Structured Dialogue


Structured Dialogue is a program designed to build engagement and trust among executives and employees. The program generates a quality of communication that is meaningful at all levels of leadership and in virtually any organizational setting.

As a consultant with over thirty years of operating and consulting experience, I tackle tough organizational challenges. I strive to understand the enterprise as a whole, the interconnectedness of its parts and to accurately see its reality. I develop and implement strategy with clients. Business plans, due diligence, forensic auditing and management coaching are elements to the process. My work in operations and financial planning provides a gateway to understanding intrinsic organizational challenges. These are embedded in the ways in which people communicate to solve problems. Structured Dialogue addresses these intrinsic organizational challenges.

The most pervasive problem I encounter in organizations centers on the inconsistent quality of communication and the resulting lack of engagement among employees at all levels. This is surprising because companies employ smart, well-educated people. Successful and highly committed, senior executives devote time and attention to build collaborative teamwork but generally fail to achieve significant levels of engagement.

Data related to the problem of employee engagement is discouraging. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, only 30 percent of all US employees care about their work, fellow employees and company. The balance of US employees, according to the report, are not actively engaged. The lack of employee engagement reduces the adaptability of a company to its changing business environment. Engaged employees care about each other, their work and their company.

Structured Dialogue is a program that has been refined through working with companies across different industries. Within any given company, there are patterns of communication within senior management, between management and employees, and among departments that cause a lack of coherence within the organization and result in a loss of trust and engagement.

If you are a senior leader, you can use the tools of the program to expand a company’s base of intellectual creativity, entrepreneurship and organizational effectiveness. If you are an operational manager, you can use it to build coherence and cohesion: enabling people to work together in a highly coordinated and creative way. As an employee, your ability to use the tools of the program will strengthen your connections to everyone you work with and increase your value to the team. The practices of Structured Dialogue lead employees to challenge their perceptions, assumptions and opinions, enabling them to begin to act as a highly focused community.

The program starts with the selection of a key challenge confronting the organization, and a team of participants from the company is gathered. A facilitator coordinates the team’s efforts and sets the overall structure of the program. The facilitator introduces techniques for building trust and shared meaning among the team members. The facilitator models four dynamic roles that team members will learn as part of the program. Techniques are also introduced to help the team clarify and evaluate the quality of its ideas.

The Structured Dialogue process moves a team through four phases of engagement. Phases 1 and 2, by design, are conducted in the way the organization habitually manages team interactions, and its accepted rules of communication. In Phases 1 and 2, participants tend to be reactionary to one another’s expressed ideas rather than engaging with them. By contrast, in Phases 3 and 4, participants are engaging with one another and conversations tend to be generative. The facilitator introduces new rules of communication. Participants learn increasingly sophisticated skills of advocacy and inquiry. The team discovers the flow of ideas that emerges from each other’s contributions, what is emerging within the team as a whole.

  • Phase 1. The techniques characteristics of Phase 1 typically include a) preconceived judgments and familiar habits of thought, b) selective attention and listening, and c) prioritization of decorum over the free exchange of ideas. The facilitator works with the team to recognize these patterns and the ways in which they limit creative engagement.
  • Phase 2. The facilitator encourages all team members to participate. The characteristics of this phase often include a) polarizing discussion, b) extensive data driven arguments, c) continued reactionary response of Phase 1, and d) debating concrete ideas as abstractions. No one is able to convince the opposition with data, discussion or debate. Little of this activity enables team members to find common ground.
  • Phase 3. The facilitator introduces tools for building a new and collaborative environment for resolving key issues and challenges. Tools characteristic of Phase 3 include a) new rules of engagement, that require increased attention and commitment to team process, b) reflection on and suspension of personal agendas, assumptions and judgments, c) empathic listening for understanding what leads others to see things as they do, d) tacit listening to the group and each other. We call upon The Four Player Model[i], a tool which posits that every productive conversation includes a dynamic balance of participants that includes initiators, followers, opposers and bystanders, and what their roles are in a generative conversation. We introduce The Ladder of Inference[ii], an analytical tool for understanding mental models and the relationship of ideas to facts and assumptions.
  • Phase 4. This phase is marked by the ability of participants to think together, develop a shared consciousness and common intent. Participants build on a flow of ideas: improve each other’s ideas, offer the permutations and combinations that can lead to a synthesis or prototype solution(s). Phase 4 is characterized by a) an introduction to systems thinking, b) the use of the dialogic tools developed in Phase 3, c) analytical processes for evaluation of ideas, and d) selection of prototype solutions best suited for a final decision, next steps and personal accountability.

The challenge of every organization is to get a number of busy and committed people to listen, think and speak more generatively. It leaves behind the familiar forms of corporate engagement and explores new possibilities and directions. Once people sense a larger field of possibilities that might lead to real change for the better, the benefits to the company can be substantial. They are able to draw upon the new tools of Structured Dialogue to build community and engagement. Engaged people work harder because they are more involved in processes and outcomes. Customers will see the difference in the quality of service that only engaged employees are motivated to provide.

The more extensively the tools of Structured Dialogue are embedded throughout the organization, the greater its flexibility and adaptability. The organization is presented with a greater array of creative possibilities with which to differentiate itself and succeed in an environment of change. The program brings to light the unique potential that is carried by people within every team and every company.

Education: Harvard College, Columbia Business School, MIT Society for Organizational Learning and The Project Management Institute, Resume posted on linkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/robertfinn.

[i] Kantor, D., 2012, Reading the Room, Group Dynamics for Teachers and Leaders, John Wiley & Sons

[ii] Korzybski, A, 1933, Science and Sanity, International Non-Aristotelian Library, Lakeville, Ct.

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