The power of meaningful conversations to clarify a path forward
We struggle in organizations to clarify objectives and future directions. We are working in complex adaptive systems that are ever changing and uncertain, and our ability to foresee the future, establish goals, and work toward them in a linear way, is difficult, if not impossible, in organizations today. At the same time the challenges before us are great, so are the opportunities. How can we change the way we work in organizations to support us in creating and committing to a strategic vision and working toward it in new ways?
As co-chair of our faculty senate, I was recently faced with a challenge to bring our senators together around creating a position statement on a possible opportunity for the university. The decision our Board would make would be momentous and while we did not have a vote in that decision, we had a voice. We wanted to represent our colleagues and protect the interest of our students and the institution. There was much angst around not having all the information we needed and realizing the risks involved. There was no way to know for certain what the best path forward would be.
This is the reality facing leaders in organizations every day. And yet, decisions do need to be made in the face of uncertainty. Leaders need to find a way to engage people around the decision that both creates a sense of doing what is right and strengthens the relationships to support successful implementation and on-going change.
The approach I took as a way to engage our faculty around creating a position statement was to bring us into a series of meaningful, reflective conversations. We began by reflecting on the challenge of living and working in this time of uncertainty and how we maintain some sense of balance in our lives. This reflection supported us in recognizing the reality of our situation and the need to let go of the fact that we didn’t “know” all that we would like to know. The vulnerability that everyone shared in these reflections opened up a space to let go of the need to “know”, and helped us recognize that being in this space together was meaningful and informative in itself.
This initial reflection was followed by a review of the questions we held and the challenges we anticipated. We were able to bring in our Provost to discuss some of these with us. My co-chair and I also had notes from a conversation with our Board Chair that we were able to share. It is important to have as much information as possible that informs the decision and not to shy away from raising questions that can’t be answered or challenges or tensions that may continue to exist. In helping groups work in this space, I talk with them about the importance of holding questions and tensions that cannot be answered or resolved. These questions become vehicles for generative inquiry that ensure we keep learning along the way.
When the group came to task of crafting a position statement, it was amazing how nicely it flowed as we collectively suggested the wording that reflected our conversations. The end product was one we could all support. We felt connected and fulfilled, and a bit amazed that we accomplished this task, as we were not all on the same page entering the room that morning. As a way to celebrate our accomplishment and move forward with a sense of possibility, we each shared our hopes and dreams for our students, colleagues, selves, and the institution as we continue to work together to create a desired future – one which supports humanity in bringing greater meaning to life.