How to break free from gridlocked conversations

By Isabella Gady

February 17, 2021


If you work in the public sector, you tend to be in it for the long haul.

As many who have worked with long-serving bureaucrats can testify, staying in an institution for a prolonged period can make us pretty set in our views and beliefs, and reinforce institutional biases.

Given the nature of bureaucracies, institutional biases that blend with personal beliefs tend to favour process and the status quo over innovation.  As a corollary, it is usually difficult to introduce new ideas and concepts in a public sector institution, and the result is that dysfunctional elements within an organisation often remain unaddressed.

Nowhere is this more true than with a gridlocked and dysfunctional meeting culture. Who hasn’t been in long and tiring discussions, hearing the same arguments over and over again? However, there is more at risk than time spent that could be used for more productive endeavours. Gridlocked debates that revolve tirelessly around long-winded, fixed, and repetitive arguments slow down an institution’s innovation capacity amplifying the risk of organisational dysfunctionality.

So, what can the public sector do to get unstuck and channel the proverbial fresh wind sweeping through the corridors of power? The answer to that all starts with how we define the problem, reframe the discussion, and overcome discussion fatigue.

Getting out of the rut

An example: during a workshop I co-led recently on potential futures for civil society organisations, the recurring argument of cost kept on dominating the conversation. It had been a polite yet heated debate that probably won’t sound unfamiliar to anyone working in a heavily funding-dependent space.

Unavoidably discussion fatigue started to spread clearly dividing participants into separated camps. Those that were pro spending, and those that were not. A popular way out of such stalled debates is the search for the lowest common denominator, an argument it’s hard to disagree with. In this case, the common denominator can be summed up as “If we had more resources, everything would be different”. Nearly everyone would agree with this statement. From that common ground, you can search for consensus.

However, while this approach might allow even the most opposing parties to find a modicum of alignment, it comes at the clear cost of stopping participants to explore alternative approaches to address the issue. What’s more, long-standing power dynamics and reinforced prejudice against other players involved in the debate often result in a rather black-and-white belief system of good cops vs. bad cops.

It is, however, also the persistent and “wicked” character, as design theorist Horst Rittel put it, of many of the issues dealt within the public sector that cause problem fatigue. At times, and at its worst, this can result in problem avoidance. Put differently, our curiosity to repeatedly explore a problem anew — its root causes, context, and actors — drastically suffers the longer or more often we are dealing with it. Eventually, we just feel stuck!

The good news is that curiosity can be sparked and trained — as demonstrated through initiatives like The Residency, a collective of global lifelong learners, which increases proximity and facilitates mindset exchange between traditionally siloed sector and disciplinary backgrounds. And that’s the first step in reframing how we approach problems.

For example, forcing yourself to describe things in detail that you take for granted can make you see that object in a new light — be it a phone, a lamp or even a person. Though it may sound silly, I encourage you to give it a try. Take a moment to focus on any object near you. What do you see? How would you describe its shape, colour, and components to someone who has never seen this object before?

A small exercise like this can help you change the way you approach a problem.

Yet, applying this method to identify a recurring and intricate problem is, unfortunately, easier said than done. The following set of questions might be a useful starting point for your exploration:

  • What is the key issue that you are trying to solve?
  • What is the impact that you are trying to have?
  • What is holding you back?
  • If you succeed in this challenge, who will benefit from it?
  • What social or cultural norms are shaping this problem?
  • Which actors can affect or influence the challenge?
  • What do you not see about this problem?
  • What approach might have benefits for all stakeholders?

Probably the most difficult part when responding to these questions is sticking to the facts. All too often we unconsciously find facts confirming our initial interpretation of the problem. This frame, composed of our underlying beliefs and assumptions, serves us as a lens and helps us create meaning of the world we live in. On the flip side, however, the same “facts” can be viewed in a different frame in such a way that the facts themselves seem to change.

Asking yourself the right questions

Taking the time to thoroughly go over these questions with participants at the start of your next meeting is likely to cause the rise of an eyebrow or two (“Don’t we all know what we are talking about?”) but, at least in my personal experience, it has never failed to lead to an incredible insightful discussion by revealing underlying mental models.

Ideally, this sort of activity should be done ahead of a gathering complemented by some additional research, e.g., conversation with potential beneficiaries of the issue you are aiming to address. Of course, while going through these questions in a meeting will not always be possible. Even running through this set of questions by yourself will help you to better understand your own framing. This will allow you to separate your participants from the problem and see them as fellow human beings with strong emotions, often drastically different views and interests, rather than employees.

This gets us to the tricky part: unfortunately, problems rarely arise by themselves, nor can they be solved by a single actor. Today, in our ever more interconnected world, this is truer than ever. Understanding discussion gridlock as what it is — a conflict of interest, based on our biased interpretation of data  — allows us to draw some lessons from conflict resolution to move forward: Separating the people from the problem allows participants to see themselves working alongside to address a problem rather than confronting each other. Putting your focus on interests rather than positions will support you in identifying new opportunities.

Remember the project on the futures of civil society organisations I referred to earlier? Putting our emphasis on shared future interests rather than getting stuck on concrete positions and constraints allowed us to move past the dominating argument of cost and identify future scenarios with clear objective criteria that would offer benefits for all. Using scenarios and role cards that allowed participants to take on a different perspective, we were able to reframe our initial problem statement from “increased competition and a shrinking space for civil society threatening the existence of civil society organisations” to “how might we better support civil society organisations to stay relevant, and be agile, resilient and sustainable agents of change in ever-changing, complex contexts?”

To be clear, I don’t advocate ignoring existing constraints. Instead, I encourage you to transform them in order to open up new routes forward, which need our commitment, time, and patience to become real possibilities.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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