From time to time, [the] tribe [gathered] in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more -- the older ones -- but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.
--David Bohm "On Dialogue"
Such futzing about -- "dialogue," as the iconoclast physicist David Bohm calls it -- is essential for individual clarification and learning, for the achievement of consensus and group commitment, and for policy or project implementation itself, though the process is invariably frustrating.
I recently endured a futz-about drama firsthand. A 20-person group, representing 10 countries and four continents, convened in eastern Germany to advance the work of a fledgling association. We agreed that pragmatism and implementation were our aims; moreover, we knew from long experience that we shared similar values, i.e., there was every reason to expect to move forward smartly.
After an informative briefing by several colleagues, we adjourned for about three hours of casual yet intense discussion in groups of five, focusing on four key aspects of the association's future. Then a spokesman summarized each group's deliberations, and general discussion ensued.
The conversation at my table went in a hundred directions, was often vacuous, rarely brilliant. The full-group discussion was worse. It rambled; revealed unsuspected and apparently profound disagreements; included few ravishing insights; and was shockingly inarticulate, considering our members' towering reputations for lecturing, consulting, writing and leadership. All this, despite a pointed document to frame the debate; in its sixth draft, it had been carefully vetted by several members.
I went home thoroughly depressed at the total lack of progress. Still, I knew -- intellectually, at least -- that the time had been well spent on several accounts:
* We'd all learned more about one another, shared perspectives and simply accumulated clock-time necessary to move forward toward group cohesion. Two-thirds of the assemblage had been together from the start six months before; another third were newcomers. The exercise I described was invaluable for our first-timers. But we all needed it, to further the awkward process of inventing something that would be special, and that we could "own" together and in 20 different ways at the same time.
* The insights were real, though they will only become clear later. The sparkling repartee one hears in a stage performance is, of course, anything but spontaneous. In the real world, one's "clever response" to a question or another's comments invariably comes several hours, or even days, later. So, too, here: The evening's rambling and off-key exchanges will be sifted through our individual mental sieves over an extended period. It will lead to insight and articulate expression -- in due course.
* Our major-domo will sort out the group's noisy, conflicting "advice" and move ahead. The team will make appropriate use of the deliberations to foster consensus and propose action steps. He will subsequently secure one-on-one commitments to specific aims based upon (1) the shared learning that did take place amidst the "mess" and (2) necessity, brought on by pressing deadlines.
* A couple of people will opt out. Not only is this an untidy story, but it includes terminal disappointments. For some, the disagreements will be too great to permit continued, animated participation. But in losing a few -- causing anguish at the time -- the cohesiveness and determination of the remaining band will, ultimately, improve.
And then we'll do this all over again in six months. After reporting our progress and searching for direction, we will feel, once more, frustrated. "It is as if," we shall say, "we were starting from ground zero." And that will be true. And not true.
As for those "practical" souls who disdain and dismiss such maddening safaris as wasted effort and inefficient -- woe unto them. It's unlikely that they will ever nurture the genuinely shared organizational values and deep-rooted group commitment which are, in the end, the bases for all vibrant, path-breaking institutions.
So three lusty, if stressed-out, cheers for futzing about.