Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dionysian Process: An Overview

Part 39 of Prisoners of the Real

Dionysian leadership is rooted in a purpose- rather than problem-oriented process, a mutable approach through which people promote ideas. The order of the steps depends on the group context at the point when the process begins – in other words, the current character of the place – and on the varying perceptions and beliefs of the group's current members. In short, it is a model of spontaneous and responsive sequence. The leader is a guide who creates a road map as the group determines what the job should be.

The following steps are part of two basic phases of organizational development: purpose-finding and system-building. Though they are particularly effective in newer groups, or those involved in a serious process of evaluation, they can also be used to help maintain normal systemic harmony.


* The Dionysian leader often begins with an inspired idea, some intuitive intellectual sympathy with the state of the group or environment. This mental leap points to a new purpose, a break in the continuity of thought that follows the beaten path. The development of heliocentric theory by Copernicus sprang from such an inspired notion, as did Newton's law of gravity, Darwin's concepts concerning species evolution, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Each of these scientists was at first unable to explain his ideas logically on the basis of recognized premises.

Einstein described his sensation at the time of his great leap: "It seemed to me that the earth had moved from under my feet and nowhere in sight was there any firm ground on which to build." In the process of defining group purpose, therefore, the starting point may simply be a hunch, a conceptual kernel that changes as it encounters other ideas.

* Purpose grows from collective and individual experiences of the past. It is a composite of present and prior commitments to images of the future. The Dionysian leader, therefore, looks at the history of his group's purpose, and shares the findings with others.

Each person develops an "overall point of view" toward this vision of purpose and expresses. The most effective way is in the form of an epigram. After reflecting on these initial statements, group members note the personal associations they suggest, and share the viewpoints that emerge.

* Members discuss their statements, reflections and the associated images that have contributed to them. Everyone is free to testify concerning her or his past as it relates to the emerging purpose and current perceptions.

Set-breaking activities such as role-playing and scenarios help to stretch the boundaries of past experience, establish new circuits and look at the varying individual perceptions that make up the collective purpose.

* New circuits and individual perceptions are publicly shared. The group looks at relationships that can be carried into action.

Conflicting purposes are examined and discussed until everyone has testified to the extent that they wish. The conflicts may end either in the creation of a synthesis of the competing ideas, or in the willing sacrifice of an idea. The Dionysian guide maintains a balance of tensions but avoids the imposition of a synthesis on the group.

* Individuals select purposes to which they can commit themselves from among those remaining in the group's frame of reference. Purposes not selected are set aside. The group leader defines individual relationships – sub-groups – based on the choices that are made.

The group affirms its current purpose, an intended image of the future it wishes to reach within a specific period of time, and an articulated statement – oral or written – which the guide presents for review. Once they have accepted it, this serves as their common goal.


* This phase turns "oughts" into actualities. Each member of the group seeks a broad range of information related to the purpose and means of achieving it. These are independent searches, and general in scope. Some searches may overlap, providing a common base for discussion and pointing the way to more directed searching. The goal is to generate a wide variety of ideas – although not every idea possible. Commonalities represent the germ of collective consciousness.

Various purposes are cross-fertilized through dialogue, creating new strategies. Individuals bring both their data and the ideas that have grown from review to the group.

*  Temporary sub-groups are formed. They are based on common commitments and the attraction of participants to specific ideas and strategies. The guide solidifies these temporary linkages, which may differ from the groups that emerged during purpose-finding.

* The sub-groups develop specific programs. These are matched with search data and past experiences of the group and individuals. Their unique aspects are noted.

The programs are used as scripts to imagine potential outcomes, changed once they are tested through actual or simulated experience.

* Sub-groups present these revised program strategies to the larger collective for approval. The plans are considered for their congruence to the group's articulated purpose. The general rule is that procedures remain subservient to purposes. But the experiences of the group may also lead them to alter the stated purpose.

Individuals often find that their commitments to purposes change as they move closer to actualizing plans, or that estimates concerning capacities have been inaccurate. These perceptions of shifting form are brought to the group as soon as possible after they arise. The guide may either convene the whole organization, or one of its current sub-groups, or several members of more than one sub-group, to seek changes in task or purpose.

Throughout this process, the role of the Dionysian leader is realization of the collective ideal. In addition, she or he assists others in selecting the types of autonomous activity that are appropriate for individuals or sub-groups.

Dionysian systems are process-oriented and purposive. The leader and the groups deal which many components at once, attempting simultaneous action to maintain and improve the organization. If it seems necessary, maintenance activities may be suspended for short periods to reassess purpose or respond to new inspirations. This is especially helpful when the boundaries of rationality become a hindrance. The guide may also choose to initiate this process to jolt others out of their routines. In the end, however, all members can act as guides, organizational enablers who believe that leaders don't make change – everyone does.

Next: Planning & Decisions

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

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