Dialogos was founded in 1995 to promote the practice and development of dialogue and generative change. For two decades, these groundbreaking methodologies have helped clients around the world discover new forms of leadership and organizational transformation.
The firm traces its roots to 1990, when William Isaacs co-founded (with Peter Senge) the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT, a consortium of 25 leading companies dedicated to cross-organizational learning and change. Based on the success of this alliance, Dr. Isaacs received a major grant from the Kellogg Foundation to found and run the MIT Dialogue Project, which initiated cross-boundary conversational experiments around the world. This groundbreaking work, supported by seminal theory, would lay the practical foundation for Dialogos.
Today, Dialogos is comprised of pioneers and practitioners, consultants and coaches, project managers and thought leaders. Dialogos teams work with client organizations and complex, multi-client groups leaders around the world to transform their capabilities and catalyze change. Our principals originated many of the central techniques commonly found in successful business and consulting practices, including organizational learning, dialogue, and dialogic process consultation. These techniques inform every Dialogos engagement and are core to our practice with individual, team and organizational transformation.
Our focus for two decades has been on developing new insight, new theory and new methods for catalyzing profound change in close partnership with some of the world’s leading organizations and senior leaders.
Organizations as living systems
The work of Dialogos interweaves several diverse threads, including dialogue; systems-thinking practices and action learning; and integrative psychology. System Dynamics is a body of knowledge about systems modeling and intervention, developed originally by Jay Forrester at MIT. Structural Dynamics is an outgrowth of family systems theory applied to organizational contexts. Dialogue is a theory of thought and communication developed by David Bohm and expanded to organizational and leadership contexts by William Isaacs. Central to all of these threads of work is the concept of a “living system”—that human groups (including formal organizations) can be engaged with as alive entities in which decision-makers act in complementary patterns, but without the costs and bureaucratic inertia of top-down command-and-control management. Most efforts to make large organizations resilient and proactive fail, however, because they seek to impose a new form and stated purpose on the organization—which simply reinforces the old command-and-control style. The Dialogos work succeeds because it takes into account (and embodies in itself) the primary characteristics of living organizations:
Holographic Participation Everyone in a living organization takes part in the thinking and interaction of the whole—not just the senior-most levels, but project teams, “change” leaders, and even people who seem “resistant” or “dispensable.” Powerful patterns of influence resonate throughout the organization, not merely up and down the hierarchy. We design our initiatives to “get all the voices in the room,” to ensure people know their perspective is heard, and that all perspectives are comprehended by the decision-makers. Applying this principle involves inviting all participants in an intervention to become conscious of how they are themselves aspects of the very situation they are seeking to change “out there.” By creating generative “microcosms” within a system that model a different way of approaching problems—and a different range of behaviors that display solutions to those problems—participants collectively set something in motion that can impact the larger system.
Enfolding Coherence treats the existence of the current reality facing an individual or an organizational system as the result of a necessary set of forces and causes. While not passing judgment on whether this reality is good or bad, this principle compels us to come to a clear-sighted understanding of why things look and work as they do. It also sets the stage to enable us to design a future that reduces unintended consequences of policies and action, but working with things as they are, and not from illusions we might project about how things should or could now be.
Unfolding Potential When living systems are young, they often have a different physical form than when they are mature. An acorn doesn’t resemble an oak tree. But the form of the oak tree is ready to unfold from the acorn. Similarly, living organizations have a distinct potential form and purpose that continues to evolve as the organization grows. Discerning and following that “unfolding potential” is a matter of recognizing the context which is calling for the organization to change: the needs and priorities of existing constituents, as well as the constituents who are not yet seen as such, but on whom the organization’s future may depend. Applying this principle entails discerning not only what is possible, given the current reality, but discerning the deep potential carried in the situation, even if it is not fully yet grasped or realizable by the system as a whole. It also entails articulating the core questions actually driving behavior and passion in the setting, and then asking what is the capacity of the system to catalyze deeper potential at every level, and what might be getting in the way of that unfolding process.
Living Awareness proposes that a system’s capacity to be aware of what it is doing as it is doing it is a very high leverage change avenue. Actions included here are a systems capacity to detect and correct error and limits, the quality of reflection a system has about itself and so its capacity for conducting continuous improvement and taking generative action, and its capacity to learn from and respond in a robust manner to shocks, uncertainties and ambiguities.
Generative dialogue: producing collective intelligence
Dialogos principals are some of the world’s leading experts in the design and facilitation of generative conversation—conversation that fosters awareness and capability in the service of genuine aspiration. In this kind of facilitation we pay close attention to the quality of the conversational environment, or “container.” For example, one can deliberately create an environment where dangerous perceptions and difficult topics can be raised productively, without making people vulnerable.
Four key principles are central to our dialogue design:
Voicing Creating a place for all relevant perspectives and attitudes to be spoken so that they may be heard.
Listening Attention to the spoken and unspoken nature of the conversation and the “acoustics” of the space in the room.
Respecting The acknowledgement of the value of differences and participants’ identities.
Suspending Willingness to raise and consider assumptions and perceptions without being bound by them.
The five disciplines of the learning organization
Our work also draws upon the five organizational “learning disciplines,” popularized by Peter Senge, that form the basis of a growing practice for individual, team and organizational development. The underlying premise is that “real-world” results are more effectively achieved, especially when flexibility is needed, by galvanizing authentic human commitment. Skillful practice of these five learning disciplines has long been a backdrop to the work of Dialogos:
Personal mastery Articulating individual aspiration while fostering keener awareness of existing challenges.
Mental models Uncovering the “theories in use” and mindsets that govern behavior.
Shared vision Designing processes that elicit the common aspirations that can spark extraordinary behavior.
Team learning Learning to transcend barriers and reach beyond agreement to genuine alignment and effectiveness in teams.
Systems thinking Learning to see recurring interrelationships in complex environments and thus intervene more effectively.