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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Masters of the Breakthrough Moment

Over the course of their long careers, Charlie and Edie have been instrumental in shaping three managerial disciplines. The first emerged in the business world in the 1950s: group dynamics, or the study of small group interactions as they occur in real time. The second, dating to the 1960s, is organizational development (OD), the practice of making organizations more effective by building up their members’ individual and collective capabilities. The third, diversity awareness, started in the 1970s and ’80s, when people of different races, sexes, ages, sexual orientations, and backgrounds needed help in working together and charting their careers. These three fields have gone in and out of favor with managers and leaders through the years, in part because they have often been practiced unevenly. They have at times been dismissed as ineffective, difficult to implement on a large scale, or simply “soft.”

Yet at their best, these disciplines have introduced a reliable set of methods for achieving authentic relationships in the contemporary workplace. During the “organization man” era of the 1950s and early ’60s, most organizations were secure, stable, and multilayered bureaucracies — almost designed to avoid authentic conversation in the name of standardization and the mass economy. But the rapid technological changes and fierce global competition that characterize today’s intense and evolving environment have forced many organizations to rely on the speed and creativity of high-performing, self-organizing teams, rather than on the command-and-control of traditional hierarchies.

In their work with groups, notes Warren Bennis, “Edie and Charlie breathe and exude transformation as seriously as Buddhist monks practice their teachings.” They are known not just for sparking moments of insight, but also for teaching others to do the same. In 1997, they incorporated many of these techniques into an influential book called What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (coauthored with computer scientist Gerald M. Weinberg; Bingham House, 1997). They see this practice as a way to cultivate not just capability in organizations, but democracy — the spread of skills, power, and decision-making authority throughout an enterprise.

In the 1980s, for example, Edie Seashore served as a consultant to the major general who directed the U.S. government’s Defense Mapping Agency, helping him rethink the role of the central bureaucracy. The mapping officers at headquarters had long seen their role as disseminating battlefield images to the soldiers on the ground. Edie helped them understand that the soldiers on the front lines were the real experts and decision makers. They needed the mapping officers to serve as a service bureau — gathering information from field reconnaissance and translating it into simple, straightforward maps that soldiers could use in rapidly changing conditions. To the Seashores, decentralized authority, although it is messy and difficult to control, continues to thrive because it works. But it is always under pressure from leaders who fall into authoritarian habits, even if they pay lip service to change.

“We keep hearing that OD is dead,” complains Edie Seashore at the kitchen table. “We hear that change management has replaced it. But change management is about driving change from the top, and reasserting hierarchy. It’s a way of talking about change but not changing anything.”

Charlie adds, “What’s really needed is to create enough managerial agility to enable people throughout the organization to keep learning so they can adapt to an unpredictable environment. And the way you do that is in groups.”

Roots of Perspective
The idea of the small group as the premier vehicle for fostering organizational change can be traced back to the guilds and monasteries of the Middle Ages, and was influenced both by the cooperative movement of the 19th century and by 20th-century psychological research. But for 50 years, the most influential center for studying the role of groups in organizational change has been an institute called the National Training Laboratories (NTL). Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist who taught at the University of Iowa after fleeing his native Vienna in the Nazi era, designed the institute with several of his students in 1947. Professor Lewin saw small groups as ideal laboratories for observing forces of cohesion, disruption, and challenge in microcosm, since such forces were too complex to discern in larger social systems. He and his students envisioned an experimental setting where researchers could in a systematic way lead groups and study the forces that held them together or drove them apart.

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  1. Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor, Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (Wiley, 2000): Overview and update of McGregor’s classic work on human beings as interdependent co-contributors.
  2. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change (Doubleday, 1996): Includes a more detailed history of NTL and the Seashores’ role in it.
  3. Charles N. Seashore, Edith Whitfield Seashore, and Gerald M. Weinberg, What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Bingham House, 1997): The Seashores’ guide to conducting difficult conversations in a way that does not offend, provoke, confuse, blame, or overwhelm other people.
  4. Marvin Weisbord, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century (Pfeiffer, 2004): The history of organizational development, tied directly to the realities of the high-performance workplace.
  5. National Training Laboratories Web site, Overview of the institute’s history and current courses offered in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
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