Dialogic Organization Development and Transformational Change

By Gervase Bushe – Simon Fraser University

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity.

Dialogical Organization Development is a label Bob Marshak and I have created to group a variety of change methods that share an underlying similarity in “mindset” even though they can look very different.   In an earlier paper (Bushe & Marshak, 2009) we contrast the post-modern, complexity science-based premises of these Dialogic methods with conventional, modernist, behavioural science based “Diagnostic OD”. Since then we have been working on a theory of practice for Dialogic OD (Bushe & Marhshak, 2013; in press; forthcoming).  We believe that successful Dialogic OD is not simply about having “good dialogues”.  Rather, we think there are three change levers underlying the success and failure of Dialogic OD processes.  They can produce change alone or in concert with each other.

Emergence: A disruption is engaged in a way that leads to the normal processes of ralating and oranizing falling apart, and the re-organization of those processes at a higher level of complexity.

A disruption occurs when the previous order or pattern of social relations is irrevocably pulled apart and there is little chance of going back to the way things were. Disruptions can be planned or unplanned, and the group or organization may be able to self-organize around them without much conscious leadership. From a Dialogic OD perspective, however, transformation is unlikely to take place without disruption. A variety of Dialogic OD methods can be used to create containers for productive conversations to take place that support re-organizing at higher levels of complexity despite the anxiety that disruptive endings can create. However, once disrupted, it is impossible to predict what might then happen, the options range from complete dissolution to reorganization at a higher level of complexity (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984). Dialogic OD processes are concerned with processes required to help organizations move from that which can no longer be, to that which has yet to become (Owen, 1987; 2008). A key insight from Holman (2103) is that increasing the differentiation among members after disruption before seeking new coherence aids this process.

Discourse: A change occurs in the core narrative of the group or organization. The story that makes it all make sense changes and perceptions, thinking and action follow.

The core narratives are the stories that explain and bring coherence to our organizational lives. The significance of narratives to effecting organizational change is considerable for they convey the prevailing or intended rationales supporting change or stability. As Marshak and Grant (2008: 14) have noted “changing consciousness or mindsets or social agreements – for example about the role of women in organizations, or about hierarchical structures, or even about how change happens in organizations – would therefore require challenging or changing the prevailing narratives, stories, and so on that are endorsed by those presently and/or historically in power and authority”. Others have shown how stories are a way of managing change, particularly culture change, and how change is often constituted by changes in the narratives that participants author (Brown & Humphreys 2003; Buchanan & Dawson, 2007). A variety of Dialogic OD methods can be used as a planned intervention into the narrative and story making processes of an organization.

Generativity: A new image/idea/phrase gives a people new options for decisions and actions they hadn’t thought of. The most generative images are compelling as well – people find these new options attractive and wat to act on them.

My research has found that generative images are central to successful appreciative inquiry efforts (Bushe, 2010; in press; Bushe & Kassam 2005) and I have proposed that they are central to Dialogic OD success (Bushe, 2013).  A generative image is a combination of words, pictures or other symbolic media that provide new ways of thinking about social and organizational reality.  They, in effect, allow people to imagine alternative decisions and actions that they could not imagine before the generative image surfaced .  A second property of highly generative images is that they are compelling; people want to act on the new opportunities the generative image evokes.  A variety of Dialogic OD methods could be supported by using generative images as the initiating themes or questions for inquiry (Bushe, in press) or by evoking new generative images in the process of dialogue and inquiry (Storch and Ziethen, 2013).

It is unclear to us, at this time, whether transformational change requires more than one of these underlying processes to be successful.  They do seem, at times, related.  It is difficult to imagine in Dialogic OD practice, for example, a change in a core narrative that didn’t involve a disruption to the prevailing social construction of reality. On the other hand, changes in core narratives do occur, over time, which do not necessarily involve disruption (c.f., Barret, Thomas & Hocevar, 1995).  In a world of constant change, “disruption” is mainly a matter of perspective.  Similarly, it is unclear if generative images require either disruption or a change in core narratives to be successful, but it is clear that they can go together.  What we are proposing here, is that the dialogic mindset is particularly attuned to these three change processes, and that the successful Dialogic OD consultant will mix and match a variety of Dialogic methods in order to maximize the likelihood that one or all will be present. How they may or may not go together is an empirical question open to further research.


Barrett, F.J., Thomas, G.F. & Hocevar, S.P. (1995) The central role of discourse in large-scale change: A social construction perspective.  Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 31(3), 352-372.

Brown, A. D., & Humphreys, M. (2003). Epic and tragic tales: Making sense of change. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 39(2), 121-144.

Buchanan, D., & Dawson, P. (2007). Discourse and audience: organizational change as multi‐story process. Journal of Management Studies, 44(5), 669-686.

Bushe, G.R. (in press) Generative process, generative outcome: The transformational potential of appreciative inquiry.  In  D.L. Cooperrider, D.P. Zandee, L.  Godwin, M. Avital and B. Boland (eds.) Organizational generativity: The appreciative inquiry summit and a scholarship of transformation (Advances in appreciative inquiry, vol.4, 89-122).  Bingley, UK: Emerald Press.

Bushe, G.R. (2013) Dialogic OD: A theory of practice.  OD Practitioner, 45(1), 10-16.

Bushe, G.R. (2010) A comparative case study of appreciative inquiries in one organization: Implications for practice.  Review of Research and Social Intervention, 29, 7-24.

Bushe, G.R. & Kassam, A. (2005) When is appreciative inquiry transformational?  A meta-case analysis.  Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41(2), 161-181.

Bushe, G.R. & Marhsak, R.J. (forthcoming) The Dialogic OD Mindset.  In A. Shani, W. Pasmore & R. Woodman (eds.) Research in Organization Development and Change (Volume 22).  NY: Emerald.

Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (in press) Dialogic organization development.  In B. B. Jones & M. Brazzel (eds.) The NTL Handbook of Organization Development and Change, 2nd Ed. Wiley-Pfieffer.

Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (eds.) (2013) Advances in Dialogic Organization Development. Organization Development Practitioner, 45(1).

Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J.   (2009) Revisioning organization development: Diagnostic and dialogic premises and patterns of practice. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 45(3), 348-368.

Holman, P. (2013) A call to engage: Realizing the potential of dialogic organization development.  OD Practitioner, 45(1), 18-24.

Marshak, R. J. and Grant, D. (2008). Organizational discourse and new organization development practices, British Journal of Management, 19: S7-S19.

Owen, H. (2008) Wave rider: Leadership for high performance in a self organizing world.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Owen, H. (1987) Spirit: Transformation and development in organizations.  Potomac, MD: Abbott.

Prigogine, I, & Stengers, I. (1984) Order out of chaos.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

Storch, J., & Ziethen, M. (2013) Re-description: A source of generativity in Dialogic Organization Development, OD Practitioner, 45(1), 25-29.

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