A conversation with Jan DeVisch of Flanders Business School

The moment I became conscience that I was operating from a certain script, being the instrumental script, I started my own developmental journey, both in the domain of social-emotional intelligence and maturity and on the other side in looking at thought structures in teams and in groups and seeing how the scripts that I was using implicitly and the maps that allowed me to take perspectives, to integrate perspectives in teams and in all kinds of communications, hindered me and how I could break out of those patterns.”

Jan DeVisch is an executive professor at Flanders Business School, where he teaches organizational development and human capital design. He is also managing director at Connect and Transform, where he helps teams and organizations cope with increasing complexity.

In this episode of Control the Room, Douglas speaks with Jan about reducing reality into logical categories, software that can help facilitators pre-assess a team’s communication patterns, and resistance as a concept invented by the facilitator. Listen in to find out how to level up your facilitation skills through scientific research in the field of adult development.

Show Highlights

[4:30] Meetings that don’t deliver
[12:11] Reducing reality to logical categories
[22:18] Why a facilitator must perform a pre-assessment
[26:03] Jan’s software for pre-assessing team communication
[36:40] Translation is not a logical process
[40:58] Resistance is a facilitator-made concept

Jan on LinkedIn
Connect Transform

About the Guest

Jan De Visch, an executive professor at Flanders Business School, has more than 30 years of experience managing transformational change processes and general HR functions. He coaches teams and companies towards exponential growth and more fluid organizational structures. He refined the Work Levels Model, which helps your organization to stay relevant to its customers and to enable you to achieve sustainable breakthrough levels of performance year after year. Jan develops strong and open relationships at various levels within your organisation, questioning existing assumptions and making new solutions appear to meet the challenges of the marketplace.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings. 

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

This episode is brought to you by MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. At Voltage Control, we use MURAL to facilitate engaging and productive meetings and workshops from anywhere. MURAL gives teams the means, methods and freedom to collaborate visually. Use their suite of facilitation superpowers to control the virtual room and solve tough problems as a team with their prebuilt templates and guided methods. To see for yourself why companies like IBM, Atlassian, and E-Trade rely on Mural, start your 30 day trial at mural.co, that’s mural.co.

Today I’m with Jan DeVisch, executive professor at Flanders Business School, where he teaches organizational development and human capital design. He is also managing director at Connect and Transform, where he helps teams and organizations cope with increasing complexity. Jan is the author of the book Practices of Dynamic Collaboration. Welcome to the show, Jan.

Jan DeVisch: Thank you, nice to be here.

Douglas: Yeah. I’d like to start off just hearing a little bit about how you got started in facilitating.

Jan DeVisch: I think I facilitate all my life so it’s very difficult to find a moment where it started. After a career of 17 years in HR management sanctions, I started my own consultancy practice and it’s through organizational redesign work that I mainly got into facilitation work and process facilitation work. So, it’s through organizational development. It’s also through, partly, work from Edgar Schein, Argyris, also organizational development consultants focused on learning with the question how do people learn in meetings that they’re not interested in facilitation work, because as a manager, my natural eye was on getting things done, not on ensuring that I got everybody with me in getting the things done.

Douglas: That’s interesting. Let’s unpack that a little bit. What did you find on that journey, or as you started to notice that your focus was on getting the things done versus bringing everyone with you.

Jan DeVisch: In the late 90s, I came into contact with colleagues who were very interested and busy in researching adult development. The getting things done is a specific phase in adult development we should call quite an instrumental way of doing things. The moment I became conscience that I was operating from a certain script, being the instrumental script, I started my own developmental journey, both in the domain of social-emotional intelligence and maturity and on the other side in looking at thought structures in teams and in groups and seeing how the scripts that I was using implicitly and the maps that allowed me to take perspectives, to integrate perspectives in teams and in all kinds of communications, hindered me and how I could break out of those patterns.

I quickly saw, from the end of the 90s, how meetings sometimes unfolded in narrowing the team that was on the table, creating a lot of re-work, creating a lot of side focus and ending up not delivering on what was promised and not delivering on the budgets and the outcomes. So it’s basically through adult development work and that further brought me to complexity science, and how can we break through the logical and analytical way of thinking in meetings, because that kind of strengthens the fragmentation in meetings and hinders people to start really connecting ideas and start sending tensions in meetings.

It’s basically from the end of 2009, 2010 that I dived deeper into the subject of, how can I start seeing what happens in groups as an interplay of meeting of minds. Most facilitation work was focused on behavior and procedures and tools to communicate better, but the essence for me, at least what I learned, is that the thinking comes before the doing. It’s all about the type of perspective taking and perspective integration that happens in meetings. I found that most of the literature, let’s say, about 95%, even Argyris, even Schön, even Schein, and more recently Marshall, for example, they all focus on tools and frameworks that enable to communicate better without asking the question how can the perspective taking that lies at the source of action be changed.

It’s about building a kind of a reflective practice in teams and from about 10 years ago, I started to focus not on facilitation of meetings, but on what I call critical facilitation of meetings, which is about facilitating the sharing of thoughts in meetings, which is quite different from just empathic listening and following a number of behavioral procedures.

Douglas: This sharing of thoughts, let’s unpack that a little bit. How does that work, so that we can create this reflective practice that we’re seeking?

Jan DeVisch: It starts by simply observing your own thinking and your own thinking structures. By thinking structure, I mean a kind of a map that you use to make sense of reality. For example, we all use simple cause, effect structures in our reasoning. That’s the basis of logical, analytical thinking. We all use structures such as fragmenting a complex issue into set themes and approaching those set themes and trying to solve them. That’s a kind of thought structure.

You believe that if you apply that thought structure that you will solve problems, but adult development research showed us that we use plenty of different, I would almost say, non-rational thought structures. For example, being aware that you can always take a bigger picture point of view on a situation or a problem. Being aware that each problem might be layered or stratified. These are two examples of thought structures that allow you to make sense of context.

There are three other broad classes of thought structures. The second one is process thinking, being aware that how we conceive something is embedded in dynamics, in perspectives on time, what we find relevant in the past or in the future, and being aware that how you conceive the future determines even how you look at the past and vice versa. Thought structures that have to do with how you handle time and conceive dynamics, these are the second class of thought structures. We are all aware of one of those thought structures, namely the thesis, antithesis, synthesis, unfolding, which is only one of the seven process class related thought structures.

Then, you have a third category aimed at relationship and how you conceive structural relationships. That means, what you use as a kind of a map to make sense of the common ground and the totality of things. The fourth broad category is the living systems class of thought structures which surface how you deal with tensions, how you see potential in conflicts, how you make evaluative comparisons between different systemic approaches and so on.

Each of those thought structure classes has a diversity of at least seven different thought structures. You come quickly to 28 thought structures that you can observe happening in a group. What I learned was that if you observe what thought structures are unfolding in the group, asking questions from different thought structures really accelerates the quality of the dialog and the coming to a kind of a more integrative decision making.

Douglas: That’s fascinating. What do you think the dynamic is there? Is it that you are helping people laterally step out of their thought structure, or are you helping the folks that are maybe thinking a little differently than the main group integrate better?

Jan DeVisch: What you mainly do is opening the participants’ minds, because everyone is able to think process or to think relationship or to think context, but we are so influenced through our education to think purely expert or logical, analytical-wise, that we start to reduce reality in logical categories while reality is simply not always logical. You need logic to make sense, but use logic after you have explored context, process, relationship and transformation.

Those thought structures, you can look at them as a series of questions that you can ask when you observe someone not using a certain thought structure. For example, you observe that somebody’s not taking at all into account certain elements in the context, well, instead of saying that you need to take into account this and this and this context, which is telling, you have a series of mind-opening questions. You can ask, “you know, if you consider this as part of a whole, what would be the whole, and what is the relationship between the part and the whole?” Which is a thought structure.

Then, people will suddenly start thinking in a much more nuanced way than before, becoming open for differences in opinion and differences in perspective. That’s what we rarely do in meetings. Meetings are, in my experience, too much characterized by different opinions put forward without any connection taking place, and without any transcendence taking place.

Douglas: I’m curious to hear a little bit more about where can we find all of these 28 documented- because it sounds pretty powerful to study these and think about how they’re emerging in our meetings.

Jan DeVisch: I can refer to two books that I wrote together with Otto Laske, Dynamic Collaboration and Practices of Dynamic Collaboration, which you can find on my website, www.connecttransform.be, but I can also refer you to the work of Otto Laske directly, which you can find on his website, which is at interdevelopmentals.org and for those who do not want to read books, I’ve developed a rethinking game which you can also find on my site, with, from each thought structure class, a number of cards that you can use in meetings to facilitate the meetings in a different way.

Each of the thought structure classes has a different color, either orange, blue, green or violet, and the cards contain a kind of leveling in complexity of the questions that you can ask. Especially in retro meetings or reflect-back meetings or meetings that focus on the question how are we doing now, so when there is a willingness to take a meta perspective, you can simply distribute three cards to each participant and when they discuss an issue, at a certain moment you juts say, “Well, can we have a quick timeout? Let’s select, each one of us, one card with one question that, if answered at this moment, would broaden our view or bring together our perspectives on the issue?”

Then, you share the questions or you can even make variations on the question. The facilitator or the problem owner then selects one question and the group then brainstorms the answers on that specific question before moving further. It’s my experience that if you do that two to three times in a meeting, that you might save plenty of time and that you’re able to solve issues because you have taken and explored perspectives that have not been taken before in that meeting.

Douglas: I think that’s really fascinating. You kind of randomly shuffle out three cards to each person and as they reflect on the conversation, the topic at hand, they look at three cards they have and think about which question they have that’s going to provide the most value for them if the group were to answer or explore that question?

Jan DeVisch: Yeah. There is one but. It’s important to know that you should not use all cards in all kinds of meetings. There are…I started to distinguish between three types of we spaces in meetings. Not all meetings are equal. You have continuous improvement meetings where the focus is on the set processes that you could improve, and mostly that’s a meeting where efficiency and effectivity is center.

The second type of meetings is what I call our value stream or operational flows meetings, where people from different departments across the company participate, and where the indicators are much more linked to the bottom line of the company. The question is, how are we doing currently as a company and what kind of transversal processes do we need to change.

For example, a customer journey setting is often a value streams meeting or a continuous improvement meeting, or even lean or agile meetings do not always specify the level of complexity in which the dialog should take place to obtain good results. Depending on the type of meeting, you make a preselection of cards that you distribute. Not all questions will be helpful in all types of we spaces.

The third we space is the business modeling we space, where rethinking the business model is very key. Often, these have to do with shifting operational models, too, but that’s a meeting where a long term perspective and the future value creation in the company becomes central. You could say that the continuous improvement meetings focus on improving current value creation within the limits that teams are experiencing, but also within the degrees of freedom.

The other side is the business model we space, where the future is central, and in the middle you have the value streams meeting where there is a kind of equilibrium to be found between current and future value creation.

Douglas: It almost makes me think of Maps to the Three Horizons of Innovation.

Jan DeVisch: It resembles a bit the Three Horizons of Innovation. The difference here is that if you really know that in the continuous improvement space, you can make most progress by using a basic set of context and process thought forms while in the value streams domain. A combination of the more complex and process thought forms, combined with the relationship thought forms is essential, and in the business modeling space, you will have most breakthrough by using the transformational thought form classes.

Douglas: I want to come back to that point you made around excluding cards or hand selecting cards before the meeting. Are there any good rules for folks? Are they looking at specific categories that they would be including, or would it be more you’re flipping through and finding the questions that feel like they’re going to be pertinent for what the group’s about to encounter?

Jan DeVisch: No. If you would do that, you would use the cards in a very instrumental way and you will probably contribute to the narrowing dynamic that is in a team. What’s important is that you really make a kind of pre-assessment, what’s the type of complexity to be handled in a team, and what’s, kind of, the developmental diversity in that team, and can I expect, in that team, a downwardly or an upwardly divided dynamic.

That’s an important assessment that, as a facilitator, you can do before the meeting. In the meeting, it will be important to really get in touch with the train of thoughts in that meeting in order to make a good selection of the cards. The best is that you build upon the thought process that is going on and standing in the middle of the thought process is very important, which is quite different from a traditional facilitator’s role where you are, let’s say, on the edge of what happens in a team and that you try to give everyone a sufficient space to voice his opinion, his perspective, or that you safeguard that certain decision making procedures are followed – for example, no objection decision making processes.

Douglas: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I want to come back to that point you made around assessing the complexity, and I was really curious about the upward and downward dynamics. How can folks understand that or what’s that pre-assessment process look like?

Jan DeVisch: Often, it’s when you meet people, observing what’s important for those people in that self-conception in their identity. To make it very simple, it’s about maturity and how able you are to take a meta perspective on your own ego. Either you operate in a very egocentric way or you operate in a very self-conscious way, and there are a number of phases in between. That’s the first assessment that you can do, and participants in meetings differ in, let’s say, their ability to take a meta perspective on their own ego.

The second assessment that you do is when you look at documents, PowerPoints, all kinds of information coming from the team, even emails. They already give you an idea on the thought structures used by the team and which ones are left out, so the text analysis can be quite of help.

Douglas: Interesting. I wonder if there’s an opportunity to…Is there a software opportunity there to scan team communication and give some kind of assessment around how they’re communicating?

Jan DeVisch: I didn’t mention that but I do have a software company that, at this moment, is building that kind of software, yes.

Douglas: When should we expect that to be available?

Jan DeVisch: It will depend on the evolution of the COVID crisis. My main developer has COVID at this moment.

Douglas: Oh.

Jan DeVisch: That’s a bit annoying, but the software is already available in Dutch but not yet in English.

Douglas: Got it, cool. That’s exciting.

Jan DeVisch: It’s the software making use of semantic intelligence and semantic intelligence is something different than artificial intelligence, by which I mean that it is built on a language model and the algorithms basically make use of the language model, so the language model is built on quite a large set of hypotheses on how people’s thinking and ways of communicating in terms of thought structures and in terms of social-emotional maturity evolves throughout their adulthood, and it makes clear in what phase or stage you operate from, and even what your next steps can be.

Douglas: Interesting. A colleague of mine has been doing some really interesting work with GPT. My understanding is that GPT is not actually a semantic model but similar in the sense that it’s modeling language. He was exploring loading a giant corpus of content and letting this thing listen to the conversation in the room and suggest interesting things the team could explore from a divergent viewpoint standpoint.

It’s interesting when I think about what he was doing coupled with your notion of these thought structures. If that thing was intelligent enough to, say, not just pick something that seems semantically similar, but something that’s not only semantically similar but ties into this thought structure that needs to be introduced right now could be really fascinating.

Jan DeVisch: There are probably different ways to arrive at the same thing and many colleagues are now more and more focusing on how can we directly influencing what we can think about. A lot of that research is driven by observations from artificial intelligence, that artificial intelligence is really limited to the logical and analytical thought structures that we use, but have a lot of difficulties to address the more dialectical thought structures that we also use. Dialectics is about seeing what is not yet there. You cannot give that to a computer.

Douglas: Right. I’m going to shift gears a little bit, because I wanted to come back to the power of self-organizing teams. Why is this such a focus for you and what’s the importance as people consider the benefits?

Jan DeVisch: A lot of companies struggle with hierarchy in the sense that through work groups, through all kinds of relationships that should make the structure more agile or lean, we are kind of breaking through a hierarchy. While the ideas on self-organization are not at all new, in the 50s there was a huge attention for self-organization in the British coalmines. In the 80s, most concepts of self-organization go back to research done in the mid-80s, but nowadays it has become, again, more popular because we bump into the limits of change that we can obtain through traditional hierarchical structures.

We live in, kind of, the fourth industrial revolution which means that change is accelerating. The best way to cope with increasing complexity, because that acceleration is also about increasing the complexity, what you see is that roles and functions change faster than ever before. Self-organization seems to be kind of an attractive alternative for that, and that has been reinforced by social media, for example, by companies like Spotify who started to reconceive their structure, and that has become very popular.

I personally have followed, now, 63 self-organizing initiatives over the last years and what I see is that most of the initiatives fall back on hierarchy after two years after implementation. While that raises the question, what are the dynamics behind that, kind of, turn back these initiatives towards self-organization and self-management. That has to do with, let’s say, an insufficient understanding, in my opinion, of what it takes to embed good decision making in teams. Most of the projects on self-organization or the transition starts self-organizations, are fueled from a behavioral point of view, let’s say.

How do we agree on what needs to be done by whom and what kind of heuristics can be used for that? How can we improve our communication? What would be our competency framework, and things like that. They go, kind of, they miss the point that self-organization is not about activities. It’s about designing sub-processes in the roles and allowing people to make decisions within the set and the relationships of certain processes in the roles.

You can only do that if you start looking at thought processes, because what people see as being related and what in practice is being brought together in a kind of accountability, often is not aligned. As long as you do not align those two things, you will have dysfunctional teams and dysfunctional self-organization. Self-organization is, in many companies, kind of, an ideology, a search for a difference in how to get things organized without taking into account recent scientific research on what does it take, really, for teams to come to good decision making which is reflected in a feeling of, “I’m being a part of a willing team, here,” but the willing team has been translated in behavioral terms and the thought dynamics are pushed in the background.

Most facilitators, even, do not see those dynamics which have to do with developmental diversity of people. For example, if the majority of team members consider themselves as excellent team members, paying a lot of attention to giving respect, openness of communication, trust, etc, etc, while developmentally those people tend to avoid feedback, to push feedback forwards. They say…but if you look at reality, they put quite a number of things under the mats and they do not go into the discussion, and observing what is not discussed in a team than observing how the discussion unfolds.

Douglas: That’s really interesting that you talk about this, because it’s a pattern I’ve definitely seen with organizations, even ones that are very vocal about holacracy or self-organizing. There’s, kind of, a reversion to the mean, if you will, or going back to more hierarchical or getting rid of some of the practices. It’s interesting that you point out the decision making protocols are the things that people get hung up on.

Jan DeVisch: Yes, and, for example, holacracy has a number of decision making protocols but they have become, often, in some companies, a behavioral procedure. Facilitators spend insufficient attention to the thought processes that are taking place while applying the process.

Douglas: Got it. One thing I’ve pondered on this topic has been a lack of clarity around how individual efforts connect in to some broader need or broader purpose, because if we allow self-organizing teams, and these self-organizing teams go off on a complete tangent that’s not integrated with the value stream, the flow of work and values, that can be problematic. How do teams address that when they’re self-organizing, making sure they’re aligning with and in concert with the broader goals?

Jan DeVisch: The answer is already your question. We assume that people are able to make explicit the relationship between what they do and the broader context. That broader context can be an overarching goal, that broader context can be a shared insight, can be everything, but we assume that people do that, but that’s not natural.

Many visions and strategies don’t get translated because that translation is not a logical process. It’s a dialectical process. That means that you need to pay attention to the thought structures that are used. Connecting to a value stream, well, that requires relationship thinking and the relationship thinking that we got from our education, our university or whatever place, is often insufficient to see the systemic aspects of a situation, to see the structural relationships or the patterns in the relationships, and even doesn’t allow us to look at implicit relationships.

We are only focusing on the explicit relationships, so there are a lot of thought structures that we are only becoming aware of when somebody makes them explicit, and then you can start working with them, but as long as they stay implicit, you might even expect that the degree of self-organization is a function of the diversity or the fluidity of thinking present in a group, and the type of diversity in social-emotional maturity, so it’s a kind of a combination between both.

Douglas: This is making me think about this concept of a resistance to learning or, some people have referred to it as the curse of knowledge. There’s a notion that an expert knows a lot of things and they’re trying to think or believe something that’s contradictory to what the things they’ve known to be true, it’s challenging, whereas someone new … It’s a classic example of a big company getting disrupted by a startup because they’re thinking different and they’re looking at the world from a different perspective.

I’m wondering, just knowing that’s a challenge that we have as organizations and as people, how hard is it as a facilitator to get people to shift their thought structures and see and embrace different ones? It seems like there would be a lot of cognitive resistance there, and what do we need to do to help people make that switch?

Jan DeVisch: One key that you have as a facilitator is looking at someone’s zone of proximal development. Everyone has a zone of proximal development where learning is comfortable, and then an anxiety zone. What most facilitators that I know ignore is that proximal zone of development which is determined by where are you on your developmental path. It’s still very rare to find facilitators with an adult development approach of meetings or the adult development diversity that you have in meetings, and that means that you cannot ask every question to everyone, because some questions will be too abstract and will be pushed away.

You need to build yourself as a facilitator continuously hypothesis on where is the developmental level of that person and what kind of mind opening question could make a difference for that person at this moment, and if you do that you meet very little resistance. Resistance is a concept created by facilitators. People do not resist if you respect them in where they are and where they are evolving to.

Douglas: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think that’s an important mindset to have as a facilitator because if they’re situationally resistant because what we’re asking them to do is outside of their zone, it’s not that they’re intentionally doing something to be dysfunctional or push back on us. I think, understanding and embracing where people are at’s really important.

Wow, it’s been really fun chatting with you. I got to say, I’m a big fan of card decks and this one that you’ve made, it sounds really incredible. I’m certainly going to go out and get the rethinking game right after we wrap up, here. I recommend everyone to go and do that, and definitely very fascinating hearing about these 28 thinking structures and how we can use them to shift the conversation and really get people thinking and working together in a completely different way. I think that’s a powerful lens that you have and hopefully more facilitators can start conducting meetings in this way.

Really awesome to hear about this stuff. I love the work that you’re doing. I hope you continue to dive deeper. Best of luck on the software. I think there’s a lot of potential there, and just want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final message.

Jan DeVisch: Develop an interest in adult development, I would say, because it’s a domain that has been undervalued. It has created since the 70s a lot of insights in how human beings evolve through adulthood and it always fascinates me that so few people take those insights into account in their facilitation work. I’m regularly myself sharing bits of insights through LinkedIn posts. I have a LinkedIn address, yandevisch, one word. You can find me on LinkedIn, and through the books that I’m writing. They’re all available on my website, www.connecttransform.be, or you can find my most recent book also on Amazon.

Douglas: Excellent. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you today, Jan. Thanks for being on the show.

Jan DeVisch: Thank you for being invited, and good luck with the continuing this beautiful initiative, so, thank you.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released, and if you want more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about working together, voltagecontrol.com.