Deborah and the Starlings – Chapter 8

“I love a good curry,” Deborah remarked, expertly scooping up the last of her dal makhani with the remaining pratha. “This place is amazing!”

Jack nodded distractedly in agreement, his attention being largely focused on the last of the dahi vada on his plate. “I could not agree more.”

Deborah sipped her tea contentedly. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to compare notes on the work that you have been doing with the team over these past weeks.” She paused for a moment. “I realize that the conversations that you have had with us as individuals are held in confidence. What I’m interested in is how you are feeling about our progress as a team in learning to dialogue.”

Jack smiled. “Since you know that I’m going to answer you with a question, let me come right out and ask it. What are you noticing?”

“The tools you’ve given us are amazing. The Ladder of Inference, the Left Hand/Right Hand Column exercise, the Life-Frame, Polarity Mapping, Double Loop Learning, we are using them all of the time now. I’m constantly surprised how powerful each one is and how they reinforce one another.”

Jack nodded. “Can you give me an example of how they have helped all of you to move from discussion to dialogue?”

Deborah thought for a moment. “Hmm, there are a lot of examples that I could use. Here’s one. Remember that session we had last month, the one where we were stuck trying to figure out how to respond to a change in strategic direction?”

Jack nodded. In that meeting the Starlings had been as acrimonious as he had ever seen them.

“After you left Harshad suggested that we take 15 minutes to go through a Left Hand/Right Hand Column exercise as individuals and then come back together and walk collectively through a Ladder of Inference exercise as a team.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “That’s a powerful combination.”

“It worked!” Deborah’s eyes sparkled at the memory. “When we started walking through the Ladder of Inference I opened by sharing some of the assumptions and judgments in my Left Hand Column – even some of the stuff that I was a little apprehensive about sharing.”

“May I ask for an example?”

“For example, the fear that this whole team coaching thing was going to prove useless and that my credibility and reputation as a leader were going to be ruined.”

“That took courage,” Jack acknowledged, “what happened after that?”

“It seemed to open a door for everyone else to get real. We were able to share our deeper concerns about what we were facing and our potential responses. We came to realize that we were each responding to our own individual assumptions about what we were facing. When we were able to move “down the ladder”, to use your term, and work with the objective facts of the situation we all seemed to be able to think more creatively. We were able to come up with some new ideas that we were all enthusiastic about.”

“I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Oh, and another thing,” Deborah went on, “we’ve had this tension from the beginning between what I call the creative thinkers and the project planners. You know what I mean. The creative thinkers want to keep exploring possibilities and the project planners want to get everything nailed down as soon as possible.”

“That’s a common issue on teams. What have you done about it?”

“After you gave us that presentation on Polarity Mapping we realized that what we were facing was a textbook example of a polarity.” Deborah shook her head at the memory. “We worked through a Polarity Map of the issue. It helped us to realize that there was no right answer and it gave us a way to think about and dialogue about the issue. We refer to it all the time whenever the issue arises – which is about once every two weeks or so.”

“It seems that the team is getting comfortable with using the tools for themselves. That’s a good sign. How would you describe the team’s mindset compared to where it was when we started this journey?”

Deborah put down her tea cup and looked thoughtful. “When we started we were definitely showing up as individuals advocating for our own views and positions. The more powerful personalities tended to dominate the discussion. Looking back I realize that my biggest fear was that people would just walk away, so I spent most of my time trying to keep everyone on board.” She paused. “You asked once why we were willing to settle for a compromise. Compromise seemed like success because I didn’t think it was possible to have anything better.”

Jack nodded. “What are things like today?”

Deborah smiled. “It’s not perfect by any means. There are days when we fall back into that old way of doing things. But now we know that it is possible to show up differently so as to have more. We’ve been facing a lot of challenges but because we’ve been able to dialogue about them we’ve been able to find ways to deal with them.”

Jack smiled. “Music to my ears. Remember that diagram I showed everyone, back when we had that conversation about whether or not the team wanted me to work with them?”

“Yes, I refer to it regularly.”

“Do you remember what the last phase is called?

“No, wait, is it ‘Weaning’?

“Indeed it is. So, I’m thinking that next week’s session might be our last one.”