Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments

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The meeting had been going on for a while but it was going nowhere.  Finally John came out and said it,  “There is no way I can do this in 2 days,” he said. “It will take me at least a week.”

There it was, the point of contention between the developer and his manager. Now that it was out in the open, the real work of meeting could begin; the two could start talking about a realistic delivery date.

The manager, let’s call him Jack, was not pleased, “Don’t tell me a simple two-page web app – which you have done several times before I should add – will take  you a week to do. ”

“OK, let me walk you through the details,” said John.

….and so it went for another half hour or so, Jack and John arguing about what would be a reasonable timeframe for completing the requested work.

Dialogue, rationality and action

Most developers, designers  and indeed most “doers” on project teams– would have had several conversations similar to the one above. These folks spend a fair bit of time  discussing matters relating to the projects they work on. In such discussions, the aim is to come to a shared understanding of the issue under discussion and  a shared commitment on future action.  In the remainder of this post I’ll take a look at project discussions from a somewhat  philosophical perspective, with a view to understanding some of the obstacles to open dialogue and how they can be addressed.

When we participate in discussions we want our views to be taken seriously. Consequently, we present our views through statements that we hope others will see as being rational – i.e. based on sound premises and logical thought.  One presumes that John – when he made his claim about the delivery date being unrealistic – was willing to present arguments that would convince Jack that this was indeed so. The point is that John is judged (by Jack and others in the meeting) based on the validity of the statements he (John) makes. When Jack’s  validity claims are contested, debate ensues with the aim of  getting to some kind of agreement.

The philosophy underlying such a process of discourse (which is simply another word for “debate” or “dialogue”)  is described in the theory of communicative rationality proposed by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.  The  basic premise of communicative rationality is that rationality (or reason) is tied to social interactions and dialogue. In other words, the exercise of reason can  occur only through dialogue.  Such communication, or mutual deliberation,  ought to result in a general agreement about the issues under discussion.  Only once such agreement is achieved can there be a consensus on actions that need to be taken.  Habermas refers to the  latter  as communicative action,  i.e.  action resulting from collective deliberation.

[Note: Just to be clear:  I have not read Habermas’ books, so my discussion is based entirely on secondary sources: papers by authors who have studied Habermas in detail. Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on the topic is  quite good, and well worth a read.]

Validity Claims

Since the objective in project discussions is to achieve shared understanding of issues and shared commitment on future action, one could say that such discussions are aimed at achieving communicative action.  The medium through which mutual understanding is achieved is speech – i.e.  through  statements that a speaker makes based on his or her perceptions of reality.  Others involved in the dialogue do the same,  conveying their perceptions (which may or may not match the speaker’s).

Now, statements made in discussions  have implicit or explicit validity claims – i.e. they express a speaker’s belief that something is true or valid, at least in the context of the dialogue.  Participants who disagree with a speaker are essentially contesting claims.  According to the theory of communicative action, every utterance makes the following validity claims:

  1. It makes a claim about objective (or external) reality. John’s statement about the deadline being impossible refers to the timing of an objective event – the delivery of working software. Habermas refers to this as the truth claim.
  2. It says something about social reality – that is, it expresses something about the relationship between the speaker and listener(s). The relationship is typically defined by social or workplace norms,  for example – the relationship between a manager and employee as in the case of John and Jack. John’s statement is an expression of disagreement with his manager.  Of course, he believes his position is justified – that it ought to take about a week to deliver the software. Habermas refers to this as the rightness claim.
  3. It expresses something about subjective reality – that is, the speaker’s personal viewpoint. John believes, based on his experience, intutition etc., that the deadline is impossible. For communication to happen, Jack must work on the assumption that John is being honest – i.e. that John truly believes the deadline is impossible, even though Jack may not agree. Habermas refers to this as the truthfulness claim.

The validity claims and their relation to rationality are nicely summed up in the Wikipedia article on communicative rationality, and I quote:

By earnestly offering a speech act to another in communication, a speaker claims not only that what they say is true but also that it is normatively right and honest . Moreover, the speaker implicitly offers to justify these claims if challenged and justify them with reasons. Thus, if a speaker, when challenged, can offer no acceptable reasons for the normative framework they implied through the offering of a given speech act, that speech act would be unacceptable because it is irrational.

When John says that the task is going to take him a week, he implies that he can justify the statement (if required) in three ways:  it will take him a week (objective), that it ought to take him a week (normative – based on rightness)  and that he truly believes it will take him a week (subjective).

In all dialogues validity claims are implied, but rarely tested;  we usually take what people say at face value, we don’t ask them to justify their claims. Nevertheless, it is assumed that they can offer justifications should we ask them to. Naturally, we will do so only when we have reason to doubt the validity of what they say.  It is at that point that discourse begins. As Wener Ulrich puts it in this paper:

In everyday communication, the validity basis of speech is often treated as unproblematic. The purpose consists in exchanging information rather than in examining validity claims. None of the three validity claims is then made an explicit subject of discussion. It is sufficient for the partners to assume (or anticipate, as Habermas  likes to say) that speakers are prepared to substantiate their claims if asked to do so, and that it is at all times possible for the participants to switch to a different mode of communication in which one or several validity claims are actually tested. Only when validity claims do indeed become problematic, as one of the participants feels compelled to dispute either the speaker’s sincerity or the empirical and/or normative content of his statements, ordinary communication breaks down and discourse begins.

Progress in project discussions actually depends on such breakdown in “ordinary communication” – good project decisions emerge from open deliberation about the pros and cons of competing approaches. Only once this is done can one move to action.

Conditions for ideal discourse

All this sounds somewhat idealistic, and it is. Habermas noted five prerequisites for open debate. They are:

  1. Inclusion: all affected parties should be included in the dialogue.
  2. Autonomy: all participants should be able to present and criticise validity claims independently.
  3. Empathy: participants must be willing to listen to and understand claims made by others.
  4. Power neutrality: power differences (levels of authority) between participants should not affect the discussion.
  5. Transparency: participants must not indulge in strategic actions (i.e. lying!).

In this paper Bent Flyvbjerg adds a sixth point:  that the group should be able to take as long as it needs to achieve consensus – Flyvbjerg calls this the requirement of unlimited time.

From this list it is clear that open discourse (or communicative rationality)  is an ideal that is difficult to achieve in practice.  Nevertheless, because  it is always possible to improve the quality of dialogue on projects, it behooves us as project professionals to strive towards the ideal. In the next section I’ll look at one practical way to do this.

Boundary judgements

Most times in discussions we jump straight to the point, without bothering to explain the assumptions that underpin our statements.  By glossing over assumptions, however, we leave ourselves open to being  misunderstood because  others have no means to assess the validity of our statements. Consequently it becomes difficult for them to empathise with us. For example, when John says that it is impossible to finish the work in less than a week, he ought to support his claim by stating the assumptions he makes and how these bear on his argument.  He may be assuming that he has to do the work in addition to all the other stuff he has on his plate.  On the other hand, he may be assuming too much because his manager may be willing to reassign the other stuff to someone else.   Unless this assumption is  brought out in the open, the two will continue to argue without reaching agreement.

Werner Ulrich pointed out that the  issue of tacit assumptions and unstated frameworks is essentially one of defining the boundaries within which one’s claims hold. He coined the term boundary judgement to describe  facts and norms that a speaker deems relevant to his or her statements. A boundary judgement determines the context within which a  statement holds and  also determines the range of validity of the statement.  For example, John is talking about the deadline being impossible in the context of his current work situation;  if the situation changed, so might his estimate.  Ulrich invented the notion of boundary critique to address this point. In essence, boundary critique is a way to uncover boundary judgements by asking the right questions. According to Ulrich, such boundary questions probe the assumptions made by various stakeholders. He classifies boundary questions into four categories. These are:

  • Motivation: this includes questions such as:
    • Why are we doing this project?
    • Who are we doing it for?
    • How will we measure the benefits of the project once it is done?
  • Power: this includes questions such as:
    • Who is the key decision-maker regarding scope?
    • What resources are controlled by the decision-maker?
    • What are the resources that cannot be controlled by the decision-maker (i.e. what are the relevant environmental factors)?
  • Knowledge:  This includes:
    • What knowledge is needed to do this work?
    • Who (i.e which professionals) have this knowledge?
    • What are the key success factors – e.g. stakeholder consensus, management support, technical soundness etc?
  • Legitimation: This includes:
    • Who are the stakeholders (including those that are indirectly affected by the project)?
    • How do we ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are taken into account?
    • How can  conflicting views of project objectives be reconciled?

The questions above are drawn from a paper by Ulrich.  I have paraphrased them in a way that makes sense in project environments.

Many of these questions are difficult to address openly, especially those relating to power and  legitimation. Answers to these often bump up against organisational politics or power. The point, however, is that once these questions are asked, such constraints become evident to all. Only after this happens can discourse proceed in the full knowledge of what is possible and what isn’t.

Before closing this section I’ll note that there are  other techniques that do essentially the same thing1, but I won’t discuss them here as I’ve already exceeded a reasonable word count.


Someone recently mentioned to me that the problem in project meetings (and indeed any conversation) is that participants  see their own positions  as being rational, even when they are not.  Consequently, they stick to their views, even when faced with evidence to the contrary. According to the theory of communicative rationality, however, such folks aren’t being rational because they do not subject their positions and views to “trial by  argumentation”.  Rationality lies in  dialogue, not in individual statements or positions. A productive discussion is one in which validity claims are continually challenged until they converge on an optimal decision.  The best (or most rational) position  is  one that  emerges from such collective deliberation.

In closing, a caveat is in order – a complete discussion of dialogue in projects (or organisations) would take an entire book and more. My discussion here has merely highlighted a few issues (and a technique)  that I daresay are rarely touched upon in management texts or courses. There are many more tools and techniques that can help improve the quality of discourse within organisations.  Paul Culmsee and I discuss some of these in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.


1 Those familiar with soft systems methodology (SSM) will recognise the parallels between Ulrich’s approach and the CATWOE checklist of SSM. CATWOE is essentially a means of exposing boundary judgements.

Written by K

December 16, 2010 at 10:24 pm

19 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ricky_elias, Kailash Awati. Kailash Awati said: More than just talk – rational dialogue in project environments: http://bit.ly/h3MAJe […]


  2. Good and useful post.



    December 17, 2010 at 12:58 am

    • Thanks! If you are interested in learning more about communicative rationality and boundary judgements in the context of information systems development, I recommend reading the two papers by Ulrich that I have referenced in the post.





      December 17, 2010 at 10:11 pm

  3. Thanks for another (as ever) lucid post, Kailash. In case you haven’t made the connections already Chris Argyris’s “On Organizational Learning” and the dispute resolution framework developed at the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard Law School (popularised in Roger Fisher’s and William Ury’s “Getting to Yes”) also speak to the rationale for, and a means to move closer to, this communicative ideal.


    David Price

    December 19, 2010 at 1:35 am

    • David,

      Many thanks for your feedback and the pointer to the HLS dispute resolution framework. Much appreciated!





      December 19, 2010 at 7:07 am

      • Hi Kailash, just finished reading your book… congratulations!

        One point regarding the HLS dispute resolution framework… while their aims are admirable, their strategy of “getting people to leave their positions behind and focus on their needs” is not in my experience the most effective approach to accomplishing that goal. It’s analogous to exhorting people to listen to one another, rather than creating an environment where people can do so naturally.

        A more effective alternative, is embedded in the work that you are already doing with Dialogue Mapping. By welcoming participants’ initial solutions, while also welcoming other people’s concerns, data, alternative strategies, etc., in a context where each person feels both “held” and “heard”, we accomplish the goal much more quickly and easily — helping participants to loosen their attachments to their own initial ‘positions’, consider their own and others’ underlying needs, and coming up with new and creative approaches that respond to all of those needs.

        This is one of the common features of Dialogue Mapping and Dynamic Facilitation — and, it’s one of the key ways in which these two practices are “heretical” with regard to “conventional wisdom”.


        Rosa Zubizarreta

        December 16, 2011 at 12:18 am

        • Hi Rosa,

          Thanks for your comment. As you mention, the trick is to get people talking about their positions and concerns without any other pressures. That is exactly what I found unique about DM when I first encountered it: given the right environment, people can simply start without having to worry about whether they are doing it right. I have no experience with Dynamic Facilitation, but from what you say it appears to follow the same philosophy. I really must find out more about it.

          Many thanks for reading our book – I do hope you enjoyed it.





          December 16, 2011 at 4:01 am

  4. Hi Kailash,

    Given your interest in Werner’s work, and in Compendium as a way to collectively visualize the conversation, you may be interested to see this paper which came out of a joint project with Werner called ECOSENSUS: http://projects.kmi.open.ac.uk/ecosensus

    On p6 is a screenshot showing how we designed a set of Compendium templates which ask the probing questions which Werner’s boundary critique asks:

    Berardi A., Bachler M., Bernard C., Buckingham-Shum S., Ganapathy S., Mistry J., Reynolds, M., and Ulrich W (2006). The ECOSENSUS Project: Co-Evolving Tools, Practices and Open Content for Participatory Natural Resource Management. Second International Conference on e-Social Science. 28-30 June 2006, Manchester, UK. http://projects.kmi.open.ac.uk/ecosensus/publications/Berardi%20A%20et%20al%20(2006).pdf

    We’ve also written elsewhere about how you can use argumentation theory to ask a different set of critical questions about the implicit premises behind everyday arguments, eg. an argument by analogy, or appealing to some presumed authority:


    Of course you’re not going to do this with everything that anyone says, but if a claim is judged to be critical to a decision, or the costs of poor analysis are high enough, it might be worth unpicking such claims to ask the critical questions.




    Simon Buckingham Shum

    December 30, 2010 at 1:12 am

    • Simon,

      Many thanks for the reference to the ECOSENSUS paper and the link to the argumentation scheme templates.

      The project is an excellent illustration of how critical systems heuristics (or related techniques such as SSM) can be used in tandem with visual argumentation tools to lend some structure to the (often messy) business of tackling wicked problems.





      December 31, 2010 at 12:02 am

  5. While not entirely related this last point (“participants see their own positions as being rational, even when they are not”) made me think about perspectives and viewpoints.

    This caused me to think back to a story I heard repeated a short time ago which I thought would be fun to share here:


    A wealthy man visited the office of his wise friend. He asked his friend why philosophers frowned upon wealth.

    His friend responded “look out that window and tell me what you see.”

    The wealthy man replied “I see the city market, with everyone walking around.”

    Then his friend said “Now, look at this mirror and tell me what you see.”

    The wealthy man replied “I see myself.”

    The wise friend explained that the only difference between a window glass and a mirror glass is a thin amount of silver. “You see, sometimes if you have just a little bit of silver you fail to see everything else and can only see yourself.”


    What I am highlighting isn’t the fact that greed or wealth might cause a person to become more self oriented but that sometimes it’s only a small difference in perspective that can completely change the focus/reality.

    One of the biggest challenges I have with debates is that there are many unknowns/uncertainties about the individual you are conversing with which may not be directly related to the point of discourse but that are important to achieve shared understanding.

    Often I find that it’s these individual unknowns/uncertainties which require further conversation (note not discourse) that are the key to being able to successfully debate something quickly and effectively (where both truly agree/commit) since it often ensures the best shared understanding.

    I guess what I am trying to get at (but having trouble wording) is that personal understanding of individuals greatly improves your ability to debate successfully with them as it helps you understand their perspective. I also believe that most people “see their own positions as being rational, even when they are not” only because we are not looking at it from their perspective/reality.

    While I have used a variety of techniques the one that I feel has still helped me the most is the most basic one of “get to know who you are talking to” or better articulated “Seek to understand before being understood.”

    Kailash you always get my head a spinning. Thanks!


    Richard Harbridge

    December 31, 2010 at 5:41 am

  6. Richard,

    Thank you for highlighting the importance of relationship-building in open dialogue. Indeed, this is the key to understanding and appreciating other viewpoints that may be very different from our own. It falls under the empathy requirement mentioned in the post. Unfortunately this requirement is hard to satisfy because it cannot be mandated, unlike inclusion, which can. This is one of the reasons why shared understanding is so hard to achieve – it depends on people choosing to behave in a cooperative way.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment – I’m going to forward it on to some of my colleagues.





    January 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm

  7. […] is achieved can there be a consensus on actions that need to be taken.  See my article on rational dialogue in project environments for more on communicative rationality and the barriers to […]


  8. […] This isn’t easy because people tend to believe their views are reasonable (even when they aren’t!). The only way to resolve these differences are through dialogue or collective deliberation. As I have written in my post on rational dialogue in project environments: […]


  9. […]  For a more detailed discussion of what communicative rationality entails, see my post  entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments or Chapter 7 of the book I wrote with Paul […]


  10. […]  of communicative rationality and its relevance in organisational settings, see my post entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments. For a more detailed (and dare I say, entertaining) introduction to communicative rationality with […]


  11. […] such a  holding environment that provides psychological safety to the team and encourages rational (or open) dialogue  between all project stakeholders (yes, including project sponsors). I won’t elaborate on […]


  12. […] his eye. Habermas! Rich recalled a class in which the prof had talked about Habermas’ work on communicative rationality and its utility in making sense of ambiguous issues in management. It was in that lecture that the […]


  13. […] lies in Juergen Habermas’ theory of communicative rationaility that I have discussed in detail in this post. I’ll explain the basic idea via the following excerpt from that […]


  14. […] analytically-inclined people think sensemaking is a waste of time because they see it as “just talk”. So, when teaching sensemaking, I begin with quantitative techniques to deal with uncertainty, such […]


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