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Dialogical decision making

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

"I call it knowledge of the third kind. It is not theoretical knowledge, for it is knowledge that is only present to us in our everyday social practices; but it is not simply knowledge of a skill or craft either (a “knowing-how”), for it is a joint kind of knowledge, knowledge-held-in-common with others." (John Shotter)

For the past 15 years I have lived mostly in suburban areas inhabited, besides humans, by pigeons. Although living together with these birds is not always without complications, I quite enjoy watching them.

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

I especially like when a large flock of birds soars above the rooftops and then changes direction many times without any visible leadership. Their movement patterns seem perfectly synchronized, moving almost as one organism, but there is clearly no "alpha pingeon" showing the others where to go.

But how do they decide whether to fly right or left, down or up, or where to land? I've never analyzed it in any depth, but I like to think of it as an example of joint action or "knowledge of the third kind," as John Shotter put it. And just recently I started playing with it as a nice metaphor for the decision-making process in non-hierarchical organizations.

The Network for Dialogic Practice is not a formal organization, we are not registered anywhere and there is no registration process for members. It has no clear structure, we have no management, no staff, no budget. We are a bit like this flock of birds.

But we have a "board"! It is an international group of six friends and colleagues who, without any financial claims, have committed to take care of the network's activities. One thing we have committed to doing is to ensure that every conference on dialogical practices is followed by another, at least once every two years.

In the past, the biggest challenge was finding and even persuading someone to organize the conference. After the last conference in Olomouc, however, we face a new challenge. We were approached by 4 (!) groups from different countries interested in organizing the next congress. And suddenly we have to deal with questions like: Who should decide where the next conference will be? And how should it be decided?

We have already had two meetings on this topic, and we also organized one large open meeting, where we invited all interested parties and especially those who expressed an interest in holding a conference. All the meetings were nice and fruitful. But still no decision was taken.

The morning after the last meeting, I was sitting on the balcony and a flock of pigeons came off the roof again. I tried to follow them in more detail. I didn't recognize any clear moment when the whole flock "decides" to change direction, but I noticed something else. From time to time, an individual bird would fly away from the entire flock and nobody would join.

I began to realize that for the whole flock to change its direction, it does not depend so much on the moves of individual pigeons, but if they are followed by others or not. In other words, only when a bird joins another bird in a new direction, and then others join in, does the entire flock begin to change direction.

So I started playing with the idea that the act of joining might be at least as important as the act of initiating. Of course, it is very important that someone comes up with ideas and suggestions, but if no one joins them, it doesn´t make any change. And if everybody would only come up with ideas, we can get stuck and get nowhere.

Importantly, this act of joining is not blind following in the sense of “wherever you go, I go with you.” Joining in this sense does not make one a follower for life. And, similarly, the other will not become a leader or a boss for a lifetime. A "dialogic joining," if you will, is an active process that does not necessarily mean that the person who came up with the idea will continue coming up with other ideas. Others will join, but in the next step they may be the ones who offer a new direction and are followed by the first leaders.

At the end of our last meeting, Alita said, “I don't care where the next conference is, I just don't want to stop seeing you guys!” We laughed, but actually, yes, this is pretty essential. We, as a board, are not a comittee that takes decisions. I imagine us a bit like a group of pigeons in the middle of a flock flying really close to each other. If this group of pigeons moves together, it is an invitation for the others to join them.

Yes, we need to be close and we need to enjoy flying together. Which is not an easy task, especially when we do not live like pigeons in one suburb, but are scattered over three continents. Zoom is our air and words are our movements. I hope to be able to announce the location of the next conference soon. Stay close 😉.

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