TWTP #4: Bob Chartier on How to use the Power of Engagement and Dialogue to Transform your Organization and Community

An example of engagement at work: looking up at the restored King Eddy Hotel sign in the newly dubbed Music Mile district in Calgary.
The restored King Eddy Hotel sign in Calgary’s newly dubbed Music Mile.

This episode is for all the meeting haters out there! If you are wondering how you can use engagement to “turn-on” your workplace and your community, this conversation is filled with pure gold!

In Episode #4 of the Working Together Podcast, I have a conversation with Bob Chartier, who is well known in Canada as a thought leader, author and a down to earth practitioner of new models for employee and citizen engagement, systems thinking and building leadership at all levels.

His style of leadership is based on the concept of an entrepreneurial “practice” off the corner of the desk. This approach is predicated on the belief that the real job of leaders is to create more leaders and that leadership can be found in the file rooms as well as the boardrooms.

During our conversation we explored Bob’s lifelong commitment to andragogy, his work with community groups in Calgary over the past few years creating the “Music Mile”, and why you shouldn’t “pitch” your ideas to your boss (among other things).

I hope you enjoy it!


Some big ideas exchanged: Engagement, Dialogue, The Learning Organization, Calgary’s “Music Mile”, the deleterious effect of Email, etc.

  • Hey teacher! Instead of thinking of what you need to cover in a classroom, design your approach to teaching from the vantage point of the students. What does the student need to learn? The teacher as a resource rather than an instructor. (Whether we are teaching a classroom, or leading a meeting, how often do we just come at the exchange from the approach of information and “knowledge transfer”? We need to spend as much time on instructional design, as on content development… who is your audience and what do the need to learn? How can you be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”?)
  • On balancing theory and practice: the importance of keeping the blue collar approach in the white collar job. Give people practical tools that they can use on Monday morning, but also, don’t throw theory completely out! If you give people only the practical tools, people don’t get the context for their practice. (Provide both the theory and the practice, but lean more heavily on practice and actionable tools that your audience can try tomorrow!)
  • Finding your practice at the edge of your desk. (Whatever it is that will push the dial on your work, it is sure to be something that is done in addition to what you have to get done. Ask yourself: do I have room at the edge of my desk to take on a practice that I can leverage through other projects, and through my career? If no, what can I change about my workload and schedule to carve out the time to develop and maintain a practice? What practice will it be? Engagement? Design thinking? Leadership? Implementing new technologies? Etc.)
  • Engagement is its own continuous practice–not to be confused with facilitation or consultation, which are both episodic. To wit, a facilitator helps a room of people get to where they are already headed, easier (hence, facile). Consultation is a slow bureaucratic process, rife with approval bottlenecks and policy logjams, often treating public engagement as a rubber stamp. Engaging is about turning on a system of people, technologies, processes, etc. and keeping it on, every day. (Try this: take a big-ish, complicated project that you have to do, and answer the following questions in a mind-map: what are the processes and systems that tie into this? Who are the people involved? How’s communication going? For all of these, what’s working well, what’s tricky, what could be different? How might you better engage these systems of people and things through intentional conversations with partners, teams, and leaders?)
  • How instantaneous exchange of information (through email, slack, texting and other technologies like this) has taken us away from the capability to have deep work and deep conversations in our workplaces. (We sit at our desks, mere feet from one another, sending emails about all manner of thing! Our entire workplace culture has dramatically transformed: instead of walking to an office or cubicle, we avoid interrupting each other and send an email instead… BUT if you don’t have the self-discipline to relegate your email to certain times of day, you are in a constant state of interruption.)
  • Hybrid engagement model: designing blended digital communication and in-person gatherings. (Within a sea of online webinars, instructional youtube videos, and turnkey online courses, we need to apply our best instructional design efforts to blending online and in-person learning in a way that engages participants… this is something that Working Together is working on in the background…How do we use new digital technologies in a way that isn’t dehumanizing, that leverages our capability to have dialogue together?)
  • The “tick-box approach” versus ongoing engagement: how can we put together an engagement strategy that is continuous? (Hint: it is critical that leaders understand the importance of engagement and champions it as an opportunity to activate people, rather than an opportunity to comply… both inside organizations and in communities)
  • Train your own people. Build strategic capacity in your organization. (Some services shouldn’t be contracted out. Instead, develop communities of practice within your organization or community, where practitioners can share learning, mentoring and coaching–all towards building strategic capacity and developing “in-house” talent. Get your own people doing it!)
  • “Get off your knees”: “How can I help?” model of leadership versus pitching your idea. (Hey young people: stop going in with guns blazing to yer boss! Save your pitch deck for specific audiences–i.e. investors. Getting buy-in takes a whole lot more than a rapid fire, “salesy” pitch. How can you convince those with power in different settings? Show empathy for your leaders, understand the strategic context, and ask how you can help.) 

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

  • Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology (also, here for Owen’s own words, and here for his book);
  • Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger’s concept of the Community of Practice;
  • Peter Senge’s concept of The Learning Organization and Systems Thinking;
  • Bob Chartier’s piece on Strategic Planning;
  • The French Quarter in New Orleans;
  • Calgary’s Music Mile (news here, here, and here);
  • Rescuing Policy by Don Lenihan;
  • “This is the time to go back and re-read the writings of David Bohm and his acolyte, William Isaacs. Bohm, you will recall, was a contemporary of Albert Einstein. He became discouraged with the world of physics after bumping up against the worst of the McCarthy era. He decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of dialogue. Dialogue, if you will, is the cognac of conversation. Simply put, dialogue is a way for people to enquire together through focused conversation. It differs from discussion (a word which comes from the same root as percussion and concussion) wherein people tend to bounce ideas around and perhaps even try to score points. Dialogue comes from the Greek dialogos with dia meaning word and logos meaning through. Dialogue is much more the flow of meaning through a group of people. Four essential practices include voicing: speaking your authentic voice, listening: deeply without resistance, respecting: yourself and others integrity of position and suspending: stepping back from your deeply held assumptions and certainties. Dialogue requires time, skilled moderation and long term commitment. It is not for quick decision-making and immediate action.” from: Bureaucratically Incorrect: Letters to a Young Public Servant by Bob Chartier (out of print);
  • Bob Chartier’s new book, Handcrafted Leadership: The Art & Craft of Building Engaged Workplaces and Communities;
  • Chapter 6, “The Low Information Diet: Cultivating Selective Ignorance” in The Four Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich by Tim Ferriss. He has a whole category on his blog with different articles and tools to shelter yourself from the blizzard of shallow info;
  • “Preventative maintenance” from Margaret J. Wheatley’s work: book 1 hour per week, with an open agenda, and just have a conversation (sorry no internet resource or reference could be found!);
  • The World Cafe;
  • The Flipped Classroom Model: treat instruction as something you do alone, treat homework as something you do together.

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

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