What benefits could design interlocutors provide for organizations?
As we begin to shift from a focus on conversation to design, I want to start making a case for the designated interlocutor role (or many!) within the organization. Across my research, this concept came up again and again, and it became hard to ignore the possibilities and benefits this could have on organizations, especially those struggling to break down silos, change identity based corporate narratives, or identify teams whose ‘conversational needs’ were not being met.
The name may be different. Some authors referred to these roles as hybrid thinkers, connectors, mediators or even “cultural translators” but the concept was the same: these were cross-departmentally aligned communicators focused on sharing institutional knowledge, breaking down barriers (or silos) with an open minded attitude, and encouraging a shared language upon which better understanding could be built. “People in connector roles have to balance the different modes of thinking and possess domain knowledge in different areas,” author Milan Guenther writes in Intersection. Yet, he adds, this knowledge must also go in hand in hand with soft skills, “such as leadership, social dynamics, communication, and creativity” (Guenther 52). These newly inspired roles will require special talent and training, but once in place may be considered the glue that holds vertically shaped organizations in new, horizontal patterns.
In a 2019 study titled, “Stronger Syntactic Alignment in the Presence of an Interlocutor,” Schoot, Hagoort, and Segaert examined the ways in which conversation partners influence each other. They studied how an interlocutor affects syntactic priming, which is our natural human tendency to repeat the vocabulary and sentence structure of those speaking prior to us. Essentially this means that when one person is priming — or prepping — a group for discussion (i.e., asking questions, explaining the topic at hand, reviewing important information), the conversational partners are more likely to repeat or use the same words in the same patterns. The researchers found “syntactic alignment is stronger in the presence of an interlocutor than when no interlocutor is present (i.e., primed by a recording)” (Schoot et al. 6).
This research suggests that having a conversational mediator or facilitator can align people whose day to day work may employ a different language,* reducing the possibility for misinterpretations or confusion.“ A mediator can listen to each side’s perspective, and simultaneously help each party listen to and understand the other side’s perspective. Charles Duhigg agrees, writing: “Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language” (Duhigg). A mediator bridges the gaps in understanding between parties. It is this fostering of mutual understanding, in turn, that unlocks the situation and opens up new possibilities for the parties to communicate with one another and to ultimately think creatively about possible solutions that had not yet been considered before” (Ebenstein 4).
The business world needs to employ the broader use of formal interlocutors to form bridges between groups of people who might speak different languages or may even have conflicting incentives and objectives. These hybrid thinkers will aid in reducing organizational blind spots, group think and tunnel vision, encourage team diversity, and promote safe, open communication with equal distribution of turn-taking. But most importantly, they will serve as the connection between organizational activities and knowledge, acting as the bridge between people and strategy.
*In this instance, I’m referring to the languages of different disciplines, not the use of different languages between cultures or ethnicities. i.e: The words chosen by software engineers may differ from the words chosen by painters to explain the exact same situations, documents, experiences, etc.
‘‘The challenge is to facilitate these dialogues, making people talk to each other and helping them to translate between their individual languages and viewpoints. This is particularly true for any approach to tackling a complex relationship challenge, where different domains need to be blended in order to turn them into a coherent strategy” (Guenther 48).
Down the rabbit hole
In The Silo Effect, former Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker discusses the 2008 Financial Crisis, including the economists activities and blind spots that helped set the stage for the disaster. One area he blames is the gap between areas of expertise in the field: “In the past we had underlap because things fell between the cracks of what the regulators looked at. Today we have overlap, because we want to prevent silos” (Tett 134). In the overlap spaces now, he promotes “cultural translators” to aid in communication silos. “You don’t need everyone to be a cultural translator,” he says, “but any large organization needs to have somebody, or some people, who can play that translation role” (Tett 249).
The purpose of these roles however, cannot exist without acknowledging the important role dissent will play. We all know collaborative spaces are not kum-ba-ya circles — thus dissent ultimately plays a critical role in successful outcomes. So our organizations need to embrace constructive criticism… But when is dissent appropriate?
Within the context of design flows between divergent and convergent thinking, discussed further in my post “Twenty Years in Design”, the pervasive opinion in organizations is that dissent is only welcome during planning stages. David Garvin, professor at Harvard Business School, disagrees and explains why dissent is also essential during execution phases in this video on HBR.org.
During the financial crisis, these hybrid, cross-silo, cross-institution “translators” could have become the much-needed voices of dissent, using skills in communication and pattern recognition to blow holes in the dangerous degrees of tunnel vision. Tett writes: “bankers in large organizations are often trained and incentivized to only focus on the bits of finance that sit directly under their noses” (224) and ultimately “price distortions kept appearing in the markets because different teams of financiers had peculiar patterns of incentives or simply did not talk to each other or swap information” (244). The very few financial institutions on the fringe who were willing to step back and view the market from a more holistic point of view did not suffer the same fate during the 2008 crisis. In fact, some of them thrived.
In “Is organizational dissent important? The consequences of speaking up when you disagree at work,” there are two noted areas impacted by a lack of ingrained acceptance of dissent: “Strategically speaking, the absence of dissent kills innovation [where] the real casualty is the organization’s ability to learn from its environment…” (Pianesi) as well as “…culturally speaking, the absence of dissent breeds disengagement… When disengagement is a form of dissent (i.e., “I don’t care anymore. I just do what I am supposed to do.”), it becomes endemic and hard to eradicate.” (Pianesi). Ultimately, Pianesi attributes a feeling of powerlessness within organizations that oppress dissent, often labeling these voices as complainers and troublemakers, or questioning their loyalty to the team.
This illustrates the importance of addressing negative narratives, identity (and culture), as well as defining the operational values of your organization before a network of hybrid roles could be successfully integrated. These facilitators and mediators play an important role bridging the gaps between departments, groups, and information. It is essential they feel safe being the “but, wait!” voice of dissent, when necessary.