The Dragons in the Room: Barriers to Change in Organizations

Adam Kahane’s latest book Solving Tough Problems stresses the importance of speaking candidly and listening openly, in order to allow resolutions to complex (wicked) problems to emerge. The book is principally anecdotes of Kahane’s experiences as a facilitator of groups trying to grapple with seemingly intractable problems. What’s most interesting about these stories are the archetypes of people, roles, posturings and preconceptions they raise, which exemplify the barriers to bringing about change in organizations. He quotes one I particularly like, that I bet you’ll recognize in your own organization, or perhaps even in yourself:

“I’ve worked with these senior managers for decades. They have no energy. They have turned into turnips. They don’t want to do anything. They like having excuses. They are all making big salaries and feeling no pain. They have the perfect cover for anything: Our bosses won’t let us do anything. There was a time when they had spirit, but they have been emasculated. Their spirit has been sucked out of them.”

As I read through these stories and listed the negative archetypes (Kahane’s stories have lots of heroes, original and reformed, but they’re not nearly as interesting as the astonishingly recognizable negatives), I tried to organize them into groups, but I couldn’t do it. Twenty of them are listed in the diagram above, and their ‘thought clouds’ are as follows — be honest and admit how often these thoughts have gone through your own mind in meetings and other supposedly collaborative activities:

  • “I don’t see any problem here.”
  • “I/we already know the answer to this problem; why are we wasting time discussing it?”
  • “There’s no commitment to do anything about this problem, so why are we wasting time discussing it?”
  • “The staff are making a mountain out of a mole hill here — this isn’t an important issue.”
  • “Management doesn’t want to hear what the real problem is here, because it’s their fault.”
  • “This is a problem for us managers to deal with, not the people in this room.”
  • “What’s the rush on this? I/we have more urgent matters to deal with.”
  • “He/she’s going to pay for that remark.”
  • “Why am I here? I’ve got three critical issues to deal with today.”
  • “No one’s going to listen to my/our ideas.”
  • “I have nothing to offer here. I’m going to work on something else while they talk.”
  • “I never did trust him/her/them.”
  • “There’s no answer to this problem. Everything that could be tried has been tried already.”
  • “We tried that already. It didn’t work.”
  • “What’s he/she doing here anyway?”
  • “They’re not listening to me. I already told them how to solve that.”
  • “I’d like to (censored) X and slowly (censored) Y.”
  • “What a dumb idea/disloyal comment: I have to remember to describe it as ‘disappointing’ since that’s the PC way to publicly criticize a subordinate.”
  • “This is hopeless. We’re just going in circles. Everyone’s already made up their mind and no one is listening, including me from now on.”
  • “I wish they’d shut up. I know exactly what I’m going to say next.”
  • “This is taking far too long, given what little action/insight we can expect to get from it anyway.”
  • “I can’t get a word in here. I give up.”
  • “…and if you believe what I just said I have a bridge to sell you.”

Many of these thoughts are going around in the heads of people at a lot of meetings and collaborative events. Kahane’s solution is to practice, enable and encourage more open speaking (candour) and listening (attentively, without prejudging), to prevent these dysfunctional thoughts from arising at such events, and get them on the table when they arise anyway. The Open Space approach would suggest that one critical way to do this is through crafting the invitation for such meetings appropriately, so that the right people (and a minimal number of the archetypes pictured above) show up and participate enthusiastically, with commitment, passion and responsibility, and listen intently and allow collective insights and ideas that could address the issue at hand to emerge.

In an earlier article I re-told the children’s story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. The archetypes who bring the baggage of these dysfunctional attitudes and prejudgements to collaborative events are like a roomful of dragons, unrecognized and tacitly unnoticed by the organizers and participants.

So one solution is to (politely) not invite the dragons in the first place. And, if that is done and no one then shows up, the event organizers should appreciate that potential participants have opted to avoid what they see as a meetingful of dragons, and redesign the event so that the desired participants are more enthusiastic.

A second solution, also borrowed from Open Space, is to allow participants to ‘vote with their feet’ — to leave and possibly start their own conversations on the issue elsewhere if they believe they are not getting or providing value to the event (i.e. if they find too many dragons in the room, or find they are turning into dragons themselves).

Kahane suggests these additional approaches to clear the dragons from the room, and get the participants working together on all cylinders:

  1. Pay attention to your state of being and to how you are talking and listening. Notice your assumptions, reactions, contractions, anxieties, prejudices, and projections.
  2. Speak up. Notice and say what you are thinking, feeling, and wanting.
  3. Remember that you donít know the truth about anything. When you think you are absolutely certain about the way things are, add ìin my opinionî or ìfrom my perspectiveî to your sentence. Donít take yourself too seriously.
  4. Engage with and listen to others who have a stake in the system. Seek out people who have different, even opposing, perspectives from yours. Stretch beyond your comfort zone.
  5. Reflect on your own role in the system. Examine how what you are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way they are.
  6. Listen with empathy. Look at the system through the eyes of the other. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the other.
  7. Listen to what is being said not just by yourself and others but through all of you. Listen to what is emerging in the system as a whole. Listen with your heart. Speak from your heart.
  8. Stop talking. Camp out beside the questions and let answers come to you.
  9. Relax and be fully present. Open up your mind and heart and will. Open yourself to being touched and transformed.
  10. Notice what is happening. Sense what shifts in your relationships with others, with yourself, and with the world. Keep on practicing.

Even when the room is dragon-free and the participants are collaborating effectively, there are still two more enormous obstacles to overcome:

  • The participants all see the world through their own frames and, as Lakoff has shown, we tend to discount anything we hear that is not consistent with those frames, and accept uncritically anything we hear that is consistent with our frames. Like the dragons illustrated above, even the most open-minded of us still enters every collaboration with our frames standing between us (our candid talk and our open listening) and our collaborators and their frames.
  • Most participants have been taught to address ‘problems’ in certain traditional ways that are well-suited for simple and complicated problems but often ill-suited to complex situations. We tend to embrace these inappropriate techniques too readily, instead of using the more difficult, unfamiliar and time-consuming processes appropriate to dealing with complex issues, and allowing understanding and resolutions to emerge instead of jumping to quick, comfortable, traditional ‘solutions’.

No wonder, then, that it usually takes an enormous sense of shared urgency and commitment and highly skilled facilitation to create the kind of events that, like the ones in Kahane’s encouraging success stories, not only clear the room of dragons but enable the unencumbered participants to achieve remarkable results through true collaboration.

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4 Responses to The Dragons in the Room: Barriers to Change in Organizations

  1. Jayanth says:

    Hi,Don’t you think every one of us are in one of the states mentioned by you at some point of time or the other. Hence everytime in a meeting we enact if not all, some of the characteristics mentioned here

  2. Kal says:

    I think that the extent to which we can exclude dragons from meetings is very limited. At some point, a decision needs to be implemented, and that decision should have received input and been discussed with all of those who will be affected by its implementation, otherwise there’s a risk of perverse/ineffective implementation.Excluding people who make problem-solving difficult from problem-solving seems like a rather traditional approach.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Nice exposition .. but discouraging as heck.You know pretty much what I think about HR / people mgt processes (job eval, performance mgt., competencies) and their contributions to enabling and sustaining these mindsets, under the surface. Thank goodness for tools like Open Space, although when used in many organizations it might be better called “Creating SOME Space”

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Jayanth/Kal: That hasn’t been my experience (my experience has been more like Jon’s). As you become aware of the dragons I think you start to take responsibility for pointing them out, politely, to others in the room, and using the Law of Two Feet when you become a dragon yourself. When you’re young that’s harder to do — the risk is too high — but as you get older the onus is on you to do so. Problem-solving is inherently difficult, and sometimes impossible — all we can do is allow the best understanding and opportunities for action to emerge, and they can only emerge if there’s candour and openness in both speech and listening. The answer to people who make problem-solving (more) difficult is to gently show them that such behaviour is unproductive and help them become better collaborators. If it is their ideas and unique perspectives that add to the perceived complexity of the problem, rather than their attitude, then of course you don’t want to exclude them — they are not acting in any of the 20 dragon personas and are not dragons.

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