Audience Dialogue

Tales from the Field (8)
Why are we here?

In mid-2003, an Australian community group was facing trouble. During its 30 years of existence, it had been funded mainly by the government. But now the government had changed its policy. The group's funding was no longer guaranteed: tenders would be advertised, and the group would have to apply for funding, possibly against new competitors. The funding agency had been unhappy about the structure of the group for some years, and made it known unofficially that the group would not win the tender unless it changed its managemennt structure - though there was no problem at all with the social services the group performed.

So the group's elected board decided it needed a series of change management workshops. After the first consultants fell through, Audience Dialogue was asked to take over organizing the workshops. We thought our newly developed scenario workshop method would be a better approach than standard change management workshops. The group's management agreed to try our approach. Over the last few years, they'd tried many other approaches, and nothing had worked very well. We knew that this group had an unusually high level of internal conflict. Working with them would be difficult, but that didn't worry us: conflict can produce enlightenment too. And a high-conflict situation would be a good test of our scenario method.

So we organized a series of four workshops, to be held on successive Friday mornings. The output would be a set of developed scenarios, covering both the internal changes that the group could make, and the external changes that might be forced on it. We wanted a wide range of stakeholders in each workshop: board members, management, staff, and community members (representing the group's clients, and other interested parties). We also invited people from the government department that decided on the funding, but they decided it would be a conflict of interest for them to attend.

At the first workshop, about 20 people were present, in a large room. We arranged five tables, in a roughly circular shape. People drifted in, in ones and twos, helped themselves to coffee, and renewed old acquaintances - they all seemed to know each other, from years back. And a surprising number turned out to be related. Finally it was time for the main show to begin - half an hour late.

David, our facilitator, began by explaining the purpose and background of the four workshops. They'd be highly participative, and everybody would have a chance to express their opinions...

"Wait a minute!" said one man (let's call him A). "But why are we here?"

"I thought I'd just explained that," said David. "The Board decided in May..."

"Yes, yes," said A. "You told us that. But why are we here?"

Ever-patient David began again, but was soon interrupted. A younger man at the same table (let's call him B: he turned out to be a Board member) supported A (who turned out to be a relative of B's). "You haven't answered the question," B said.

A, in a very smooth and reasonable voice, began laying out some objections. "The community haven't been consulted..."

"But we're consulting with you now," said David.

A said "What about all the other members? Were they invited?"

David explained that sessions like this worked best with 20 to 30 people, and we'd tried to invite 30, but only about 20 were there. What we (being external consultants) didn't know was exactly how people had been selected to attend. We did know that a lot of people had declined - because they lived too far away, because they had to work, etc. The group's management - who we'd been working with - were in charge of deciding who to invite. We knew of some strong conflicts, and that a few people who'd been identified as troublemakers had deliberately not been invited, because they'd be likely to disrupt the workshops. (A was not one of those.)

A suspected this was all a plot, to eliminate people like him from the discussion. Somebody chimed in that they hadn't been given enough notice - they'd only heard about the workshop yesterday. A woman at the same table as A and B (who turned out to be B's aunt) suggested that today's workshop should be cancelled, and a wider range of people invited for the following week. Others abused the CEO, who was at another table with a few of his senior staff.

And so it went on. Everything that everybody said was reasonable, and in fact there was a place in the agenda for such things to be said, but the agenda hadn't even begun. Recriminations flew, grandstanding speeches were made, and David tried unsucessfully to begin working through the agenda. The Human Resources manager slipped out through a back door.

In a group discussion, sometimes there's a highly disruptive person. It rarely happens - perhaps about once in 50 groups. Usually, the other group members get tired of the disruptive person, and with their tacit encouragement the facilitator can provoke the disruptive one into constructive participation, or (if that does't work) into silence or departure. But it wasn't going to work this time, because A, B, and their aunt obviously had a lot of support within the room. They were community members, but we could see staff members nodding slightly in sympathy. David sensed that asking A and B to leave might provoke a mass walk-out and we didn't want that. As somebody said before it began "Just getting all these people in the same room together is an amazing achievement." At one stage A and B staged a dramatic walk-out, but they obviously didn't go far, because they returned a little later, and stood outside the open door.

The objections and questions slowly turned into grievances, and they went on and on. Every time David tried to begin the proceedings, somebody else would raise a grievance. Finally, the morning was over, and we had to go. The agenda hadn't even begun.

In more than 20 years' experience of facilitation, we'd never encountered anything like this. During a post-mortem session, we reviewed what we could have done differently. In that situation: nothing. The only solution seemed to be to let them talk themselves out. But that might have taken weeks, and the deadline for tenders (and consquent restructuring) was rapidly approaching. We began to understand why the tendering agency wanted this group restructured.

Finally we decided that in a situation like this, where most people know each other, and disagree about the way forward, it was not a good idea to have 20-30 people meeting in one large room. It was like a quarrel in a large family. If this ever happens again, we thought, instead of one large workshop we'll hold several smaller ones, not mixing the different stakeholder groups.

The CEO apologized profusely to us, expressing his with the people who had "hijacked" the meeting. He admitted that he'd been on the point of walking out, when they were abusing him. The assistant manager (who we'd been working with to plan the workshops) laughed. "You wanted conflict?" he said. "You got it!" The HR manager, who'd slipped out - we assumed to answer his phone, or go to the toilet - had in fact gone back to his office. He'd been through this before, he said, and decided it was a waste of time to stay. We also discovered that A was a former CEO of the group: no wonder he had so much to say

Fortunately for the process, the dissenters had made their statement, and didn't return to the following workshops. At the other three, we made good progress - though we had to add an extra workshop at the end to make up for the lost morning.

Follow-up, 2004: the workshops were successful in the end, because the group did restructure itself to adapt to its new environment. However, our scenarios didn't foresee one dramatic change: the tendering agency itself was abolished.

Where does Why stop?

As well as having some influences on the way we'll run this kind of workshop in future, this experience made us wonder about questions beginning with Why. When anything happens, there are usually many reasons for it. If somebody keeps asking "Why?" how many different answers must you give before a neutral observer might declare that the explanation is complete? Is it even possible to count that number of answers?

Thinking about this, we created a sequence of Whys.

Why1 is a single answer, that explains everything. "Why were these workshops held?"
- Because the Board asked for them."

Why2 is a set of answers tothe same question. "Why were these workshops held?"
(a) - Because the Board asked for them.
(b) - Because the organization needs to be restructured.
(c) - Because Audience Dialogue thought this would be the best format.

Why3 is a chain of answers. "Why did were these workshops held?"
(a1) - Because the Board asked for them.
Why did the Board ask for them?
(a2) - Because the Board was under pressure to change the structure.
Why was the Board under pressure to change the structure?
...and so on. (Cf. the "5 hows and 5 whys" in TQM.)

Why4 is a set of chains of answers - such as "Why were these workshops held?"
(a1) - Because the Board asked for them.
Why did the Board ask for them?
...and so on, as above.
(b1) - Because the organization needs to be restructured.
Why does the organization need to be restructured?
(b2) - Because it is regarded as dysfunctional.
Why is it regarded as dysfunctional?
... and so on.

If you convert these arguments into diagrams, Why1 is a single pont. Why2 is a line of points. Why3 is a set of branches from a single point. Why4 is a set of branching chains. They look like this (W = a Why question)
Diagram: 4 structures of Why

The next step would be to extend Why4, with more branches coming from each point. In the above example, there might be several answers to "Why did the Board ask for them?" and several sets of answers to each of the Why questions that follow. Continuing in this way, you soon have a Why structure that looks like a real tree, with branches coming from branches coming from branches. So the complete answer to a Why question might be made up by many small answers, with the importance of each perhaps corresponding to the thickness of a tree branch. If the trunk (all reasons combined) represents 100%, each reason (like a twig) might contribute perhaps 1% of the combined answer - and all those reasons would be true. (Or maybe a better metaphor than a tree would be a river system, with each stream of reason adding its part to the total flow.)