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Collective Resonance in Corporate Transformation
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Collective Resonance In Whole Systems Transformation

An Interview with Kathleen Dannemiller

Less than a year before she passed away in December, 2003, Kathie Dannemiller sat down with Renee Levi to describe how the organizational change process she pioneered felt like collective resonance, Renee’s dissertation topic, to her. Both were doctoral students at Saybrook Graduate School and both were practicing organizational development consultants. Kathie was one of the “mothers” of the professional field of OD and wanted to contribute her breadth of knowledge and experience to the newest research on group transformation.

RL: Kathie, as you know, I’m studying a group phenomenon I call collective resonance - the physical, energetic, and intuitive elements that enable some groups to accomplish extraordinary things. When you heard about it, you immediately thought of your Whole Systems Transformation process. Would you describe that to me?

KD: Well, since I have thirty years’ worth to tell, let me start with some history. Back in 1980, Bruce Gibb, Al Davenport, Chuck Tyson, and I began helping Ford Motor Company leaders learn how to be “participative managers”, a phrase of the times. We worked with several top executives at Ford.

We began with what we knew about action learning and group dynamics. All we knew about groups at that point came out of small group dynamics (what I now think of as “small” is about 100 people) and in the Ford groups we met with you would feel an absolute energy shift in the room.

You know Myers Briggs, right? Well, these guys were profoundly ESTJ’s by preference. They were engineers – linear, middle-aged, and on their way up in the company. The first time I stood in front of a group of them, in fact, I had this feeling that there was nothing there – no energy coming back to me. They sat there with their arms folded and it was sort of like…dead. I would speak and I would get nothing back. And I realized eventually what it was: that their eyes were dead. It was an amazing experience to realize what was going on. So if the body is closed down – not receiving – then it doesn’t send either. It was a shock to me.

And all these guys looked alike to me. We were working at a certain fairly high level at Ford at the time and the way hierarchies worked in those days, you moved up (if you got promoted) in lock-step by seniority. So at the level of Ford where we were working, the participants tended to be fifty-something. They were all white males, most of them beginning to bald or already bald. And it seemed to me, standing there in front of them, that they all wore the same suit and the same tie, and the same rimless glasses.

What really was happening was that all of them had dead eyes! It was like the Night of the Walking Dead. And they would sit there with their arms crossed and they would look at me and the only thing I could feel would be something like, “What am I doing here? Geez, this is boring! Oh my God, what am I doing here? I thought Ford was in trouble, why aren’t you out there working?” And that was the strongest message I got, which was never in direct response to me. It was in response to being “ordered” to be there. These guys obeyed orders!

What we consultants were doing was creating/inventing something together in response to the company’s needs. We were hired to talk about participative management. Right? With these dudes?

But on the third day of every event we ran – we discovered that it was almost always that day at 11:00 am, even though we weren’t doing exactly the same things each time – that the feeling we got was “Get out of my way, here they come!” It was as if they had been ignited by the Lord. They were on the move! And what came to me was The Little Engine That Could story. It was like, “We can do this. We think we can, we know we can. By God, together we can conquer the Japanese”, which is what they were struggling with at the time. We consultants didn’t even know what happened, they were just on fire for the Lord. And they had appeared dead two days before.

That’s when I figured out that the DVF model, the change model that we were using and still use, was actually the model for a paradigm shift. And when, together, they combined their dissatisfaction (the D) – we only knew this later, you understand – at the moment that they all saw the same thing, something profound happened. And they had different dissatisfactions depending on whether they were in marketing or operations or corporate…different ones, but they honored each other’s different dissatisfactions.

The profound event for us was the minute they combined their yearnings (the Y) and they could see their whole preferred future for their division; they could see their own yearning connected with the other leaders. The minute that happened, they would connect around system wide first steps (the F) and they would free each other to do their own back-home first steps.

I mean, it was just great! At that moment change would be happening, and nothing could stop it, we discovered, which, by the way, is what the DVF paradigm shift model truly meant to us. We turned to each other and said, “Did you feel it? Did you feel that shift?”

RL: You felt something move?

KD: We did. The consultants were trying to figure out what in the world we had unleashed.

RL: Tell me about that. When you said to each other, or you said to yourself, “Wow, did you feel that shift”, what did it actually feel like to you?

KD: Well, the best I can tell you is the feeling of “Oh my God, here they come!” It was always an energetic, electric moment. That would be my best way to describe it.

RL: Where in your body did you feel it?

KD: Everywhere. You simply felt it, you knew. You held your breath in wonderment! I remember turning to a very bright Ford guy one time and saying, “Did we just have a shift? A paradigm shift? Did you feel it?” That’s what we called it. We had just figured out Kuhn, right? We had just had a paradigm shift and there this Ford guy who was working with us, says, “I’m not even sure we have a pair of nickels, Dannemiller.”

RL: (Laughter)

KD: And I thought, he doesn’t feel the way I do. I’ll bet he just starts acting differently without thinking about it, but as the consultant I’m struck with wonderment.

You know that feeling of surprise…surprised by joy? That’s the feeling of it. It’s where you say, “Ah (intake of breath)…oh my God, what’s going on? Incredible, what caused this?” I don’t know how to describe it any other way. It was a catch…like ah (intake of breath), did you feel that? We used to call it a ‘suck air’ experience.

It was like everyone shifted at once, which is irrational. How can this be true? They were all different from what they had been before (chuckle) and they aren’t the same anymore. Did you feel that? They have become one and they have become singularly powerful.

RL: So they became a team?

KD: They did. And that reminds me of a story about how team building started.

Ron Lippitt was my mentor, as you know, and Ron had this experience when working on his own doctorate. He was at MIT in the 1930’s as a graduate student with Kurt Lewin. They invented team building. Lewin was hired by the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, as it was the early stages of the Second World War. The OSS was what we today call the CIA – the spies – and they hired Lewin to help them in their effectiveness. He used some students to do this project.

OSS had spies that they were parachuting into occupied Europe and these spies would hide in an attic or a barn or somewhere with a little wireless and they would send troop movements back to Washington. The OSS was having a problem, though, because the spies would often die or fail in their missions.

There were several things happening that the OSS leadership couldn’t figure out. It had begun to be a pattern where a spy would do something dumb and get caught. Or they would turn double-agent in order to survive. The OSS thought something was going on. There was something happening that was causing them to just want to end the suspense, so they would do something dumb and get caught.

The OSS asked Lewin if he could talk to the people who were going over there to be new spies and see if he could figure out how to keep them focused on the purpose of the event. So, Lewin, Ron, and the other students went in and worked with the group and they discovered – honest to God – they discovered the importance of resonance!

I mean, that’s really what this story is about in terms of your research. What they discovered was if they could take twenty spies in Washington who were about to be parachuted into Europe, they could work with them to create connectedness. Then the OSS could parachute them into a barn in Italy or a garret in Belgium, and though they never could talk to each other, they were still connected. They did not feel isolated and alone. I call it connectedness around the head and the heart. If they could really and truly connect – emotionally, physically, spiritually – then they could be successful.

RL: Mmmm… Amazing.

KD: It was. And what they realized was – well, in retrospect Ron realized – what they had invented was team building.

It was amazing that people didn’t know what team building was but they didn’t know yet in the forties. And so when the Lewin team finished their project – and of course it worked – they decided they really ought to teach this to management after the war because it’s not all that different than being part of Ford’s tractor division in Iowa and never seeing Corporate other than to get orders, or never seeing other Ford plant people to compare notes across the country. It became clear to them that getting people connected emotionally and spiritually could cause people to be better leaders.

RL: Kathie, you said that the process involved connecting people around the head and the heart. Could you tell me more about that?

KD: What Ron taught me was that they helped people tell stories to each other, to have conversations that mattered. To connect around the person. To connect profoundly with each other. So if you and I are spending time in Washington, when I walk away I take a bit of you in myself, which is, of course, what I did with you from Santa Rosa. I took a bit of you in my self and so my connection with you is different from just having met you at a cocktail party. So it’s something about the depth of connection; I’m confident about that.

RL: Depth of connection. And you think story has a big part to play in it.

KD: One of the great struggles for an old lady like me is: who knows how much of it’s me and how much of it was Ron and how much it was Kurt, and so on. I don’t have a clue, right? But I can only talk about me and say I use stories because stories will get people connected on a different level.

At the moment I’m reading a book by Studs Terkel. Have you ever read Working?

RL: Yes.

KD: I think he won a Pulitzer with it. What he did was – and he’s still doing it, he has a new one out on racism – he interviews people, working class people in Chicago, for example, and he simply interviews in a way that allows them to uncover who they are and what they care about. And they would tell that/those stories to Studs.

And what I know about myself is that I interview in such a way that people uncover their yearnings. I don’t know why but when I read Studs and when I think about my doctoral dissertation, I think that’s what I need to put in it, the stories. Because out of stories comes my experience of it, not only the experience itself. It’s what you’re doing right now…getting my experience of my story.

RL: Yes, exactly.

KD: And Studs did that with working class people. And the wonderful, wonderful part is that he didn’t analyze the stories, he just put them out there. They’re great, real stories. Like the interview he did with James Baldwin who was writing Another Country and the moment when Studs is interviewing him is just as Baldwin has written. Baldwin just returned from Switzerland where he hid out because, as he says in the interview, “I couldn’t deal with being black. I couldn’t listen to Marion Anderson. I couldn’t listen to black spiritual singers. I just couldn’t do it. I was so mad that it was part of my culture.” And then he said, “And finally I came to believe that I had allowed myself to be interpreted by whites. So whites told me what I was like.”

RL: Whites told his story?

KD: Right!

RL: Right, he wasn’t connecting with his own story! So it’s in the stories.

KD: For me it is.

RL: Kathie, earlier in our conversation you said that it seemed to be consistently on the third morning of your workshops that you felt the shift into collective resonance. Why do you think that was?

KD: Best we could figure out, DVF explains it. It was the moment when, as a whole group – the dialogue, the initial connection, the kinetic blending, who knows what it is – something happens and they connect around dissatisfactions. And they don’t have to have the same ones. We knew that if you had the same ones, you had a mob, right?

RL: Yes.

KD: We knew that, but in this case they would be different dissatisfactions because they were from different parts of the company. If I were in marketing or if I were making pipes on the floor, my issues would be different. But if we honor each other’s differences and connect around that…

That was the best we could figure out… if they could connect around the D (dissatisfactions) without having to have the same D. Then we would do the preferred futuring which was what we called connecting everyone around the brain and heart.

In the course of that D, everyone saw the same thing. We got a level playing field of knowledge so they could see what the data was about – the selling of tractors, or customer feedback, etc. We all got the same data and we had our own dissatisfaction about that. And then, what we would do at the point where we felt it was right, is to say, “Well then, what do you want it to be?” At this point, they begin to connect around one heart, one big picture of yearnings.

We would do the futuring, originally, on the third morning because they had combined their experience and data and were therefore ready to move themselves into the future.

RL: Did you feel the shift when they walked in the room that third morning?

KD: No, it was eleven o’clock (chuckle). That’s when it shifted. And as a consultant – we learned this later – you needed to have the intrinsic thing going on in you that tells you, “Damn, I wish I could think future.” I mean, if the consultant isn’t able to be totally present to be in the community, then they won’t get the right timing. And timing, we realized, was everything.

It was this moment when, suddenly, connecting around yearnings was powerful as all hell. And in that early Ford participative management seminar, it was at eleven o’clock on the third day. And it makes me laugh because how can that be true, right?

Well, later we learned that it was not true. We have learned to do it faster now. That was the early eighties. We didn’t know what we were doing, we were just inventing it. It was an early stage. But the point is, the consultant, in order to know when it’s time, has to emotionally part of the event.

Can I tell you a story about that?

RL: Please.

KD: The story is in Billy Alban and Barbara Bunker’s book on large group interventions, chapter three, I think.

I’m with my two partners and working with a Corning plant in southern Illinois. The plant makes Revereware – you know, pots and pans? And they’re in deep trouble. Corning bought the Revere operations and the people who work in Clinton, Illinois are very angry about the failure of their wonderful pots and pans company. And so, the design team told us not to get the leader up there too early in the session, because they would beat him up. You know, it’s not his fault, but they blamed the new CEO who was this wonderful guy from India.

Don’t get him up there too soon. It’s not his fault…but they think it is. See if you can get all the data out so that everyone sees the same thing about what’s happening with the customer, what’s happening to the competitors, what’s happening with money, and why Corning bought them. What’s going wrong and what’s going right. Get all that stuff out so everyone knows it. Then put the leader up. So we decided, okay, better not put the leader up too early, put him up at the end of the second day, but not early, right?

They had taken the entire plant off-site for this meeting because the design team had said that was the only way they were going to be able to get real change. So we got every angry person in the land in that room, about three or four hundred people. I get up there with the Indian CEO and their business leader, who is black. This is relevant because Clinton, Illinois was very white and here they had this Indian man and this black man who had been imported to take care of them.

We got up there and I get them to do the usual fifteen minutes each to say what he yearns for and what he’s trying to create at Corning. Then we do an open forum, which is where the individual tables talk about what they heard and ask questions of understanding only.

In a pig’s eye! I mean these guys took off like machine guns. They were so angry they would not get a question of understanding in. Everything was an attack. And I felt I was also one of the people being attacked, which, years later, the Indian CEO told me wasn’t about me but in my memory, they were attacking me. I simply allowed it to go through me…to become part of my cells.

Well, I’m standing up there and this is going on and on way too long, and the two leaders are doing brilliantly to keep from getting defensive and answering, and I’m intervening, and I’m thinking that the next thing we had planned to do is put poor Sylvia, my partner, up there to take them on a preferred futures trip! You can’t do that if they’re still angry!

It was a dilemma. Until I could feel the anger ebb, I couldn’t do it.

RL: That’s what we were talking about earlier, the timing.

KD: Yes, you have to move past it. And you can’t solve it.

RL: So the consultant has to energetically know. There’s an intuitive knowing that goes on, right? There’s that dance between the consultant and the organization. They have to be part of the whole, they can’t be outside the system in order to know when to facilitate the shift, right?

KD: Right. And yet, if you go too far, if you “become” them, you can’t help them out because you will get stuck in there with them. Some people describe what I do by saying that I empty myself out and allow the group in. It’s like I put myself over on the side and allow the group in and I don’t hold it back.

And there, in that moment in Clinton, when I looked out at the group and I said, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t stand this anymore. This is really getting to me, I feel like I’m going to slash my wrists right here on the stage. How about we take a break and come back and figure out what the future ought to look like so we don’t have to feel this way forever”, something magical happened.

They said “yes!” and moved in a mass out to the lobby where the coffee was and I could feel myself breathing.

What I was doing at that moment was pulling in what I know. How I did it, I don’t know. All I know was that I was in despair and Sylvia’s standing there looking at me hopefully, and I’m thinking, “Is it now, Lord, is it now?” And the fact is, if I tried it and they don’t go along with it, then it wasn’t now.

RL: To me it sounds like what you were doing, Kathie, was echoing back to the group, simply reflecting back, their process because you had absorbed it by being empty yourself. This is how it feels, this is how it looks…to me. I feel desperate and, again, you put it back into their space. In other words, you held it and then you put it back into the space for them to see what was happening in the group.

KD: Right. Exactly. So the trick is to keep myself healthy enough that I can still do that. Because what’s happened is the horror that’s gotten loose in my body is very debilitating and I have to be able to pull myself back in order to use what I know about how to get out of it. Even though I feel as if I personally have sunk into it.

RL: Yes, Kathie. That was beautiful.

And as I listen to you, I’m reminded that it’s a similar role that the psychologist plays in therapy. Just what you said about staying healthy enough. It’s about boundaries; that you have to be able to really let the person (or the situation) in to be able to resonate with them/it; to empathize, to feel it yourself, but be healthy enough not to be absorbed into it so you can help them or yourself. So you have to put it back…to gently hand it back or reflect it back. Like a mirror.

KD: And reflect it back with belief that they can conquer it.

RL: Yes!

KD: I mean, that’s the key, isn’t it? Because they can.

RL: Yes. So you’re holding it, you’re a container.

KD: Right.

RL: Which is what all kinds of healers say they do – therapists, energy or body workers – they help create a container for healing.

KD: Body workers do it viscerally, they really do it. That’s where I learned it.

RL: In a way it’s how I see my own work, as a healer for organizations and for groups. I try to create containers for them to heal themselves.

And these other healers I’ve spoken with go on to say this beautiful thing. They say that in working with another in this way, they both get healed. So it’s not just about us helping them, it’s really back to that whole respect thing and the whole human thing. It’s like we both can get healed. I love that and I keep that in me because it’s so true. I get healed. Every wonderful relationship I have heals me as well, whatever it is I get to give to them.

KD: Right! (laughter). It’s true! And thank God for that.

RL: Well, let me ask two more questions before we end. What value or significance have your experiences of collective resonance had for your life and work?

KD: That’s impossible to answer. (chuckle). I mean, who I am is the product of all those experiences…thirty years worth. That’s true for all of us, isn’t it?

RL: Yes.

KD: Yes, I am a product of everything that’s happened. And yes, I reflect on what everything means. I can’t stand it if I don’t know what it means. I’ll say, “What’s going on here? What am I up to? What’s happening here?”

RL: If you were to put your experiences into a few lessons that you would want to give to others, Kathie, what would they be?

KD: Well, they would be that action research, or an examined life, will give you power. It gave me the power to be who I wanted to be, to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish. A life examined means I say, “Is that what I want to accomplish?” If it was, how did that work? And I have this absolute, driving passion to know how it works.

And I also need to feel good. Because I will not stay somewhere if I don’t. I will not stay trapped. I’m going to find the way out. And I think that’s what the work is about.

RL: Wow.

KD: Wow? (laughter). Overwhelmed you, did I?

RL: (laughter). And just a final question, Kathie. What are you feeling right now, right in this moment?

KD: What do I feel right now? I feel really good. I feel joy. Partly it’s that Steve called right before our interview. Partly it’s you. Partly it’s the story. Peace. Peace and joy. And partly it’s that I moved into the living room to see who was at the door and it’s flowers from someone special. That’s nice.

Kathie speaks a great deal about stories in this interview and their profound part in enabling collective resonance. It is my great honor to have helped her bring some of her own stories to those who will listen and learn

R.L.

(Link to Profile for Kathleen Dannemiller)

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