Getting out of the compression chamber

The same day I read an article titled Culture-war terms can compress complex ideas in an unhelpful way, which was sub-titled, ‘In discussions of group differences and grievances, nuance is vital’, I had a discussion with someone with whom I’m starting a piece of work.  The discussion focused on some of the challenges the work may face.  He was particularly concerned about different stakeholders protecting their interests at all costs.

Later that same day I had a discussion with someone else who was curious to know whether I felt collaborative on-line working i.e. via Zoom or similar, provoked polarisation of views, and unexplored misunderstandings amongst people, heightening tensions amongst them.   

Both people wanted to know whether there were organisation design methods and tools that could lead away from polarisation and towards something more productive.

The article mentioned above, opens ‘If you set out to design a drearily predictable identity-politics ding-dong in a laboratory, you could do little better than the one that broke out in Britain on June 22nd.’ And goes on to discuss the phrase ‘white privilege’. 

It continues, ‘In the raging culture wars, “white privilege” is now among the many phrases lobbed like online grenades between opposing camps. Since the combatants cannot agree on what it means, it is not surprising that there is no consensus on whether it exists and what should be done about it. …  The problem with these terms is their compression. They are signposts rather than arguments, only making sense in the context of more elaborate reasoning .’

The word that stood out for me in that extract is ‘compression’.   Technology mediated communication is compressed – by screen size as in Zoom rectangles, by written word length restrictions as in tweets, by substitutions of words for emojis and by compressed time – our instinct is to immediately respond to/comment on something.

Suppose we recognised we are in a compression chamber, one that fosters outrage, indignation, entrenched positions, hasty judgements, and so on:  what steps could we take to get out of it in order to develop reflective, patient, empathetic, generative attitudes and more ‘elaborate reasoning’? 

There are techniques and methods used in organisation design work that could help.  Three of them are:  facilitated face to face interactions where people listen to and work with people with differing views from their own, practice in critical and creative thinking (and related skills), community building activity.  I’ll briefly discuss each of these and offer some resources I’ve found useful.   

Facilitated face to face interactions:  accepting that current constraints mean that face to face meetings may be difficult, it is still worth investing in a large group intervention (LGI).   These can be very powerful unlockers of locked positions and I’ve been involved in many and various versions of them, including Future Search, World Cafe, hackathons, jams, and others.

They are both scary (if you are the facilitator) and huge fun (when they work well).   LGIs share 6 attributes:

  1. They are collaborative, large scale, inquiries – typically involving multiple stakeholders.
  2.  They create alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues. 
  3. They demonstrate the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process. 
  4. They provide a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. 
  5. They are large groups – more than 30 – where it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact.  
  6. They are time-bound events.   

You can listen to an excellent interview with Barbara Bunker – one of the leaders in the LGI field here on the theory and practice of them.

There’s also a wonderful write up of a Future Search conference with IKEA –  ‘In this case, the world’s only global furniture retailer, IKEA, created in a single  meeting a new system for product design, manufacture, and distribution, agreeing to decentralize an agglomeration of “silos” that no longer served effectively. This was not simply a meeting to validate what top management already had thought up. People who had never met before created something that had not existed. Some 52 stakeholders examined the existing system, developed a new system, created a strategic plan, and formed task forces led by key executives to implement it. In 18 hours, the plan was made, validated, and signed off by the company president, key people from all affected functions, and several customers.’ 

Giving time and space to practice critical and creative thinking (and related skills).   There are many ways of learning some of these skills, some I’ve found work are:

  • The ability to challenge assumptions is one of the skills of a critical thinker.   I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago.  I am consciously practicing challenging the various assumption my own ‘confederacy of selves’ holds.   (I came across the term ‘confederacy of selves’ in a Knowledge Project clip on decision making with Sendhil Mullainatham  who used it). Recognising and challenging assumptions is hard but useful as of often leads to softening an entrenched position.   
  • Choosing to be a learner not a judger.  Over the weekend, I went to someone’s house and she had on her toilet wall a poster about learner/judger mindsets which was lovely to see – I rushed home to find my book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams, which elaborates on this. 
  • Use packs of cards to encourage different thinking.  Some I’ve used are Tension and Practice cards, Oblique Strategies,  Creative Whackpack  and De Bono’s six thinking hats all of which encourage thinking outside your current frame of reference.
  • There are a number of other resources that support critical thinking and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute is a wonderful source of 21 of them.  I’ve found polarity mapping (interdependent pairs), the four truths ‘that help you understand different perspectives that influence individual and group action’, , and conflict circles are three that I use repeatedly in my work. 

Community building activity: There’s a lot to be learned from the non-profit sector in community building on projects and amongst stakeholders.  Take a look, for example, at 8 ways to unlock the power of community (a WEF article).  And Steve Skinner’s article ‘How can we build strong communities?

Other sources of community building come from co-working spaces (e.g. WeWork) which employ community managers whose role is to build a sense of connectedness amongst the different users of the space.  Roles like this act to find common ground, via social activities, info sharing or similar.   

(When I worked at SiloSmashers, one of the community building activities we had was a skills share – individuals would hold a lunchtime session on non-work topic they enjoyed and that they thought others might be interested in – making an authentic curry, or wine tasting, or learning to ride a unicycle – that informal interaction goes a long way towards developing kindly relationships). 

I’ve touched on three methods of leaving a compression chamber – what are the ones you use that work to build connections, empathy, and generative thinking.  Let me know.