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  • Toby Sinclair

Tate Modern + Babel + Mental Models + Dialogue + Agile Transformation

This weekend I took a trip to Tate Modern, London. One of the exhibitions that caught my eye was Cildo Meireles ‘Babel’ (2001)

Babel 2001 is a large-scale sculptural installation that takes the form of a circular tower made from hundreds of second-hand analogue radios that the artist has stacked in layers. The radios are tuned to a multitude of different stations and are adjusted to the minimum volume at which they are audible. Nevertheless, they compete with each other and create a cacophony of low, continuous sound, resulting in inaccessible information, voices or music.In describing this work, Meireles refers to a ‘tower of incomprehension’ (quoted in Tate Modern 2008, p.168). The installation manifests, quite literally, a Tower of Babel, relating it to the biblical story of a tower tall enough to reach the heavens, which, offending God, caused him to make the builders speak in different tongues. Their inability to communicate with one another caused them to become divided and scatter across the earth and, moreover, became the source of all of mankind’s conflicts.

Agile Transformation and the ‘tower of incomprehension’

Immersed in the installation it dawned upon me that this is a perfect representation of Agile Transformation. The ‘tower of incomprehension’ represented the many different people involved across an organisation and their language of transformation. It was almost like the radios in Cildo Meireles’ installation were the voices of the organisation.

How can we avoid the ‘tower of incomprehension’?

This becomes incredibly difficult in any large scale change journey. A core transformation team might build a strong understanding of the vision, goals and language of the transformation but how does this spread through the organisation. Building a shared vision and mental models as the transformation spreads through the organisation is one strategy that can help. Shared Mental Models is one of the disciplines that Peter Senge highlights in a Learning Organisation. To help build shared mental models Senge talks about David Bohm’s Dialogue:

Dialogue is a way of observing, collectively, how hidden values and intentions can control our behavior, and how unnoticed cultural differences can clash without our realizing what is occurring. It can therefore be seen as an arena in which collective learning takes place and out of which a sense of increased harmony, fellowship and creativity can arise.

Bohm highlights that three conditions are required to enter Dialogue:

All participants must “suspend” their assumptions, literally to hold them “as if suspended before us”;

All participants must regard one another as colleagues;

There must be a ‘facilitator’ who ‘holds the context’ of dialogue. (Senge, p. 243)

Is your organisation creating a ‘tower of incomprehension’?

If so, try experimenting with shared mental models through dialogue which in turn might help to build a tower of transformation.

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