What if Conversation is the Transformative Activity?




At the end of the term, every person got a complimentary gelato of their choice. Children, instructors, and practitioners. I was six, in animated conversation with my table mates. Everyone was excited as they remembered the past few weeks.

We took turns in mimicking and exaggerating each scene. It was magical. Until my gesture spilled the water carafe. Enthusiasm was high. A small spill was a first lesson in senseless rules interrupting sense-making.

The instructor informed us: no gelato for this table. I still bristle at the memory. The reaction felt off the mark. Probably nobody else noticed. But it mattered to the group at out table. I felt responsible. Tried to plead on behalf of the others.

No joy. Our animated conversation was a form of free-flowing action that created meaning. We were co-creating our end-of-term experience of summer camp. What do six year olds learn from this? Don't get excited. If you do, don't show it. 

Every day, each of us acts into the unknown. We make decisions every moment, without even realizing that we do. It's a very fluid process, like change. Yet the models we study to govern our decisions and rules are very specific and fixed, to ensure continuity. 

Is it possible not to throw away the baby with the bathwater? Can you take the good that is in the company's past and current practices, while you reorient the bad, stuck, stale parts?

Culture is where this shift happens.

And it's process of transformation, not a program.


Conversation as transformative activity

Culture develops itself in practical interactions of the day to day. The machines, technologies, and processes we use at work are useful if they help us make meaningful connections. Decision-making, leadership, and communication are the major human processes in a company.

In Changing Conversations in Organizations, Patricia Shaw says that “conversation itself is the key process through which forms of organizing are dynamically sustained and changed.” This way of thinking “invites us to stay in the movement of communicating, learning and organizing.” 

You can support both continuity and change with better communication. Other recurring themes for leaders are better coordination, more initiative-taking, and more innovation. There's a ton of unrealized potential in companies.

In this short talk on leadership, Shaw explains how

“One of the ways of thinking about leadership is thinking about convening conversations that might not happen otherwise.”

Through the telling of specific business examples, professor Shaw describes and illustrates “conversation as a process of communicative action” and explores at how we can “approach the art of gathering and conversing in ways more conducive to the emergence of meaningful action.”

What it looks like: ensemble improvisation, under-specification, open-ended exploration, narrative sense-making, and evolving action as you communicate. The idea is to shape and shift enabling constraints to form while being formed in interaction. Which is exactly how culture comes about.

This feels squishy when you're used to Task Forces and programs. But it does wonders to achieving a common understanding of the nature of communication. And helps appreciate the power of conversation as a tool to get more of what you want and less of what you don't want.

Maybe now you see the problem in the little scene at the Italian camp above. The instructors and practitioners were not part of the conversation. Rather than witnessing the spontaneous emergence of a new pattern of meaning, all they saw was spilled water.


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