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March 31, 2004 » 12:33 am

Talk: Cheap, but Necessary

John Stafford had an interesting response to my recent blog entry, “Million Dollar Dialog.” John said, “The problem with dialogue is that talk is cheap,” and then proceeded to tell an anecdote about a series of town hall meetings on education that led absolutely nowhere.    (19U)

Before I respond, I want to share Tom Munnecke‘s thoughts, which I liked a lot. Tom wrote:    (19V)

It strikes me that we could have a lot more talk in many circumstances:    (19W)

Physicians could take more time to communicate with their patients (and be given it in their schedules)    (19X)

Parents could talk more with their children.    (19Y)

Americans could talk more with Europeans, instead of letting their leaders or the media do the communicating for them.    (19Z)

Muslims, Christians, and Jews could talk more.    (1A0)

…    (1A1)

Seems to me that we should be talking about the quality of the communication and the “rightness” of the action, not simply trying to pump up “action” at the expense of “talk.”    (1A2)

I agree with both John and Tom. Talk is cheap, but it’s also necessary. Talk leads to Shared Understanding, which is an absolute prerequisite to effective collaboration. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to collaborate is confusing talk with lack of action. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are highly complementary.    (1A3)

I’ve suggested in other posts that collaboration requires shared, bounded goals. Those goals generally manifest themselves as action. However, action that does not emerge from a Shared Understanding of ideas is not collaboration. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable, but in many cases, its effectiveness is limited. Consider organizational mission statements. Suppose a CEO spent a week writing a mission statement for his or her company. Compare this to a CEO leading a six-month, organization-wide, facilitated dialog for collectively developing a mission statement. Even if the two statements were exactly the same, the latter would be far more meaningful than the former.    (1A4)

Action is important in two ways. First, it signifies progress — the achievement of shared, bounded goals. Second, action itself is a form of communication that helps strengthen Shared Understanding.    (1A5)

How do we facilitate action from talk? Representation, as John suggests, is vital. You need to have the right set of people, people who are capable and motivated. Jay Cross recently wrote about the Pareto Principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 rule. 20 percent of a group is usually responsible for 80 percent of the work. It only takes a small number of folks to get things done, but you need to make sure you have the right people in the first place.    (1A6)

Still, talk plays an important role here, because it gets ideas out there. When you Think Out Loud, there’s a possibility that someone who is action-oriented will hear and will do something about it. One of the explicit goals of our Collaboration Collaboratory is to capture the good ideas that emerge from our dialog. Even if nobody in our collaboratory decides to do anything about them, by capturing them and making them accessible, we increase the likelihood that someone else will. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen time and again.    (1A7)

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One Response to “Talk: Cheap, but Necessary”

  1. re: “confusing talk with lack of action”

    If you’re planning to act, talk is essential. If you’re planning to talk, action is a welcome, but unlikely, outcome.

    The CEO is a good example. IF the mission statement redefines organizational focus, IF the mission statement generates actions to implement, and IF sufficient resources are planned to implement the actions required to achieve the focus, then an organization-wide dialog is preferable. If instead, the mission statement is a throwaway (as several I have experienced, generated by both methods, were) it is better for the CEO to generate it on their own and not waste their employees’ time (and more importantly, their passion and hope).

    Which is why a nationwide dialogue on education wouldn’t work. There is no logical bridge between dialogue, action, and resources. Far better to start at a local level and try to develop a new pattern for education transformation. It’d be an interesting experiment, if the right to vote for school board was restricted only to people who’d participated in the collaborative process, and the process itself was given the traditional powers of a school board.

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