In seeking to better explain the relevance of my dialogue-related work, I’ve been stimulated by a ‘Capability Accelerator’ programme offered by the International Futures Forum. The programme outlines practice-based frameworks for Transformative Innovation (Graham Leicester) and offers action-learning support to participants, who engage in a project over nine months.
Key to the approach is Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons, a narrative for social change and mobilising energy towards desired outcomes. For organisations too, the horizons offer a ‘lens’ for examining the nature of change.
My interest lies in the relationship between patterns of conversation and embedding change. Whenever we act ‘in concert’ to introduce new ways of working, we do so through the medium of conversation. The types of conversation we’re able to have within a system are strongly influenced by what I’m calling ‘conversation operating systems‘, encoded by patterns of interactions that take place day in and day out.
Typically, a conversation OS reflects matters that a system holds dear, and/or the ways people within it are held to account. I’m exploring whether characterising different kinds of conversation OS using the horizons sheds light on which change initiatives thrive and which falter.
The energy of horizon one, H1, represents ‘business as usual’. It comprises the structures and processes that govern and manage existing activities. Whatever the form of the dominant paradigm, there’s often limited appetite for anything that might derail it: this evokes frustration in those who imagine a better future.
H1 patterns of conversation are likely to be concerned with things like performance, efficiency and risk management. These ‘getting-the-job-done’ exchanges are so familiar that we may be unaware of their context-specific nature. So, when we attempt to shift our attention (and conversation) towards innovation or transformation, established forms of interaction inadvertently shape what takes place: we talk about innovation in the currency of improving results, or transformation in terms of problem-solving.
In contrast, the energy of the third horizon, H3, is that of cultivating the conditions for a sustainable new paradigm, in response to social climate and values, human aspirations, and technological changes. Such a future manifests, and cannot be wholly envisioned, let alone planned. The energy of H3 is therefore complex, emergent and self-renewing.
Exploring potentials in the unknown and unknowable requires that conversations reveal uncertainties and interdependencies, and allow us to navigate the frailties of our human experience and conditioning. This is the territory of dialogue: rediscovering the art of talking candidly and attending to each other with respect and curiosity.
The energy of the second horizon, H2, encapsulates the myriad aspirations and activities that seek to bring the ‘new’ into being: change projects, research efforts, entrepreneurial ideas, and development centres for products, services and leaders. H2 undertakings often unsettle the dominant paradigm (H1). When they look promising, there may be attempts to ‘scale up’ or ‘roll out’. These often lose impetus, because they arise from an H1 mindset, and involve H1 approaches such as timescales, deliverables and ‘cascading’. The renewing optimism of H2 is diluted by H1 priorities. Sharpe calls this H2minus (H2-).
Conversely, some H2 endeavours germinate seeds of self-generating change. The H2 energy is enlivened, becoming an adaptive ‘H2+’ vitality that fosters the expression of a new order (H3).
What might make this evolution more likely?
My hypothesis is this: when a human collective seeks to introduce systemic change, progress will be limited unless the dominant conversation OS is also re-programmed to support dialogue. This requires effort and commitment. However, such investment builds capacity, individually and together, to transform every conversation, whatever the horizon.