With this post, my intention is to reevaluate common beliefs about conversations in organizations. Another way to say it is that I invite you to take a moment with me on the ‘Alchemical Terrace.”
I spent the last two years in Vancouver with my family. I needed to change my environment, spend more intimate time with my wife and kids and grant myself time to explore deep questions. Deep questions of a personal nature, on the meaning of life, the meaning of my life; also fundamental questions about leadership, self-organization, self-management, Agility, etc.
For some time, I had been once again very partially satisfied with the way I led and acted and what I was reading about leadership and organizations. Thanks to working and exchanging ideas with Bonitta Roy and Jean Trudel, I made important realizations. I familiarized myself with process philosophy as well as the work of Ralph Stacey and his fellow students of Hertfordshire University who, for the past fifteen years, have been developing a theory and practice called: “Complex responsive processes of human organizing.”
I wish to avoid presenting this theory as a panacea or the ultimate theory of human action, while still sharing that studying it thoroughly for the past year and a half has had a big impact on me. This theory of practice invites us to reconsider several fundamental hypotheses on how we conceptualize organizations, change and leadership.
“If you don’t think about what you are doing, you are trapped in the way that you have always thought and therefore done.” – Ralph Stacey
(Ralph Stacey: Complexity and Paradoxes 2015)
Approaching conversation as an art form and science
As mentioned above, I love moments when conversations lead to an important insight and I am fascinated, even obsessed, by the following question: “What are the conditions and actions enabling these alchemical moments to occur?” The work of Bonitta Roy, especially what she calls Open Group Practice, is very inspiring to me.
This fascination, the dissatisfaction mentioned previously, my readings and the explorations of the past seventeen years within the Pyxis network have brought me to invite my colleagues and friends to regularly meet (every month for about three hours and every six months for three to five days) on what we have called the ‘Alchemical Terrace’.
There are several ways to describe what occurs there. One way to put it is that we practise the art and science of agile and participatory conversation. There is no plan, but that does not mean that it evolves randomly. Through the spontaneity of everyone’s participation, themes and reflections emerge.
“What are we doing together when we do not know what we are doing yet?” – Ralph Stacey (Interview med Ralph Stacey)
It is difficult (causing anxiety, impatience, frustration or else) for most of us to engage in a group exchange for three days without knowing individual and collective intentions in advance. Thus, the more you have participants with diverse ideologies and great attentive presence, with the capacity of metabolizing intense emotions and creating new associations between themes, the more creative and rich in insights the conversation will be.
Another way to describe what participants do when they practise the art and science of agile and participatory conversation is that they are trying to be more attentive to their own experience of the moment and to the process of conversation itself, while it is happening. One way to explain this intention used in the works linked to the theory of “Complex responsive processes of human organizing” is “Taking our experience seriously.”
Specifically, this brings us to reflect on our interactions, the power dynamics between us and the ideology supporting the choices we make. For example, observing and reflecting on the way the turns are taken and distributed in a conversation can be rich in potential to access useful, relevant and meaningful insights together.
By paying special attention to the way a person takes part in conversations and day-to-day politics of organizational life, including by noticing the strong feelings that events are provoking in this person or in others, I maintain that a person can help others to detach from their unconscious habits and, among other things, show more openness and creativity. Is this not what leadership is? Is this not the role of a consultant?
As mentioned eloquently by Patricia Shaw (Patricia Shaw: Be the Change), this practice enables us to embody the beliefs that the important components of leadership work in an organization are :
- To propose generative conversations that would not otherwise take place;
- To invite to open reflection “spaces” at the heart of organizational life;
- To have the courage and ability to engage and maintain improvised, fluid and open conversations that are not always managed by a structured program;
- To master the art of feeding conversations in a way that is more fertile to the emergence of significant actions and creative projects.
In fact, we could say that being a good leader partly consists in working with conversation as an art and science. A key objective here is to suggest a significant change in the way we perceive the role of conversation and daily interactions in organizational life.
The prevailing view is that we take conversation for granted as the accessory background of more important activities through which we conceive and manage our organizations. We mainly see conversation as the means to communicate what we should focus our attention on. Instead, we have worked here with the hypothesis that the act of conversation itself is the key process by which:
- Organizations are predictably unpredictably supported and modified;
- Power dynamics enable and constrain;
- Individual and collective identities are being expressed and transformed;
Some may wonder if we should approach all conversations in organizations as if we were on the “Alchemical terrace.” It’s an excellent question to ask on the “Alchemical terrace”!
“Et comme je n’avais pas de réponse, je me suis remis en questions…” – Sol
Le plusilianisme, show : Je persifle et je singe. Sol is a character created by Marc Favreau.
Today, within the Pyxis network, we also have conversations at the “Café des Myopes Éclairés” which has a more direct orientation toward specific initiatives and during which we practise better known collective intelligence formats like Open forums, World Cafés or variations. We also have the EZ Jacuzzi where we collectively share our reality of the moment. For this one we use a variation of Virginia Satir’s Temperature Reading.
By having occasions to exchange that have a different primary orientation, we are looking to enable everyone to contribute, get what they want and develop. We also want a balance between conversations concerning mainly concrete and short-term stuff, and conversations that are more exploratory, completely emerging and transformative.
Since we have abandoned, already a while ago, the practice of having a global strategic plan and we are trying to become a self-organized network of self-organized businesses with fewer invariable structures like hierarchical ties and fixed roles, it becomes crucial for us to have sufficient attendance to the “Alchemical Terrace”, “Café des Myopes Éclairés” as well as the “EZ Jacuzzi”. I believe that the consistency, the accuracy and the creativity of our actions depend on it.
I hope that you had a good time with me on the “Alchemical Terrace” and that it made you want to practise!