5 Dialectical approaches
We hope to have convinced you that the right kind of conflict can be creative. But how can this thinking be applied in practice – what sorts of tools and techniques can harness creative conflict? The following two readings should give a decent impression of practical ‘dialectical approaches’: where those holding different points of view can challenge each other through reasoned argument and dialogue, out of which new, shared approaches can emerge.
Read this extract from pages 95–6 of the ‘Technique Library’ (Martin et al., 2012) drawn from an OU MBA course on ‘Sustainable creative management’.
These techniques use creative conflict within the decision-making process to help identify and challenge assumptions and create new perceptions. The devil’s advocate approach can expose underlying assumptions, but tends to emphasise the negative. Dialectical inquiry may be more balanced.
The devil’s advocate
A person advocates a plan. Another person (or perhaps someone specially appointed to be used in this way) then takes the role of an adverse critic, examining the proposal and analysis for inconsistencies, inaccuracies and irrelevancies. This critique may be contained in a report, or a live confrontation session may be set up between proposer and critic, with key decision makers as observers. In the light of this, the decision makers can then accept, modify, or re-develop the proposal.
1. Form proposal and counter-proposal groups, and a review group which contains the senior manager involved. In informal use, these might reduce to single individuals.
2. The proposal group develops a plan, compiles a shortlist of the key assumptions underlying its plan, and hands this list to the counter-proposal group.
3. The counter-proposal group develops a counter-plan, taking each assumption, digging underneath it for a plausible counter-assumption, and using it to bring new data to the surface, re-interpret old data, and formulate a counter-plan.
The proposal and counter-proposal groups present their plans to the review group, outlining data and assumptions they consider important and probing weaknesses of the other side’s plan. A facilitator maintains goodwill and prevents the combativeness becoming destructive. The review group looks out for further unmentioned assumptions that may be central to conceptualising the problem. When arguments begin repeating themselves, the facilitator ends the debate and there is a break to socialise and reconnect on a personal level. Led by the review group, the groups now work together to generate a list of agreed-upon core assumptions, and to generate a new plan. All the assumptions that figured prominently in the debate are pooled. Unsatisfactory assumptions are weeded out, and where possible, competing assumptions are either re-worked so as to be acceptable to both sides, or simple tests are devised to decide between them. Using Janusian thinking, it is often possible to combine and reword assumptions so that a new assumption encompasses the point of each side. Eventually the total group should generate a list of agreed-upon core assumptions, and then use these to generate a new plan. In most instances of using dialectic, the new plan is stronger and more realistic than the original plans.
Dialectical enquiry’s originators were management scientists who have used it successfully in consulting work. Because the process must be consonant with the culture, it must be tailored to fit each organisation.
This kind of process can be viewed as the constructive use of conflict. The clash of opposing views creates something new and often more valid than either original view. The dialectic is a systematic way to critique a plan, its supporting data and underlying assumptions. Maps are sometimes hard to get hold of but the use of dialectic can render them more visible to a manager and thus more amenable to revision and improvement.
The group will need the skills and attitudes necessary for coping with messy problems – finding the right problem, drawing alternative maps, and employing humour, confidence and enthusiasm to keep the process going.
Now read this extract from page 145 of the same ‘Technique Library’ (Martin et al., 2012), drawn from an OU MBA course on Sustainable Creative Management.
This is a simple form of Dialectical approaches and is also related to the organisational idea of having an idea champion to provide ongoing support and enthusiasm for a development project.
Given that the pool of ideas for tackling some issue has already been reduced to a small number (say three to six) of strong contenders:
1. One person (the ‘idea advocate’) is allocated to each idea to present a case for that idea. Obviously it is best if it is someone already known to be keen on the idea, or who proposed it, or who would have to implement it.
2. If necessary, a period of research time is made available to give each ‘idea advocate’ a chance to prepare his or her case.
3. A presentation is held in which each idea advocate presents the case for his or her assigned idea to the other idea advocates and the relevant decision makers.
4. The options are then discussed and decisions made. This could be a straightforward selection of the idea supported by the strongest case, or some composite of strong ideas. Alternatively (the ‘lifeboat’ model) there could be a series of rounds in which the weakest remaining idea is eliminated (‘cast overboard’) in each round, so that the better the idea, the more discussions and presentations it gets.
It is important to ensure that there are no major status or power differences between the idea advocates. The more sophisticated approaches described in Dialectical approaches handle the balance between positive and negative evaluation better.
Take home: some forms of conflict are constructive: they test and reveal things about ourselves and our work. Team members are thinking partners. Too often, our thinking partners are echo-chambers – they are too ready to agree with us, say yes and parrot back what we have said. Together we are too afraid to disagree. This means we avoid talk of a wide range of ideas and issues that might bring us into conflict with others. Heffernan makes the case that such avoidance is reckless and fails to get the best out of people. Good teams do ‘travel together’ – but the journey is long. Individuals and sub-teams may ‘scout out’ different ways of doing things (like bees foraging for nectar, a metaphor you will recall from the beginning of the unit) and in those exploratory phases they may be travelling in opposing directions for a while. Consider the scales on which your team is comfortable with conflict.
Extension: to build on the practical suggestions given in the readings on ‘dialectical approaches’ we suggest you seek out other tools and techniques for creative practice which can be applied in your own setting. One of our favourites which can be applied in many different contexts is a tool called.