ago in my “Expanding the Bounds” blog entry. Public Narrative is a skill leaders can use to relieve entrenchments and foster a shared sense of purpose and directed urgency. When introduced to Public Narrative, many of the progressive, powerful, time tested executives became immovable, saying things like: “this will never work;” “so let me get this straight, you want me to tell stories to my board;” “I’m sorry, this has no application in my culture;” and “this skill is best used by extroverts, I am an introvert.” 

Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, suggests that reactions like these are common. In his seminal piece “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, he states, “the propensity of professionals to behave defensively helps shed light on the… mistake that companies make about learning. The common assumption is that getting people to learn is largely a matter of motivation. When people have the right attitudes and commitment, learning automatically follows.” He calls this type of learning “single loop learning.” Very often leaders are good at what they do and have a set of skills or values they apply when faced with a problem. They are often left befuddled when faced with approaching problems without their trusty values and norms or in the case of coalition building with new groups, I believe, they cease to see what they might have in common with others and just hold on for dear life to what they know. 

The 21st Century Leaders group was similar (top-level high achieving executives), followed the same path to the workshop (application, selected, paid, traveled) and noted similar feelings (fear, apprehension, pride, excitement) and wanted similar results (resources, platform to make broader changes in our world) and yet they only saw the differences. My first thought was if this group had difficulty seeing the obvious similarities they shared and struggled with learning how to build coalitions how can there be hope for coalition building reformists? Moreover, what of situations in the developing world where resources are sparse, capacity limited, and leadership often in training? 

Professor Argyris suggests that the only way out of the “doom loop” is to create an environment where “double loop” learning is encouraged. “Double loop learning is not simply a function of how people feel. It is a reflection of how they think – that is, the cognitive rules or reasoning they use to design and implement their actions.” What I believe Argyris is suggesting is that you have to create a new means for working when you want to expand beyond status quo norms. He suggests that we “think of these rules as a kind of ‘master program’ stored in the brain, governing all behavior. Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment is high, just as a computer program with hidden bugs can produce results exactly the opposite of what its designers had planned.” 

The workshop participants did finally find their way, albeit slowly, but they got there and I believe reformists in the developing world seeking to build coalitions can too. The following tips, gleaned from Professor Argyris’ work, discussions with Dean Williams, discussions with Marshall Ganz and observation of their workshop might help: 

·         Apples, Rocks, Bicycles and Trees: No matter how disparate get everyone in the room and commit to staying there until you find common ground.

·         Ground rules: Set them early and develop ways the group can self correct

·         Speak with honesty: participants cannot expect to reach new ground if they are not open to discuss the ground on which they stand.

·         Start at a place of revolution: Throw everything off the table, take the table apart and put it back together as a team (metaphorically speaking). 

·         Ask questions: you already know how you feel so learn about other members of your burgeoning coalition.

·         Listen: If someone’s take on a situation appears completely off base, silence your doubt and listen.

·         Embrace Imperfection: Learning teams are imperfect and acceptance of that will free the group to learn together without pressure.

·         Celebrate similarities: no matter how small, similarities are a step in the right direction.

·         Finally, consider involving a well-trained, impartial facilitator to help the group unpack their norms and values and see linkages a bit more clearly. 


Photo credit: Flickr user Andrefromont


Submitted by Manisha Dookhony on
Naniette, Your reflection on coalition building is very pertinent. I would assume that you could see the similarities because your were in a way an outside observer, in the Dean Williams jargon, 'you were on the balcony'. Reformers often get bogged down in the every day nitty gritty and highly time consuming reform process. In the process they lose the balcony view. Discussions I have had lately with people who have carried out nationwide reforms with varying degree of success, seem to suggest that they were so engrossed in the making of the reform that they did not see the most obvious. Perhaps then one aspect of Governance that future reformers or proponents of reforms (like the Bank) should consider having is 'the balcony perspective'. By that I am not referring to someone who acts as an official observer, comes, watches for a couple of weeks then writes a report or makes a statement about what was good and bad. Instead, reformers should be encouraged to step out of their role from time to time and take a vantage position. Or if the nitty gritty of reform is so time consuming, then there can be a close enough person who takes on that role. Stepping out, will then help the reformer in gathering the best information on the similarities which can bring about a coalescence of positions, that will lead to coalition building. According to me the Balcony is a strong tool to help the reformer make better judgement on who to join forces with in the reform process, but is there a way to institutionalize it? Best M

Manisha, Thank you for your comments. You raise several very important points. The best response I can come up with for you is yes, there is a way to institutionalize use of the Balcony. I actually think you came up with one of the ways. Ask a team member (a permanent member of your team) to remain outside of the 'nitty gritty' (as you call it) and take note of the flow of the room. Who is speaking to whom? Who is not speaking to whom? What are the requests that are made? What requests are never brought to the table? When and who brings requests to the table? It is also helpful to understand the negotiation ability of each player at the table. Are you dealing with someone who can seal the deal or are their several layers of bureacracy behind the person sitting next to you. What motivations do you think each of the players has? How do they connect with your values and motivations? Having a permanent team member who is assigned to analyze the stakes and the stake holders is a way to institutionalize the balcony, as is training your team in the importance of stepping back in order to step up. There are a number of individuals out there who provide training in methods such as these so that all team members can find their balcony. A personal favorite of mine is Dean Williams, Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. I welcome other thoughts and suggestions from readers...what other ways can a balcony view be institutionalized?

Submitted by John C. Frame on
Indeed, sometimes our presuppositions get in the way of our learning. Looking from the balcony, as Manisha points out, is important. Mentally or emotionally getting to the balcony is sometimes the struggle. john

John, To your well thought out comments I would add an excerpt from a text I refer to often "Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions: Citizens, Staekehodlers, and Voice" by Sina Odugbemi and Thomas Jacobson: "Human beings acting either alone or in groups small or large, are not as amendable as are pure numbers. And they cannot be put aside. In other words, in the ral world, reforms will not succed, and will certainly not be sustained, without the correct alignment of citizens, stakeholders, and voice." Thanks for your comments

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