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The Process of Discovery

“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”     — Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Did you know that the discovery of the Titanic was accidental?  That Robert Ballard and crew were really on a spy mission disguised as an exploration to find the ship? …an accident meeting a prepared mind. On Saturday at the Forum, Robert Ballard, ocean explorer, discoverer of the Titanic spoke at the Richmond Forum.  His hour long lecture was riveting, and there is promise of more to come as the 100 year anniversary of the event approaches in April of next year.  Dr. Ballard lives his life in the pursuit of discovery – not to extract and display, but to learn.  He leaves the artifacts to continue to tell the story over time.

As I began the discovery analysis for our project, I started thinking about Ballard’s approach as it relates to process consulting.  I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a parallel.  Working through the layers of discovery, have we been extracting artifacts and holding them up for display?  If we do so, does that contribute to what is learned or just put the concept safely under glass for awhile?  It feels great to have a ‘breakthrough’ in the discovery process, but it feels discouraging when the artifact turns out to have little value or interest after the initial excitement.

I wonder if Robert Ballard ever felt this way.

What have we learned from the discovery?  What are we going to do about it?  How prepared has the mind been to meet (and deal with) the accident?  What is the CLIENT DOING about the problem?

In one of Block’s additional content papers, The Oversight Fallacy, he warns, “A cost is incurred the moment we start believing that if we closely and critically watch something, it will get better.”  I wonder if we have been spending too much time closely and critically watching our client work through her problem in her way and not enough time actually being helpful.

Block suggests that to turn oversight into insight, one has to rethink the role.   Three of the ways he suggests to do this may be worth it for our client to try:

  • Take power and status out of the focus and turn to one of help and service.  Our client can ‘be helpful’ by shedding the power and status of the old model of business and use her abilities to make the new model successful.  We haven’t focused on making the new model successful.
  • Accountability should flow in both directions.  It is time for the client to state how she is contributing to the problem.   It is time for us as process consultants to make this happen.  Block says, “When we begin to value insight above oversight, and invest more in connection than in correction, we make real accountability possible.”
  • Make dialogue the purpose of meetings.  Johnson and Johnson theorized that dialogue’s purpose is to increase the learning – that it provides a way to achieve mutual goals and be motivated to strive for mutual benefit. In this way, dialogue is a process of discovery – but, like Robert Ballard, not one of extracting for the purpose of display, but for learning.

Let’s hope we can prepare our client’s mind.  You never know when an ‘accident’ may happen.  Will we sink or will we swim?

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