(First published, October 2001)
Organizational life is full of paradoxes. It looks as if you always get contradictory advice. For example, one manager suggests that all your training should be on the Web. Another manager extols the virtues of classroom teaching. In a situation like this, it is useless to ask, “Which is better: online learning or instructor-led learning?” The answer is invariably, “It all depends.” In the complex real world, the effectiveness of any strategy depends on the context. For example, training effectiveness depends on the content, objectives, learners, technology, and facilitators. In order for you to come up with the best strategy, you must explore the advantages and disadvantages of conflicting guidelines.
That's what BOTH SIDES helps you to do.
To better understand conflicting guidelines by discussing the positive and negative aspects of each.
Any number, organized into triads.
30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the number of factors and the time allowed for each discussion.
Equipment and Supplies
Specify the general topic or issue that you want to explore. Then come up with a list of several opposing pairs of advice (“dichotomies”) related to that topic. The effectiveness of this activity depends on your ability to come up with a dozen or more conflicting pairs of advice.
Here's an example:
Topic: Effective training
- Content is important vs. Process is important
- We should focus on learning outcomes vs. We should focus on learning activities
- The teacher is an expert vs. The teacher is a fellow learner
- Learn from doing vs. Learn from reflecting on what you did
- Learners cooperate with each other vs. Learners compete with each other
- Use high-touch strategies vs. Use high-tech equipment
- Learn independently vs. Learn in team
- Present the content through graphics vs. Present the content through text
- Develop specific objectives vs. Develop general goals
- Focus on facilitating learning vs. Focus on transmitting information
- Create a playful learning environment vs. Create a serious learning environment
- Provide a well-organized structure vs. Provide the freedom to explore
- Plan the lessons carefully vs. Improvise your lessons
- Emphasize the underlying theory vs. Focus on practical applications
Topic: Workplace violence. Dichotomies: Empowerment vs. Control. Prevention vs. Damage control.
Topic: Hospital management. Dichotomies: Patient satisfaction vs. Employee satisfaction. Specialization vs. Generalization.
Topic: Conflict management. Dichotomies: Assertiveness vs. Empathy. Intention vs. Impact.
Topic: Teamwork. Dichotomies: Compliance vs. Challenge. Shared leadership vs. Assigned leadership.
Topic: Cross-Cultural Communication. Dichotomies: Individualism vs. Collectivism. Direct vs. Indirect Communication.
Topic: Sales. Dichotomies: Product knowledge vs. People knowledge. Needs focus vs. Solution focus.
Topic: Change Management. Dichotomies: Charismatic leader vs. Invisible change agent. Top-down change vs. Bottom-up change.
Brief participants. Introduce the topic to be explored. Identify conflicting guidelines related to topic. Discuss how these guidelines make sense in different contexts. Stress the importance of exploring polarized and paradoxical guidelines to better understand the factors that influence productivity and improved performance.
Organize participants into triads. Divide participants into groups of three. If two participants are left over, ask them to form a triad with you. If only one participant is left over, ask her to play the role of observer.
Assign roles. Ask each triad to identify the person who most closely resembles you. Ask this person to play the role of the Neutral Listener for the first round. Explain that the other two members of the triad will become the Right Advocate and the Left Advocate. Announce that the Right Advocate for each round will become the Neutral Listener for the next round.
Explain the role of the Neutral Listener. The person in the “middle” of each triad should invite the Advocates to present their positions. While an advocate is making her presentation, the Neutral Listener should maintain eye contact, nod, smile, and demonstrate other nonverbal behaviors associated with active listening. However, it is important the Neutral Observer hide her personal opinions and listen to both Advocates with equal interest.
Explain the role of the Advocates. Each advocate will be assigned one of two conflicting guidelines related to topic. Both advocates will prepare a presentation supporting their position and attacking the opposing position. After 15 seconds, the Neutral Listener will point to one of the Advocates. This person will make her presentation for 60 seconds. Immediately after this, the other Advocate will make her presentation.
Process the first dichotomy. Announce the first guideline for the Right Advocate. Immediately announce the conflicting guideline for the Left Advocate. Ask all advocates to get ready for their presentation. After 15 seconds, blow the whistle and instruct the Neutral Listeners to point to either observer to make her presentation. Pause for a minute. Blow the whistle again and ask the other Advocate to make her presentation. Blow the whistle after another minute. Randomly select a Neutral Listener and ask her to summarize the key points from both presentations.
Continue with additional dichotomies. Thank the Advocates and Neutral Listeners. Ask the Right Advocates in each triad to assume the role of the Neutral Listener for the next round. (The Left Advocate from the previous round will now become the Right Advocate and the original Neutral Listener will become the new Right Advocate.) Announce the next pair of conflicting guidelines and conduct another round of the activity. Repeat the same process with each dichotomy.
Conclude the session. Invite participants to suggest other pairs of conflicting guidelines. Treat them in the same fashion. When all dichotomies have been discussed, conduct a debriefing discussion to figure out how to creatively select and synthesize contradictory guidelines.