OD SUMMIT 2003: Talk by Peter Block

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Peter Block had a weird plenary talk this morning. Although let’s face it, this is the reason that I signed up for this conference in the first place.

He talked a lot about “having a conversation that we’ve never had before” in business. Our problem, he says, often stems from being stuck in the same conversation again and again. We need a new conversation if we are going to move forward. (There was a really interesting article about conversations about strategy that was in Management Information Sciences — I think — that seems relevant. I’ll try to update sometime with the link.)

“The conversation between peers is more important than the one with the bosses.” This is similar to the ideas in Parents Don’t Matter, that after a certain point, peers matter much more than parents do. I’m not sure that I buy entirely into this but it certainly is true in many of our conversations. The important conversation is the one that you have around the water cooler, the one where you actually say what you think. Where you create the true reality of the company.

“What if you decided to change the world with just those who accepted your invitation, just those that wanted to be there?” What if? I can’t make people do things — I can coerce them, but then the moment that I leave, they will revert back to the old ways. You simply cannot bring long-term change in from the outside. Case in point: the Balkans. The communists attempted to bring in change to the ethnic strife from outside of it through force. It’s hard to think of it today, but in the sixties the idea that the Croats would have their own country was, well, tilting at windmills. Nice idea for them, but totally impossible. Of course, Zionism showed the world what the power of an impossible idea is.

“Invitation confronts people with their freedom.” When I invite people to participate in their own reality, they are forced to make a conscious choice with their eyes wide open. They can choose to join in or to sit on the side or to oppose — the choices are many and varied. But they have to make a choice.

“The mindset is that you need more tools before starting . . . You’re ready as you ever will be” right now.

COOL! “What is the hurdle that I want to embed in my invitation?” If I make doing this easy, it won’t be worth doing. My invitation must have a requirement to it, an ante, an action to get in the door. Even if it is just a conscious choice. But if I extend this hurdled invitation and they come, I must receive them!

“The fear that we have is that the people aren’t ready for the invitation.” This was in response to a woman’s question from the audience about some people in her region (east Asia) not being ready for this. Block brought up Franco Spain, where Franco always said that the people weren’t ready for democracy, but somehow they were just months after he died. I recalled that line from Ghandi where the British were saying that if they left, the Indians would make mistakes. “Yes,” replied Ghandi, “but they would be our mistakes.” Indeed. We like to be in control of our own destiny. Paternalism is an affront, a wrong, a sin against man and God.

“No has to be possible.” Give people their “NO” against you. No is an act of volition, an act of the mind that engages the will. Related is Jim Camp’s Start With No on how to negotiate like a pro. In the end, these interventions are really negotiations. Starting with “no” is a good idea. “Saying no is part of a commitment conversation,” said Block.

“Most executives think that they have to answer complaints. . . Get people to express dissent and doubt but don’t answer it”, don’t do anything about it, don’t take care of them. I love his passage from The Answer to How is Yes where he says that if you wake up at 3:15 AM and can’t get back to sleep, good for you! You’ve gotten your freedom back! And it’s so true.

“What is your contribution to what you are complaining about?” So, why does this work for me that my INFOSEC bosses marginalized me and gave me crappy work to do? But, he points out, you can’t start with that question because it is too threatening. And I’m going to write a book with it in the title.

His “process”:

  • Invitation: You may have been sent, but I will let you stay by choice. “We’re going to take a break in 10 minutes, and any of you that want to leave, can. If you come back, you choose to be here.” If you choose, I can negotiate so that we create the future together, rather than you being passive recipients.

  • Stop the old conversation.

  • Choose the question — confron freedom. Conversation with peers changes my world.

  • Affirm the community experience. Break them into threes and have them talk about what matters.

Of course, people didn’t come to the meeting. “I don’t want to meet their expectations — they’re too low!”

Recommend reading materials:
Flawless Consulting, 2nd Edition. Peter Block. The second edition is greatly updated.
Start With No. Jim Camp. Great complement by a more aggressive person.
The Answer To How is Yes. Peter Block. The book that more than anything else got me thinking about what I really wanted, about how much I didn’t want to work at INFOSEC as I had gotten into it.

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