After 40 years of working on strategic decisions in the private and public sectors, I am comfortable making the assertion that advocacy based negotiation is how we make decisions — by default. This is ironic because we say we want informed decisions based on valid information. (See the slide on the left.) We say we want mutual learning and collaborative design. In spite of our good intentions we do whatever it takes to “win” when it comes to practice.
Advocacy and negotiation are about winning. Mutual learning is about collaboration and design.
For whatever reason we are conditioned from birth to be forceful, articulate advocates and problem solvers. We learn to present and argue strongly for our views. We are conditioned to avoid embarrassment — ours and others. We reframe most failures as non-failures or we bury them.
It becomes instinctive to “over advocate” for our position rather than balance advocacy with inquiry. Listen to virtually any public dialogue about a contested issue: taxes, gun control, same sex marriage, or you name it. What you will hear is people advocating, selling, and pitching. Special interests in politics are paid to do this. Sales people are paid to do this. This is all fine and dandy except that it doesn’t lead to where we all say we want go, mutual learning. (At least it doesn’t get us there very efficiently.) Behavioral scientists say we behave this way in part because of the “confirmation bias.” We are preoccupied by what we already believe . We hear evidence that supports our beliefs but we ignore evidence that is contrary.
We don’t balance advocacy and inquiry when we make the “big” decisions like new product design, or which CIT system to implement, or what tax policy do we adopt. As a result we leave a lot of value on the table. We stifle innovation.
Some kind of intervention is necessary if we want to move toward a balance between advocacy and inquiry. We can start with the way we conduct conversations. We can learn a set of skills for improving both advocacy and inquiry. In the feature article in a recent Rotman Magazine, Bill Noonan spells out some of the concrete steps we can take to improve our advocacy and balance it with inquiry. For example, Bill suggests that instead of saying, ” There is no way this project is going to succeed,” we could say something like,”I heard Fred say that he couldn’t give this project the attention it deserved. Without his support, I have doubts about the project’s success. Do others place the same or a different degree of importance on Fred’s role?” It’s advocacy followed by inquiry.
Inquiry is the art or skill of exploring other’s points of view and the reasoning behind them. We can all learn to improve our conversations. With new skills we can do a better job of balancing advocacy and inquiry and moving down the ladder of inference. This will speed up organizational learning and innovation. If we each improve our conversation skills then we can improve our team conversations and maybe someday even our public dialogue. I haven’t seen any other practical option. Do you see it differently?
For more information I suggest Action Design and The Fifth Discipline Field Book. They both propose a spectrum of ways that can help you learn about overcoming organizational defenses. I found one reasonably good video about Mutual Learning on YouTube. See Benjamin Mitchell – Using the Mutual Learning Model to achieve Double Loop Learning. Benjamin Michell blends the teachings of Chris Argyris with some of Deming. An interesting combination.
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