Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter
I am aware that sometimes trying to summarize emotions, thoughts, feelings and even the discussions in words is a quite challenging and not productive endeavor. So, summarizing in a few words the Zoomlion World Cafè event of July 12th is definitely a challenge for me. Maybe it will be easier for those who participated in the event to catch in the following words something that they recognize. For those who were not there, I hope that, without a full understanding, their curiosity can be somehow stimulated.
I will try to point out the “why’s and the how’s” we have organized and lived this experience, the basic reasons that pushed us to design it, prepare it and some notes about how the experience was actually lived.
I like to consider these as “seeds”: what is important is to plant them, take care of them and trust that some of them will develop and become plants, flowers and fruits. But we can’t force them to do so. Just notice, from time to time, if there is something sprouting out from your ground.
And I like to bring this as an example of “the reasons why I work”, which I hope can emerge from the following lines.
The new organization in Zoomlion International structure, approved in the beginning of 2013, has brought an important change. Such change has been thought as one of the tools to allow a more efficient international development of the Company, with a deeper involvement at all levels.
During the first months some issues emerged from the structure, with a general request of reaching a better understanding of roles, responsibilities and workflows across the various departments, including the critical relationships between Region, Business Units and Supporting Functions.
In order to allow people to better understand their roles and stimulate their contributions, the Management of the Company decided to start a training program including a formal lecture on the “Matrix Organization Systems” (aiming at explaining what is a “Matrix” organization, how it usually works and which are the general problems that can arise with its implementations) and a full day “Workshop Training”. So we started to elaborate around some kind of session or experience that could “touch” the main issues at the heart.
The main issue, actually, was regarding COMMUNICATION among people and the good relationship needed to make the “Matrix” work and come true. The “Matrix” is not a target in itself, it’s a tool. Like a car can’t be driven without gasoline, the matrix cannot bring us where we want to go if we do not put “fuel” into it.
The “fuel” of the Matrix is made of a new attitude in Communication and Relationship: involvement, dialogue, attitude to proposal, listening, learning, trust, respect are some of the key words and principles of this game.
“Thinking together” can make a big difference. Exploring new creative possibilities can allow us to discover new opportunities. Each individual value, energy and contribution is respected and welcome. The sense of the team, the power of the group can grow.
We had to create the environment to offer a broad opportunity to all the relevant functions and to individuals to:
Three principles were underlined:
So the basic idea of the “Zoomlion World Cafè” was to experience the ability to make a dialogue “in truth” and possibly mobilize something that we can call “collective intelligence”.
A “conversational environment” has been reproduced to stimulate such collective thinking and we have pointed out a set of “guidelines” to allow this to happen:
In the beginning we had a “landing” experience, something that allowed us to set the right mood of our heart for the rest of the day. The “landing” is a something to prepare ourselves from the “inside”. Prepare ourselves to see and hear people and things more deeply, including our own thoughts and emotions. In looking at the other members and welcoming them, people felt like looking into a mirror. That was a very important five minutes individual session.
After that, a reflection was assigned, so that each of the participant could focus on his or her own personal issues, what was truly important “for them”, in their heart. And the questions were the following:
People were invited to write down their comments. Writing down is very important because it brings “out” something that is “in”, i.e. it becomes explicit and you can look at it. It is surprising, sometimes, reading something we have written in the past and see how and why it may have changed.
Tables formation was free, even though in the first round of 45 minutes people found their places with other people with whom they felt more comfortable: same department, old friends, nice character or whatever. But that was just the beginning. Five people can find the way to have a dialogue in which all of them can participate and each on is listened to, with a sense of belonging, of team.
At the second round of 45 minutes, we have changed: one “witness” stayed in the same table, with the role of representing to others the main points of the previous talks, while the “ambassadors” would bring to other tables such main points. Exchanging the tables is an enriching experience for various reasons: we could “break” the comfortable feeling of becoming a separate team, with a known environment and already negotiated rules, although maybe not explicitly. We are pushed towards a new situation, somewhat unknown, where different persons are sitting, different rules have been experienced, different topics have been touched and different opinions have emerged. We are pushed in a new environment, so we are somehow obliged to adapt ourselves to that, while we are also free to bring in our own experience. (actually, this resembles very much what we can experience in our daily job). This experience is something that we tend to avoid by instinct, because it requires a certain amount of intention, a “shift” in the behavior, a choice. Nevertheless, after the “shift” people usually feel much better, as if they have discovered something of value that was hidden not far from them. And most of all, you experience the freedom of making this choice. You feel that freedom and responsibility are very much linked together.
To help the participants to live this event deeply, some guidelines were given and most of them have tried and maybe also experienced the nice feeling of not defending their opinions against different opinions, like in a fight, but respecting other opinions and trying to truly listen and learn. Their opinion not necessarily has changed, but possibly has transformed, has been enriched by a new vision, an new perspective. That’s the difference between “discussion” (confronting opinions as in a ping pong game) and “dialogue” (let different opinions become a new and shared meaning for all of us).
What actually happens is that we feel more respect for the other guy. And we feel more respected by the other guy. Even we still have different opinions in the end. We feel like: “Ok, I can see your point, I can see why you think that. And I respect that. Maybe my perspective is still different. But I feel like we are on the same boat and finally we have a common interest”.
Having three rounds of questions, allowed us to penetrate more deeply into this process, without having the pressure to produce any kind of “result” or “performance”, but just focusing on the “process”, on feeling aware of what was happening inside and around us.
Here are the questions that the participants “lived” during the three rounds of 45 minutes each:
Looking at our organization today
The participants worked deeply on those questions and meanwhile they felt more and more involved into the dialogue, maybe developing a sense of curiosity on where the dialogue was going. Meanwhile, they may have felt a growing sense of “collective happening”, started to connect ideas, see similarities, draw links on papers that had been written by other people before them. Once again, writing down was a way of making thoughts explicit, make them VISIBLE to others.
The table covers and all the papers attached on the wall in the end was the evidence of the dialogue throughout the day, the participants felt it as the real “product” of the day, i.e. not a “result”, not a “performance”, not a specific “outcome”, not something that can be “summarized”, but the sense of a “process”, the process of “how to communicate in a different way and let a new learning emerge”. That is a “collective” experience.
That process has been the real outcome: learning that it is possible to have a dialogue without necessarily fighting against different opinions and struggling to defend our own assumptions, and feeling that this way of proceeding can be very energetic and productive.
The final step was to work on the “Learning points”. Learning points are not “opinions”, “ideas”, “suggestions”. Learning points are something new and meaningful, something that before was not part of my experience and now it is. Something that is interesting and that is worth notice, fix, apply.
Something you would like to bring with you as part of your personal and professional background, a new asset.
And then the “Big question”: usually, a day like this can open up new doors and new path for exploration. It is impossible that the process comes to a simple “full stop”, just ending, with all the answers to all the questions. That would mean that the questions were not so interesting and meaningful.
Usually, interesting questions bring more questions, more willingness to go deeper, understand more, explore more possibilities, see from more perspectives. And the feeling of having new “pending issues” is quite normal. And beneficial. Maybe not comfortable, but exciting. If you feel comfortable, maybe you have all the answers already. So maybe you can ask yourself if you are in the middle of an illusion. That’s why we have concluded with the “big question” session. The papers with Learning points and big questions have been collected and presented in public by a representative for each table. Then put in a common document as the summary of the “collective learning”.
That experience has to be considered as an “exercise”, but also as a “seed” to bring into real life.
I like to conclude with this quote:
“All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves”
(Si’ahl, American Indian Chief, 1887)