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)

Million Dollar Dialog

I was at a party this past weekend, and a group of us started discussing the following question: If you had a million dollars to spend on saving the world, what would you do with it?    (196)

Not surprisingly, there was quick consensus on investing that money into improving education for kids. Then we got into the details. Where do you invest that money? How do you maximize the effectiveness of that investment? How do you measure effectiveness?    (197)

I’ve played this game several times before, and although it’s never boring, I’m rarely surprised by what I hear. What surprised me this time was how much my own answers have changed from the last time I’ve played. It’s indicative of how much The Blue Oxen Way has infiltrated my thinking.    (198)

How would I spend that million dollars? I would use it to start a nationwide dialog on improving education. I would involve parents, teachers, administrators, and especially the students. It seems like students are often left out of these dialogs, when in fact their insights are as profound and as important as those of adults.    (199)

The dialog would consist of facilitated face-to-face townhall meetings with an emphasis on capturing stories. I would use collaborative online tools to augment the dialog, allowing participants to continue their conversations and making those conversations accessible to a wider audience.    (19A)

Most of the topics would center around education-specific topics, but a portion of them would be about sustaining the dialog and facilitating emergent collaboration. In other words, the participants — not I — would be actively shaping the movement.    (19B)

What would this accomplish? First, it would help build Shared Understanding between stakeholders. Education is a collaborative process. There is a tremendous amount of mistrust among the different parties involved with education, but I find that there is often a strong commonality as well. People care about the kids. If people were to focus on this commonality, a lot of the mistrust would disappear.    (19C)

Second, it would build self-awareness among community members. I know a lot of people who are doing wonderful things in education, be they local teachers or concerned parents. Many of them are doing them on a very small scale and are mostly unaware of similar efforts. Simply knowing that others share your goals and ideas can be tremendously self-assuring. On a more pragmatic level, self-awareness creates the opportunity for the sharing of best practices.    (19D)

Third, it would augment all projects involving education, be they evangelizing parental participation, purchasing textbooks, or lobbying for better laws. There are so many ways we can improve education. Who can place a value judgement on which of these efforts are more worthwhile? If we want to maximize effectiveness, it’s best to invest in areas that will help all of these efforts, not just one of them.    (19E)

Fourth, it would be a sustainable movement. The sustainability comes from involving the participants in the shaping of the movement itself.    (19F)