A POSTMODERN APPROACH TO
Harlene Anderson & J. Paul Burney
approach to consultation is collegial and egalitarian. It is the
framework for a partnership in which consultant and client combine
expertise to explore their dilemmas and challenges and develop new
possibilities for resolving them. Whether we work with individuals or a
group, members of a family or an organization, our collaborative
approach remains the same (Anderson, 1997, 1990; Anderson & Goolishian,
1987; Anderson & Goolishian, 1988; Anderson & Swim, 1995; Goolishian &
Anderson, 1987). In organizational consultation, the approach is a way
of integrating people and business strategies in building pathways to
change and success. In this paper we describe and illustrate this
postmodern approach to thinking about, and working with, human systems
and the problems they present.
its simplest form, postmodernism refers to an ideological critique that
departs radically from modernist traditions in its questioning of the
mono‑voice modernist discourse as the overarching foundation of
literary, political, and social thinking. Although there is no one
postmodernism, in general the postmodern discourse challenges the
singular modernist notions of‑ knowledge as objective and fixed; the
knower and knowledge as independent of each other; language as
representing truth and reality; and human nature as universal (Derrida,
1978; Foucault, 1972; Foucault, 1980; Lyotard, 1984; Ricoeur, 1983;
Rorty, 1979). Consequently, the postmodern perspective challenges the
technical and instrumental nature of consultation and the notion of the
consultant as the expert on organizational culture. It favors, rather,
ideas of: the construction of knowledge as social; knowledge as fluid;
the knower and knowledge as interdependent; and thus knowledge as
relational and the multiplicity of truths. Said differently, knowledge,
and language as a vehicle for creating knowledge, are the products of
view human systems as language and meaning generating systems, in
which people create understanding and knowledge with each other
through communicative action (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988; Goolishian &
Anderson, 1988). Communicative action involves dialogue within a system
for which the particular communication has relevance. An organization
is one kind of language and meaning generating system that has a
relevance specific to itself. For organizations seeking consultation,
our relevant role is to join them as they seek a solution to a problem.
From a postmodern perspective, then, organizational consultation is a
linguistic event that involves and takes place in a particular kind of
conversational process, a dialogue. Dialogue, the essence of the
process, entails shared inquiry' a mutual search and exploration
between client and consultant, as well as among the client system
members into their narratives about the organization and its members
(Anderson, 1995). The shared inquiry is fluid, and it encourages new
ideas and viewpoints to be advanced in the
and consultant, and client system members, become conversational
partners in the telling, inquiring, interpreting, and shaping of the
Dialogical conversation involves both internal and external dialogues
as people talk with themselves and with each other. We contrast
dialogical and monological conversations. By monological we mean those
conversations in which people are talking to each other rather than
with each other, in which one idea or a group of ideas dominate the
space, and in which no newness occurs (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988).
The internal dialogue consists of a person's internal unformed, and
forming, thoughts and ideas. In this process possibilities come from
within and are generated in, and through, the inherent and creative
aspects of language, dialogue, and narrative. Transformation occurs
within such a collaborative process as the participants generate and
explore multiple descriptions, stories, and perspectives. That is,
through dialogue, through the evolution of shifting, clarifying, and
expanding meanings and understandings, and as a natural consequence of
it, new narratives and new possibilities emerge. We think of this
newness as self‑agency; the ability to act, or to feel that we are
capable of acting, to handle our dilemmas in a competent and autonomous
consultants, our aim, expertise, and responsibility is to create a
dialogical space, a metaphorical space providing sufficient freedom for
individuals to explore ideas, and to facilitate a dialogical process.
How does the consultant achieve this aim? We assume what we refer to as
a philosophical stance a way of being in relationship with, thinking
about, acting with, and responding to people (Anderson, 1995, 1997). It
is a way of being that serves as the backdrop for the conversation. The
stance is characterized by an attitude of openness to, respect for,
curiosity about, and connection with the other. It entails
flexibility and willingness to follow the client's ranking of what is
most important to him or her. Although as consultants, we may initially
have a structure or outline for the consultation ‑ a stepping stone
toward the process ‑ we do not operate from a set agenda of our own or
with preconceived ideas concerning the direction the conversation
should take, or what its outcome would be. Any idea about the format or
direction of the consultation is tentative, and we are poised to change
it at any time. The task is to create and continue the dialogue and
discover with the client what is significant.
most critical aspect of this stance is not‑knowing (Anderson &
Goolishian, 1988). Not‑knowing refers to the assumption that we
do not know what is best for the other person or how they ought to be
conducting their business. We do not suggest that we are tabulae rasae,
but rather that what we do know, or what we think we know, is only one
perspective that is always open to challenge. Nor do we imply that if
someone were to ask us a question we would not respond. The difference
is in the manner in which, and the intent with which, we would respond.
The consultant's not‑knowing invites members of the client group
to be the teachers, the experts on the circumstances of the
consultation, and it naturally acts to involve them in a shared inquiry
with us and with each other. Shared inquiry only happens, however, when
the consultant's curiosity maintains coherence with clients and is not
too far removed from their experience (Anderson, 1993; Anderson &
Goolishian, 1992). Questions asked from a stance of not‑knowing,
for instance, should not cause the client to be distracted from his or
her train of thought.
consultants we are more curious and interested in each person's
ideas about his or her organization and the manner in which it operates
than in proposing our own ideas. This is not to say that we will not
offer reflections on ideas and thoughts when asked by the client for
feedback or opinions. Our ideas and thoughts, however, are set forth in
a manner that allows the client to consider them and to correct us if
they are not consistent with the client's point of view. We offer our
contributions tentatively, with genuine interest and a desire to hear
more of the client's narrative concerning the organization's dilemmas
and challenges, including the client's expectations of the
conversational style and attitude entails a natural curiosity about the
client's dilemmas and a desire to acquire understanding. We listen
actively to the narrative being presented to ensure we have not
misunderstood, and we continuously check out what we think we have
heard. By asking conversational questions in a manner that encourages
the client to say more about the subject being discussed and by
verifying rather than assuming that what we think we have heard is what
the client wanted us to hear, we explore the client's part in the
conversation. Conversational questions are questions that are
informed both by what has been said, as well as what has
not‑yet‑been‑said. The intent is not to receive an answer, steer in a
direction, or create a narrative that we deem more useful or correct
than the one we are hearing. The intent is to learn, explore, and
clarify the client's narrative in a manner that enhances the dialogue.
At the same time we know that the context of the consultation, the
manner in which it is conducted, the client's intent, and the
experiences and prejudices we bring to the consultation are all
variables that influence our curiosity and the style, choice, and type
of our questions.
a consultant assumes this stance, consultation is changed from an
archeological, hierarchical, and interventionist relationship between
an expert and nonexpert to a collaborative, egalitarian,
and mutual endeavor by people with different types of expertise. Client
members who view themselves as important parts of the dynamic process
of change become actively and enthusiastically engaged. Consultants
become facilitators of the dialogue regarding the concerns of the
client instead of experts expected to provide solutions. As we become
conversational partners with our client, the dialogue brings forth new
ways of thinking and acting regarding dilemmas, problem solving,
communications, relationships, and ourselves as individuals.
this kind of process the consultant is also at risk of changing. In our
experience, the approach is a philosophical one; the consultant's
beliefs and biases are not only part of the consultant's professional
work, they become a way of being in our professional and personal
lives. Our approach frees us to work in a variety of organizational
settings, with individuals and groups, without regard to gender,
culture, or type of dilemma. Interestingly, we have found that, in a
sense, our stance models new and alternative ways for client system
members to be with each other, even though modeling is not our
this paper we present a narrative of our consultation with Friendly
Travel, a corporate client, as illustration of the collaborative
inquiry process. We hope to show how the consultation set a
collaborative tone, and how it provided the opportunity for multiple,
criss‑crossing dialogues, by which the client system's members
collaboratively defined their dilemmas and created possibilities for
addressing them. We hope also to show the evolution of newness through
collaboration and shared inquiry, and how it was peculiar to the
Organizational setting and history of
We were invited to
provide a consultation of seven and a half‑hours to a small
organization in the travel‑tourism industry, to address issues of
communication and interpersonal staff relationships, and to help create
a more cohesive, effective team. The client organization is a
full‑service resource provider to individuals, businesses, and
organizations in a small recreational, agricultural community in Texas
that has as its market a larger, countywide suburban residential and
technological business community. The company has one owner and 17
employees, all of them women. The agency has one main office and two
member of the consulting team is an acquaintance of the owner who, in
previous conversations, discussed some of the internal and external
dilemmas she was experiencing in her organization. The internal
changes the client wanted to make concerned interpersonal relationships
between staff and enhanced service to her customers. She expressed
ideas about building the foundations for a better team and developing
connectedness within her organization. In her words:
The dominant culture of the airline industry
has had a major impact on us. The negativity directed at us, as travel
agents, from the airlines, and the continuous change in the industry,
has caused us to be reactive instead of proactive. We need to find a
way to circumvent it.
Not only did this represent a major dilemma for
her company, but its current structure and employee relationships, she
believed, did not allow the agency to address such issues successfully.
owner expressed interest in a day‑long consultation that might be
somewhat different from one conducted by a consultant retained by the
organization in the past. She said she hoped that plans could be
formulated that would be helpful to her and her employees individually
and to the organization as a whole. She warned, however, that the
employees, 'would be reluctant because of the negative experience with
the previous consultant, and resistant about attending on their day
owner has a high profile in her community; she volunteers a large
portion of her time to civic organizations such as the County Fair
Association, Performing Arts Society, Chamber of Commerce, American
Cancer Society, and she serves on the board of directors of the local
community college. Part of her motivation is that she is known as a
talented, energetic, and well‑respected business person in the
community, someone who can get things done. Another consideration is
that community involvement is personally rewarding and makes good
business sense. The organization is uniquely positioned in a
continually changing industry that requires rapid response, and leaves
little time for proactive measures.
The structure of the consultation
Our consultation began
with an interview with the owner and discussion of her objectives. The
consultants then discussed the structure of the consultation day, and
confirmed it with the owner. It was to consist of introductions,
opening comments, an experiential activity, partner interviews, small
and large group discussions, and reflective conversations. Ninety days
later a follow‑up interview by one of the consultants with the owner
led to plans for a second consultation.
Conversation with the owner: shared
A consulting team
member met with the owner before the group consultation to determine
how the consultants might help her and what she hoped to accomplish. By
introducing the client to the collaborative inquiry process, their
initial meeting began the consultation. The consultant set the stage
for collaboration by inviting the owner as the expert, to participate
in a conversation about her organization and its dilemmas (Anderson,
1993). The consultant's inquiries concerned the focus of her business,
her main objectives and special challenges, as well as what she
considered to be her organization's strengths and weaknesses.
the initial conversation we learned that her primary goal was to 'build
a better team that gets along and works together more efficiently'. She
characterized her organization's current dilemma as 'disorganization'.
She felt her organization's greatest weakness was 'our lack of
teamwork'. This affected the organization internally through employee
relationships and organizational structure, as well as externally, by
making it less responsive to the requirements of clients and the
travel‑tourism industry. A more efficient team would help the owner
accomplish three main objectives: to increase overall business,
streamline internal operations, and expand meeting and convention
business. The organization's strengths were, she said, 'Our knowledge
and personal attention to our customers' concerns and our longevity in
the business'. The employees were knowledgeable, and they devoted a
great deal of personal attention to each customer's needs. Their
services had, in fact, become so individually tailored that they
thought of the organization's customers as 'my clients'. The owner's
attempts at changing this attitude had been unsuccessful because of the
staff's concerns that change in their customer service would affect the
quality of their product. Thus, an asset, concentration on
individuality, had become a liability.
The consultation day
An important consideration for the consultants is
the manner in which to begin the consultation day, so that the staff
will understand that the day's interchange depends on their input. We
want to begin by continuing to position ourselves collaboratively, and
to generate ideas publicly, with the staff as we did with the owner.
We, therefore, gave some thought beforehand as how to introduce
ourselves to the group and present what we knew, at that time, about
their organization and its problems. In our experiences, our
relationship with the consultees (in this situation, the staff) begins
before we even meet them. They develop ideas about us, make assumptions
about our agenda, and have expectations of us. We want to position
ourselves, talk and act in ways, that may dispel any preconceived
assumptions that attribute private agendas to us or that place us in
authoritative roles. In other words, we want to behave unexpectedly
with their expectations. We want to create a different reputation than
the one they have constructed.
consultants introduced themselves briefly, discussed their experience,
and expressed their enthusiasm for the opportunity of working with the
group. We shared what we had learned from the conversation with the
owner about the internal problems of teamwork and communication and the
external problems with the travel‑tourism industry, as we understood
them. We also expressed our wish that the group would use the
consultation day in a manner that would be most helpful and productive
for them. We presented the nonexpert concept: as consultants we were
not experts who knew the solutions to their dilemmas but were present
as collaborative partners in a process of mutual discovery 'a process
we do with you rather than to you' (Anderson, 1990; Anderson, 1993;
Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). Ideally, the process would generate new
thoughts and useful ideas for their organization.
Then we asked the owner to share her version of the history that
preceded the consultation day, her agenda, and her hope. She briefly
summarized the first 'official' consultation conversation and discussed
the organization's previous consulting experience, acknowledging
publicly her view that it had not been helpful or productive. The
previous consultant had lectured them about 'what was wrong' and 'what
needed to be done', rather than addressing their specific concerns. The
owner also acknowledged the resentment experienced by many of the staff
about scheduling the consultation on a nonworking day, since many staff
members were vocal when they arrived about 'being here on my day off
because the owner signs my paycheck'. She expressed her expectation to
the staff that this consultation would be different. She presented her
ideas, as told to the consultant, about their shared organizational
dilemmas. We invited the staff members to introduce themselves and to
discuss 'why they were here' and what they hoped to gain from the
Several elements were important in setting the stage for the
collaborative inquiry process. First, the consultants' introduction was
nonhierarchical in manner, and it included their understanding of the
organization's dilemmas and expectations for their consultation, based
on the conversation with the owner. The consultants' role was one of
inquiry about the situation, rather than expertise. As facilitators we
hoped to initiate a process of discovery, exploring innovative ideas
that might prove beneficial to the organization, rather than providing
solutions to the organization's problems. Second, the owner, in her
brief introduction, discussed the reasons for the consultation, her
belief that it would be different from a previous, unsuccessful one,
and that the consultants' collaborative style would benefit the
organization. Third, the owner presented her perceptions of the
organization's concerns to the group, emphasizing that they may or may
not match those of the other group members. Fourth, the invitation to
staff members to introduce themselves, to state why they were present
and what they hoped to gain from the consultation, helped to initiate
the collaborative inquiry process. In our opening greeting we had
acknowledged that some were there under duress and expressed our
appreciation of the inconvenience and their annoyance. Some in
introducing themselves reiterated their displeasure, but all expressed
a desired goal for the consultation, ranging from interpersonal aspects
to technical and pragmatic ones.
aim in using the collaborative inquiry philosophy is to create a
dialogical space and stimulate conversation focused on hypotheses set
forth by the client (Anderson, 1995). That is, we are interested in the
individual group member's hypotheses about her or his organization,
rather than in hypotheses of our own. In our experience, the
collaborative manner in which participants are encouraged to express
their ideas and opinions differs from the organization's usual
hierarchical operational style. Clients report that this process allows
them to feel freer to express themselves and to be creative, thus
leading to possibilities where there seemed to be none before and to
more productive outcomes.
Experiential activity~ group juggle
We chose an
experiential activity we hoped would be inviting and aid the client
in developing a different style of team communication. Designed to
be enjoyable while also allowing the group to become more relaxed
mentally and physically, the activity increased the possibilities for
interaction within the group. Experiential activity and physical
movement can be effective stimuli in engaging participants and
providing an opportunity to be open, active, and creative. Activity is
also a basis for discussing important aspects of communication, such as
focus, concentration, and the ability to listen effectively.
Experiential activities effectively set the collaborative tone: members
of the group participate on an equal basis, instead of the clients
participating as a group and consultants observing as outsiders (Fluegelman,
group was asked to stand in a circle as one of the consultants placed
10 balls in the center of the floor. Asked to throw the balls to one
another, they began by throwing balls indiscriminately while dropping
most of them. They described their first reactions to the activity as
'total chaos'. The consultant then addressed one of the participants
and, gently, threw the ball to her. After she had caught the ball, she
was asked to name another group member and throw the ball in the same
manner. The sequence continued until everyone in the circle had caught
and tossed many balls.
consultant asked, 'How many balls do you think you can toss around the
circle without dropping any? A discussion ensued about setting a
realistic number, and the group attempted, rather unsuccessfully, to
juggle three balls. As the discussion continued, the group suggested
changes that could be made to improve their
performance. In their
next attempt, the group successfully juggled three balls around the
circle and gave themselves a round of applause.
Asked about this change in performance, the participants said that
communicating what they needed from each other and group concentration
had made the attempt successful. The consultant challenged the group to
use their new knowledge and repeat the game with a, new goal concerning
the number of balls. They agreed on 10 balls. When the activity ended,
there were 13 objects in the middle of the circle, including a rubber
chicken, a bat, and an alligator. This time the group achieved their
goal very effectively. The activity was fast‑paced, and the
introduction of the last three objects caused a lot of spontaneous
laughter and confusion.
Each participant then had the opportunity to reflect on her impressions
of the experience. The introduction of new elements in the activity,
and the effect on group effort, led to a. discussion concerning the
organization's styles of communication, which they felt may take place
in unanticipated ways. One member commented that no one had been able
individually to juggle three balls, but together they had juggled 13
objects. Ongoing, effective communication had allowed the group to
accomplish more than any one individual could do, and it had allowed
the introduction of new and unexpected elements. Experiential
exercises, as physical metaphors,
illustrated concepts of effective communications and
teamwork for the group.
The group members were
asked to form teams of two and to interview their partners. They were
asked for their initial responses to four questions: Why are you here?
What do you hope to leave with? What do you see as your organization's
primary dilemma? and What do you see as your organization's primary
strength? Two other questions were optional: What do you think people
need to know about you? and What misunderstandings do you think people
have about you?
Each team member introduced her partner to the group and reported the
partner's responses. Each respondent was encouraged to listen and
reflect on the manner in which her partner presented her answers and to
hear how the partner interpreted and expressed her answers. Throughout
the day the consultants recorded each team's responses on a 24 ins x 36
ins pad displayed for the other group members. Recording discussions
for the group to see highlighted the fact that the consultants listened
carefully to the group members' comments. The group members had the
opportunity to see as well as hear the responses, which were referred
to during subsequent discussions and provided the group with permanent
notes about the consultation.
important part of the collaborative inquiry philosophy is that,
throughout the consultation, information is publicly shared. The
partner interviews allow team members to develop and share ideas about
the organization and their expectations concerning the consultation.
Many group members had concerns about 'being criticized,' or 'fixed'
(meaning, nothing would change), and that 'only the owner's ideas would
This type of activity has several other advantages. The participants
are eased into working together in a new fashion by starting, in pairs,
with a small activity rather than a large group‑oriented one. However,
they become comfortable in presenting ideas to the group by introducing
their partners and his or her ideas, rather than first discussing their
Small Group Inquiry
We began the Small
Group Inquiry by dividing the clients into three groups and asking each
group to spend 30 minutes discussing six questions: What is the
organization's number‑one dilemma? How does it work against the
effectiveness of the organization? What factors contribute to this
dilemma? How have you tried to resolve this dilemma? What needs to be
done to resolve this dilemma? and How would the organization be more
effective if this dilemma were resolved?
consultants asked the participants to think of the questions as a
springboard from which to generate and develop ideas, as well as an
opportunity to brainstorm about possibilities. The owner was asked to
move among the groups as a silent observer for two reasons: to give the
participants the opportunity to talk without her involvement, and to
allow her to listen to the discussions first‑hand, because it is
difficult to recreate the richness of a conversation.
Small group members enthusiastically shared their answers to the
questions with the whole group. Group I stated that their primary
dilemmas were 'communication and a lack of leadership.' Group 11 said
their problems were 'a lack of communication throughout the
organization, the unavailability of management, and a lack of personal
responsibility.' Group III listed their dilemmas as the attitudes of
their clients, co‑workers, themselves, their employer, their families,
and the consequence to the organization's effectiveness. Group III also
stated that effectiveness was diminished by leaving problems
unaddressed and unresolved, which 'leads to conflicts, frustration, and
confusion resulting in errors, anger, and negative attitudes'.
groups described a number of factors that, they believed, contributed
to the dilemmas: 'a lack of respect for each other', 'inconsistency in
leadership', 'failure to follow through on tasks', 'fear of reprisal',
'negativity', and 'rudeness'. They also expressed concerns that
management did not spend enough time on‑site with them and that
personnel training was inadequate. Staff meetings were the usual mode
of resolving dilemmas, but there was no follow‑through on proposed
solutions, which, ultimately, led to an avoidance of the issues. They
concluded that what was needed was 'consistent leadership', 'training',
'realistic policies', 'rules', 'structure' and 'more positive
interaction'. They stated that positive change and reinforcement
needed to start at the management level and filter down. If they were
able to resolve their dilemmas, they said, the organization would
become more productive and efficient, which would lead to better
understanding and a more pleasant, helpful work environment. Developing
confidence and unity in the office would result in improved customer
service, they said.
short, impressionistic answers given to the questions by the small
groups introduced multiple perspectives on topics of importance to the
organization. The Small Group Inquiry provides the opportunity for
multiple voices as well as the individual's voice to be heard, and it
encourages participants to engage in their own conversations concerning
the organization. This process initiates conversations for the larger
group process, and it dramatizes the importance of group members'
presentation of their ideas and solutions while the owner and the
consultants listen (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992).
Ideas about the dilemmas, initially generated by
the small group inquiry, were expanded during the large group
reflection. The discussion created the opportunity for generative
conversations. The participants were invited to think about the various
suggestions offered by the small groups, and to
find common threads and similarities, as well as distinct ' ions among
the groups. A great deal of comment concerned communication, primarily
the lack of open communication within the organization. The small
groups also stated that there were 'too many
chiefs'; they felt 'understaffed and stressed'; there was 'pettiness
and jealousy', along with 'negative attitudes and a few combative
While engaged in the collaborative inquiry process, our experience
has been that individuals described as 'resistant' or 'combative'
in their personal relationships often change, very quickly, to a
response characterized by openness, and that they communicate without
fear of reprisal. The open and nonhierarchical manner in which the
consultants began the workshop and their continuing collaborative
stance was a critical factor in creating a safe environment in which
people talked and related with each other openly and in a manner that
was more synchronic and less discordant. In our experience, at this
level of open communicating and relating, people invariably readily
engage in the process with enthusiasm. Even those members, who in the
beginning expressed strong resentment about the consultation, were
eagerly adding in their thoughts, opinions, and questions. As the
group's agenda evolved, perceptions of problems and interpersonal
relations began to change, with participants reporting 'feeling
respected', 'being heard', and 'taken seriously'.
large group reflections generated many ideas concerning dilemmas:
lack of effective communication, lack of responsibility, lack of
adequate continuous training, 'turf (or territorial) issues, and
management issues. Group members identified the lack of effective
communication within their organization, with their clients, and with
the industry as their primary concern.
group members expressed a need for consistent information open to
everyone. Poor communication, in their words, 'creates a hesitancy to
ask or answer questions'. In one employee's words, 'I have a fear of
asking questions because of reprisal'. The group members characterized
this dilemma as the cause of 'pressure and stress contributing to
decisions being made in crisis'.
Problems in coordinating the agency's activities from three separate
locations were identified as another factor in the overall lack of
communication. Some office locations received company mail, memoranda,
and tickets on a timely basis while others did not. They described the
agency's interoffice communications system 'as if everything fell into
a black hole'; information was not received in a systematic or timely
manner. The lack of effective communication resulted in 'no
follow‑through on tasks', 'a lack of respect for each other', and
'expectations being unfulfilled'.
Several group members
talked about the influence on the staff of the owner's involvement in
charitable and civic organizations. Some ideas expressed in group
discussions were that 'she (the owner) works better under pressure, but
some of us do not,' and that 'when she is pressured, it affects all of
us.' The added pressure of upcoming community events was also expressed
as 'a dread of the Cattle Barons' Ball or the Chamber of Commerce
hectic atmosphere prevailed in the offices, and 'just do it' was the
staff's attitude and approach to tasks. They characterized the
organization as one that had grown in response to the community's
demands for service, not necessarily as the result of an opportunity to
develop a long‑term strategic plan.
staff struggled with aspects of team cooperation while dealing with the
practical dilemmas of systems hardware, communication, and the internal
operations of the organization. The staff characterized the
'feeding‑frenzy' environment as contributing to a 'contagious' attitude
of individuals treating others with little regard or respect for
boundaries. The staff had trouble with issues of relationship
integrity, while communication was indirect, instead of direct, open,
and inclusive. Adding to the 'contagious' attitude were pressures from
the travel‑tourism industry and the organization's clients.
staff members' conversations identified concerns and insecurities about
'turf, (or territory), fear of losing their clients to the
'organization,' and they raised such questions as: 'Whose clients are
they? Do the clients belong to us (the employees) or are they Friendly
Another area identified as problematic was a
lack of responsibility in
implementing procedures concerning client relations. Who had the
authority to implement procedures was unclear to the staff. They also
discussed a lack of compassion and acceptance among staff members
regarding different personalities and work styles.
Among management issues the group identified inadequate policies,
procedures, and job descriptions, all of which, they believed, resulted
in multiple and overlapping responsibilities and thus confusion. The
staff characterized the management team as being unavailable and the
chain of command and responsibility as being blurred. They raised
questions about the management team's inability to take time to listen
patiently to their concerns and suggestions.
allow her more time to pursue other interests, the owner had appointed
a manager for each office to supervise daily operations. The entire
group agreed that an individual staff member's relationship with the
owner was of great importance. Concern about the underlying sense of
competition was expressed by the comment, 'Everyone wants to be the
They described inadequate training as hindering new employees from
being easily incorporated into the organization's work force. The
absence of continuous training for the staff made it difficult to stay
current on changing policies within the organization and with the
dynamics of the travel‑tourism industry. Despite unanimous agreement on
this issue, it had gone unresolved for more than two years.
large group reflections and
about ideas initiated the process of conceptualizing possible
solutions to the group's dilemmas. In a collaborative consultation,
solutions develop and evolve continually. The solutions the group
determined to be most effective for their organization were the
end‑result of the process, and they are presented later in the article.
inquiry process, introduced during the early stages of the
consultation, tends to create a conversational attitude, so that
informal discussions continue during breaks, at lunch, and over coffee
throughout the day. Group members reflect on various ideas that surface
during informal conversations, and they often bring their insight to
the larger group discussions.
During the lunch break, with the group members listening, the
consultants reflected with each other on the morning's activities and
brainstormed about the afternoon (Andersen, 1991; Andersen, 1995;
Anderson & Goolishian, 1991). By talking openly, we allow clients
access to our thoughts, shared ideas, and discussions, reinforcing the
collaborative aspect of the team's reflections. There were no secrets
about our impressions of the organization and the staffs concerns.
afternoon began with an As If group activity, whose content had evolved
from the lunch‑break conversation.
The As If group
The As If group
activity and discussion stimulates an awareness of thought processes
and invites the participants to voice their ideas (Anderson, 1990;
Anderson & Goolishian, 1990; Anderson & Rambo, 1988; St. George,
unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, 1994). The As If
group's multiplicity of perspectives mirrors that of an individual who,
at any given time, may think about many, often contradictory, ideas.
individual, while engaged in the act of listening, is concurrently
engaged in an inner dialogue.
The group activity
provides participants an opportunity to:
1. develop awareness of how each participant in the organization
experiences and thinks about various dilemmas;
2. experience the diversity of individual perceptions and points of
view; discuss ideas in a public forum instead of an exclusive or
private setting; experience shifts or changes in perspectives;
3. experience the style and types of questions or comments that invite
conversation, while becoming aware of the types of statements that cut
it off (Anderson, 1990; Anderson & Goolishian, 1990; Anderson & Rambo,
1988; St. George, unpublished dissertation, 1994).
dilemmas would be presented, the group decided that the owner
would present a dilemma to the As If groups from her view of the
situation. The participants, organized into three groups again, were
asked to listen as if they were members of one of the following groups:
the travel‑tourism industry, the organization's clients, or the
organization's staff. They were asked to listen while placing on hold
any emerging ideas, questions, or comments.
As If groups were asked to talk about the presented dilemma, pose
questions, and offer suggestions or advice they thought might speed
its resolution. The owner moved among the groups and listened. Each
group then shared a synopsis of the group members' discussion of the
dilemma from the various As If perspectives of industry, clients, or
staff. The owner and the other two groups listened without questions or
comments. After each group concluded its report, the other participants
reflected on what they had heard. Thus, the As If groups were a
catalyst for the large group process; they generated a wealth of
information and led to a spirited discussion of solutions, including
establishment of short‑term goals and the proposal of a new business
structure for the organization, all developed solely from the
The As If exercise
solidified a shift in focus from problems to possibilities. In the
general discussion that followed, the participants generated various
ideas about their goals and possible strategies for initiating change
in their organization. They developed specific ideas about job
descriptions, training manuals, policies and procedures,
communication, and changes in the organizational structure. They
characterized their solutions as new beginnings for their organization.
Several participants were 'astounded by the openness and freedom of
expressing our ideas', and said that 'she (the owner) listened to us',
They expressed a desire to create an ongoing dialogue with their
co‑workers and 'the boss'.
determined that an organizational structure was needed that specified
individual responsibilities and levels of decision‑making authority.
They proposed a new structure in which the owner would have the 'final
say', while other responsibilities would be delegated to three managers
who would report directly to her. The managers would be responsible for
accounting, personnel, and training. The new structure would also
create two divisions in the agency, one for leisure travel and related
activities, the other for corporate and convention business.
Plans were discussed to develop job descriptions and training manuals,
as well as organizational policies and procedures, telephone technique
improvement, and more effective communication with each other and their
clients. The group members expressed the unified opinion that the
organization needed a technologically updated communication system, and
that personal interactions needed more attention. All believed that the
proposed improvements and shared recommendations would increase the
organization's productivity and profitability. As one person expressed
it, 'Friendly Travel would become Friendlier Travel.'
Reflective conversation with the owner
Afterwards one of the
consultants engaged the owner in a reflective conversation about her
thoughts, the information generated by the group, and her experience of
the consultation as a whole. The reflective conversation was not
intended to be an evaluation of the consultation day, but it is an
aspect of the collaborative inquiry process of sharing thoughts in a
public, inclusive fashion (Andersen, 1991; Andersen, 1995).
this case, the interview was spontaneous rather than planned. While one
of the consultants talked to the owner, the group members were asked to
listen without comment. Often this process creates new awareness for
the interviewee, the group members, and the consultants. The owner
responded during the interview that, 'I was amazed by the great ideas,
the group's enthusiasm, and how helpful and freeing the experience has
consultation day was concluded as each participant voiced her ideas
about the owner's reflections and the day in general. The owner and
consultants offered closing comments as well. Several participants
mentioned their initial resistance to the consultation: 'I did not want
to come today, but am glad I did because it was totally different from
my expectations', and 'Even though I had to come on my day off, it was
worth the effort'. The participants described the day as passing
quickly, and that the experiential exercise had created the opportunity
to view dilemmas in the office in a different way. Several comments
concerned the experiential activity and that 'It has been a while since
we've laughed and had fun together'. The participants had enjoyed the
enthusiasm and 'moving around rather than sitting and being lectured'.
They expressed amazement at the wealth of information produced in a
short time and mentioned the open and nonjudgmental way the consultants
had related to the group.
Several participants discussed new impressions of their co‑workers. The
consultation had allowed them to relate to one another in a new
way, outside the office, and this, they felt, would carry over when
they returned to work. They also discussed the ways the group members
had communicated with one another. The owner expressed her appreciation
to the consultants 'for their time and efforts in making the day a
unique and helpful experience' and thanked the group 'for doing a great
consultants commented on the amount of information the group had
generated in collaborative conversations and 'our continuing
fascination with the process'. They remarked on the group's spirit of
enthusiasm and on the positive attitudes that had developed over the
course of the day, despite some of the participants' reluctance. The
consultants concluded the consultation by thanking the owner and the
staff for sharing their collaborative experience.
Ninety‑day follow‑up with the owner
About ninety days after
the consultation, the owner of Friendly Travel and one of the
consultants met for a follow‑up conversation. This kind of meeting is
an important continuation of the collaborative inquiry process, and an
opportunity for both client and consultants to review and reflect on
owner commented that the style of the questions and the manner in which
they were asked by the consultants had helped the group to achieve a
high level of openness. In fact, she said, 'The group has never opened
up like this before', and 'they really loved the role‑playing'.
Since the day of the workshop she has noticed a difference in the roles
staff members play in the organization. She described the employees as
being less secretive and she said that problems are now discussed with
no stigma attached to the person who brings the problem to the other's
attention. Her sense was that 'We are working smarter, showing more
consideration for one another, and seem to be on an emotional upswing'.
She also indicated that the staff seemed to appreciate her being more
open and approachable, spending more time with them, and 'showing less
partiality or favoritism'. With the exception of one person, the
employees have been more open in talking with her.
owner outlined how she has changed her role in the organization since
the consultation. She has become more active in the business, and has
reorganized her management staff while delegating more authority.
has implemented a training program, and begun to address the technical
communication problem. Two employees, both with broad expertise in
specific areas of the agency's business, have been chosen as designated
'trouble shooters'. The owner retains the final decision‑making
responsibility for all of the company's activities.
The monthly staff and
management meetings are more open and productive, the owner reported.
The staff requested that meetings be scheduled after office hours
rather than using time devoted to their clients. She said she believes
this represents a real change in her organization. The staff also
proposed eliminating guest speakers from the meetings, to devote more
time to discussing organizational matters. The staff has expressed a
new reliance on the 'support, input, and feedback' from their fellow
staff members in problem‑solving and new perspectives on 'old
problems'. Before the consultation, she said, 'if someone was snowed
under at the end of the day, at five o'clock, the others would just
leave instead of asking whether that person needed help'. Now the staff
members are more considerate of one another.
owner was impressed that 'all of the staff seem genuinely interested
in keeping the wolf away from the door,' and the agency is
generating more business for which staff members receive an 'override'
commission. She said that she has revealed to her staff, for the first
time, the total dollar amounts represented by the override commissions,
so that the managers will understand more about the organization's
financial situation. The owner now provides, monthly, each staff
member's ranking in the company's total sales, income, and commissions.
She expressed an interest in scheduling another collaborative day in
six months 'as a checking in on my staff s true feelings'.
Based on the
collaborative inquiry approach to working with organizations,
the consultants chose to operate from a nonexpert, nonhierarchical
position, applying their expertise to the art of creating a dialogical
space. They facilitated conversations concerning the client's thoughts
and ideas about various dilemmas her organization was experiencing.
Such conversations often lead to solutions created by the participants
and they usually produce meaningful and durable results. The
experiential activity encouraged both physical and mental movement,
which, in conjunction with collaborative conversations, became a
catalyst for new awareness and insight.
Setting a collaborative tone, an important part of the collaborative
inquiry's style, begins with the initial interview of the
organization's representative. The collaborative tone was reinforced by
the manner in which the consultants introduced ideas, as they
understood them, concerning the organization's dilemmas and it
facilitated continuing conversations as the consultation progressed.
Ideas and thoughts were pursued from the organization's perspective.
experiential activities, the small group inquiry and the large group
discussions, were arranged so that the participants were gradually
introduced to a nonthreatening way of generating and sharing ideas.
Such an atmosphere created an open and safe space in which dialogue
could occur, and it encouraged the participants to express their
thoughts, ideas, and suggestions without fear of ridicule or reprisal.
An important part of the process was recording the group's ideas and
suggestions, so that the information was continually available to
everyone. The As If activity was especially important in that it
provided the opportunity to listen, think, and express views from
collaborative inquiry process often creates conversation that continues
after the initial consultation. Such conversations occur among
employees informally throughout the day, over coffee or lunch, and they
continue formally during staff and management meetings. Once introduced
to a new way of communicating, organizations often discover that
conversation becomes a springboard for advancing innovative ideas and
creating solutions. As organizational members become more responsible
for implementation, and rely less on external consultants as
catalysts, the organization becomes empowered to act as its own agent
We thank Donna McVeigh
and the staff of Friendly Travel for their assistance and cooperation
in allowing us to use their consultation as an illustration for this
article. We thank R. A. Weaver for her editorial assistance.
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