John Quinlan John Quinlan
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Detroit, MI
Thursday, February 1, 2018


A recent New York Times article, With Talking Stick in Hand, Moderate Senators Broke the Shutdown, became a touching point for me.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine used the talking stick in her crowded Capitol Hill office to make sure only one person spoke at a time. This enabled a coalition of bipartisan senators to break through the budget impasse. The dialogue led a participant, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, to say, “It is one place we can all go and feel good.”

Dialogue as defined by David Bloom is “the free flowing of meaning among, through and between people, out of which emerges some new understanding.” Bill Isaacs explains that dialogue is “a discipline of sustained collective thinking and inquiry into the processes, assumptions and certainties that make up a group experience.”

In my busy week of executive coaching, including change management consultations, I was particularly affected by the dilemma of one client. They seem to have found themselves in a box canyon. Gridlock emanated between the company’s engineering and sales functions. As I facilitated a session for the engineering team (the designated culprit), it dawned upon the members that they continue to repeat the same mistakes and that they are not learning from their failures.

Earlier in the day, I met with the sales department. They also struggled with the same wicked problem. Organizational practitioner Dennis Roblee explains, a wicked problem has no known (or proven) solution to a behaviorally complex situation, where there are multiple constituencies, long-standing defensive routines and an entrenched belief there is no time to address the most fundamental problems. Sound familiar? Corporate America and Congress make strange and yet matched bedfellows.

The frustrated engineering team members, led by an apologetic director, were opining on the cost of a failed expectation. A sophisticated custom-designed-and-built apparatus did not meet the installation specs of a far-away global customer. Cost overruns (including for reinstallation, travel, food and lodging for three people), and the stoppage of a significant cash payment to corporate headquarters pressurizing short-term cash flow, exasperated the situation.

Consequently, the executive team began manifesting lose-lose behaviors between departments while frantically and stressfully moving to fix the problems – but without dealing with more systemic and root-cause issues. This negative leadership spiral was going viral through their culture, spawning apprehension.

During the engineering session, we plunged into a significant conversation to determine where disconnects occurred within and outside their department, with minimal acrimony and finger pointing. Mutual respect, trust and psychological safety began to percolate. Why? We took the time to review the company’s core values and supporting norms. Accordingly, every member was permitted to speak and all members were bound to listen without interruption. A willingness to suspend assumptions and judgment was also encouraged.

The rules of conversation supported their company core values. This encouraged authentic inquiry absent defensive routines. They wanted to determine who dropped what balls, why it happened and how to make sure it will not be repeated. The group synergy transcended the horns of the dilemma (unresolved conflict within their department), clearing the way to integrated solutions. Now they were prepared to have a similar campfire session with other departments impacted by their past shortcomings. This session is scheduled for next week.

As we concluded, I asked the team to reflect on the meeting. What was the most important part of this session and why? A number of members said, “We need to have more safe and slower discussions.” Others commented, “We should have more campfire – roundtable type meetings to be open with one another.” Another confirmed, “We were encouraged to move into the fear of conflict. I did not feel threatened. I feel intact. I felt respected.” Yes, I emphasized with the group, by slowing down to do this you literally speed up.

Vulnerability and courage from leaders are essential attributes for this dialogue process to work. It may keep you out of box canyons and gridlock. I had introduced a talking stick to the company’s owners and executive group at their annual strategic planning retreats, but it was never used in departmental sessions. Too bad. A talking stick handed among the engineering and sales departments might have averted much pain and distress to both people and the profit and loss statement.

During twenty-eight years of consulting, I have found that very few C-suites trusted themselves, beginning with the CEO, to take the risk to allow dialogue that accented a cleaner language fortifying straight talk. But the suspension of one’s assumptions emboldens truth to manifest itself.

The twenty-five-inch talking stick that was given to me is seared at both ends to contain a life force and is painted and carved with indigenous symbols. The stick, shown below, symbolizes an object of transcendence. It permits one’s individual needs to be subordinated to a higher purpose, a collective empathy resulting in greater group trust and integrity. It is an amazing experience, allowing us to be emotionally clumsy without feeling embarrassed.

JohnTalking Stick

The talking stick as shown in John’s book, Tau Bada: The Quest and Memoir of a Vulnerable Man. Photo by Michelle Andonian.

Roblee summarizes that creativity results from dialogue. There are tangible rewards. The upshot of dialogue and a talking stick experience, using the tension of opposites, culminates in:

  • A safe container or “space/refuge” that will hold under pressure.
  • Allowing different views and values to surface.
  • Gently allowing opposing poles to be explored and clarified.
  • Holding and exploring both poles, resisting the urge to resolve the tension by insisting on agreement or eliminating one of the poles.
  • Listening for the deeper flow of meaning and new insights to emerge between the poles.

I concur with Roblee that dialogue is a wise precursor to discussion, where decision-making and problem solving are paramount. Reaching shared agreements, creating action plans and assuming coordinated tactics consciously follow talking stick dialogue experiences. Yes, results are expected to follow. Performance is enhanced.

Whether the gridlock is between engineering and sales departments or U.S. senators, campfires and talking sticks are essential to eliminating wicked problems.

 About John E Quinlan

He founded Growth Strategies Global LLC, headquartered in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in 1986. As managing director, he has designed the firm to operate from a unique philosophy that balances his broad range of experiences in upper management with tested management consulting practices, underpinned by behavioural science knowledge.

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