A high-functioning, collegial team is temporarily without a manager. Potential conflict lurks below the surface.

A new business unit forms to rearrange how service is provided to clients. Senior experts struggle to break down silos to collaborate and integrate large-scale, complex projects.

A new CEO may not be the right fit. But an accurate picture and honest feedback are hard to come by; people have different perspectives, but understandably, are guarded.

In each of these situations, something has to give. But getting from the current challenge to a better future state isn’t easy to do. The path is never clear or guaranteed. That’s where CCL’s practice of “putting something in the middle” comes in.

“Putting something in the middle,” is the idea behind CCL’s way of facilitating important, typically difficult, conversations in a way that is safe, creative and very effective. Also called mediated dialogue, the process uses interesting, tangible images or objects to facilitate reflective, insightful conversation.

CCL has created a series of Leadership Explorer tools — sets of pictures, drawings or sayings presented as a deck of cards — based on this concept. Visual Explorer is CCL’s original tool for mediated dialogue. It’s a set of more than 200 photographs and art prints, available in playing card, postcard and letter sizes. Leadership Metaphor Explorer and Experience Explorer use the same concept to fuel different kinds of conversations. Other Explorer tools include Values Explorer, Boundary Explorer and Wisdom Explorer.

A long-time go-to resource

Hamish Taylor, a globe-trotting consultant based in Scotland, believes in the power of using mediated dialogue to prompt creative conversations. Visual Explorer has been a go-to resource for many years. He recently used Leadership Metaphor Explorer to help address the challenges of the struggling, temporarily leaderless team.

“I asked them to use Leadership Metaphor Explorer to describe the current leadership behaviors that they have in the team … the responses were heavily focused on the ‘being nice to each other,’ positive, interdependent behaviors,” says Hamish.

“This led to an interesting aha moment which illustrated that they were lacking the strong, directive, ‘take no prisoners, get the job done’ leadership style that is occasionally needed to overcome internal politics and push through. They were not dealing with issues for fear that it would upset someone else in the team,” he continues. “So, while they were ‘teamly,’ they were lacking the sense of unifying purpose and leadership behaviors that would allow them to deal with conflict and achieve their goals.

“With this insight, the team made a commitment to change. A recently appointed line manager volunteered to be more engaged, and individual team members agreed to rotate the leadership role on key functional aspects of the team performance.”

A powerful way to find solutions

Ione Taylor, too, has experienced mediated dialogue as a powerful way to bring up challenges and find solutions. As a geologist, she has held technical and leadership roles in corporate and government settings. She is now a director in Queen’s University’s Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering in Ontario, Canada, where she is heading up efforts to establish an interdisciplinary master’s degree program in natural resources leadership.

Ione was tapped to lead a new, integrated function of a federal research agency. This new structure upended more than 130 years of working within distinct scientific disciplines and technical functions. Ione needed to address the blend of leadership, organizational culture and innovation challenges her group was facing. Visual Explorer, Values Explorer and Leadership Metaphor Explorer — paired with CCL’s Boundary Spanning Leadership model — were valuable entry points into critical and difficult conversations as the teams began to work together and create new services, products and processes.

“These tools help zoom people out to see the big picture and move past polarization,” says Ione. “They bring out insights … lift people up as they try to articulate an idea, draw something out or contemplate … that’s what gets people out of their stereotypes and polarizations so they can move forward.”

Jon Abeles is another risk-taking leader, ready to try out new approaches, learn and adapt. As part of the leadership team at Catholic Healthcare Partners for many years, he worked closely with CCL to create and run a leadership academy for emerging leaders. Visual Explorer was used to explore participants’ career aspirations and vision.

A healing process

Jon also used Visual Explorer in working with union members and management as a healing process after a strike. Another time, it was Jon’s role to find a way to assess the effectiveness of a new CEO. He systematically used Visual Explorer in one-on-one conversations with the executive leadership team, physician leaders, board of trustees and religious sponsors. Most recently, he facilitated a large group of faculty from the State University of New York and the City University of New York to explore new opportunities.

“Oftentimes people can be guarded in what they say in a conversation, or they may not be as broad, or they may not be able to tell you about the depth of the situation,” Jon explains. “The card encourages a broader conversation … it calls out unique personal experiences … it gives a person permission to talk about the things that are on their mind or what they think.”

In many different contexts — and with diverse groups — putting something in the middle helps people think about and talk about things that are unspoken or difficult to articulate. The images, ideas and suggestions offered by CCL’s tools compel even very experienced and educated teams to forge new connections in their thinking. In the process, they gain clarity and insight, see new patterns or reveal hidden facts. They open up to change, to possibility and to finding a way forward.

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