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 
- Australia 
- Brunei Darussalam 
- Madagascar 
- Timor-Leste 
- Africa 
- East Asia and Pacific 
- Education 
- Governance 
- Leadership 
- Coalition Building 
- Harvard Kennedy School 
- Harvard Business School 
- Teaching Smart People How to Learn 
- Chris Argyris 
- Marshall Ganz 
- Dean Williams 
- Leadership for the 21st Century: Chaos 
- Conflict and Courage 
- Organizational Learning 
- Values 
- norms 
- Governance Reform 
- Public Narrative 
- Expanding the Bounds