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Living Conversations with Bowie

WORKING WITH UNCERTAINTY IN ORDER TO FACILITATE CHANGE

Overly structured conversations create standstill and kills your potential for innovation and change. In order to put an end to this you, and your colleagues, should reinvent your conversations by following the lead from a musical legend.

David Bowie does something surprising during a live interview in the seventies. Opposite of him sits a well-prepared interviewer clinging on to a handful of papers with all her questions neatly written down and ordered. Bowie and the interviewer laughs and chit-chats before the interview is about to start.

At the exact moment the go-ahead sign is given to start the interview, Bowie leans forward, grabs the interviewer’s papers and tears them in thousand pieces. The interviewer is clearly in shock. What now? Bowie looks pleased. Tired of always being asked the same old questions – and giving the same familiar answers – he has tried to create a starting point for a more lively and spontaneous conversation. A step into the unknown in order to enhance the chances of creating – and experiencing – something new. The interview can now begin.

5 ideas on how to create living conversations and boosting organizational change

Facilitating a living conversation demands a different approach – and other competencies – compared to more structured organizational conversations and meetings. Here are five tips that will get you started working live:

  1. Leave your PowerPoint show and detailed agenda at home – instead find the minimal structure, or groove, that gives you – and the people you work with – the maximum freedom to react spontaneous to each other. Be aware of the powerful need for security that will pull you towards a high degree of structure and planning in advance. But this comes at a cost: a feeling of “constrainedness”. If there is too much structure it will stand in the way and obstruct your intentions of change. But if there is too little, it will create too much uncertainty and confusion. Therefore aim for an experience of a heightened but not a debilitating sense of uncertainty. I know this is easier said than done, because it requires a lot of experimentation (and failing).

 

  1. Focus on your state of mind – be open, present and ready to encounter anything. Let go of the belief that you need to be in control. Stay close with whatever is happening here and now – leave it be and watch how things unfold organically “by themselves”.

 

  1. Start with the participants own experiences (and encourage dissent) – and help them continually to take their own experiences seriously. This is difficult, because most of us have a tendency to focus on the ideal, the abstract or the “general picture”. It feels safe. Often it is far more difficult to talk about our concrete everyday experiences and our interpretations of them, because they hold insecurity, vulnerability and doubt. What you are trying to zoom in on is the evolutionary potential of the present (D. Snowden) as the starting point for change as opposed to keep on describing ideal future states. What you should be aiming for is probably best described as the Joni Mitchell approach: “She is not gonna put lipstick and makeup on the truth”. So disrupt routine responses and challenge established power relations and dynamics. Make it legitimate to say things and think thoughts that you normally don’t. That is; support rebels, foster more disagreement and open up for authentic conflict in the group.

 

  1. Play with your own role – do not limit or specify your own role unnecessarily in advance. Try for instance to step in and out of the role as the one who asks the curious questions, is being silent, is voicing his/her own opinion and experience, provokes, shares mistakes and dares to be undecided. Your challenge here is not to reduce discomfort by falling back on trusted habits (too soon).

 

  1. Have the courage to say Yes to the Mess – most people feel a degree of discomfort – an inner resistance – when working with living conversations. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. The loosening of control, giving up on predictability and letting go of rigid structure probably feels counterintuitive to what you normally do. Therefore it takes courage to leave the rehearsed, well known and comfortable organizational conversations and take the first step into the unknown.
What is a living conversation – and what is a dead?

Many organizations have developed highly structured meeting cultures, which often result in so called “dead conversations”. These conversations are typically characterized by a high degree of predictability and stability, so that one is able to control conclusions and results in advance. Everybody know their role, the boundaries for interaction are narrow and what is being said somehow feels rehearsed.  You might claim that such conversations (unknowingly) is a way to defend oneself against the uncertainty and angst associated with complexity.

If you, on the other hand, want to initiate organizational conversations with a real potential for change, this calls upon a different kind of interaction. A way of communicating where one is able to embrace the unpredictable and use it as a motor for organizational change. In this case it is the leader’s role to create a framework which allows conversations, which would not take place otherwise. To help open up spaces for a joint reflective practice and open-ended exploration. All the time supporting spontaneous responses between participants.

In “Changing Conversations in Organizations – A Complexity Approach to Change”, Patricia Shaw works with different “proof” that you are dealing with a living conversation. Among these are: unrehearsed expression replaces familiar and polished phrases; the participants surprise one another – and even themselves; they begin to open up and speak about vague doubts and uncertainty; glimpses, half-formed ideas and intuitions are appreciated instead of suppressed; stories and anecdotes about previous experience are shared and related; the participants listen carefully to each other; the conversation makes unexpected jumps, because of spontaneous associations; misunderstandings arise and the need to make a definitive decision becomes less urgent.

In this way a living conversation can be compared to what typically happens during a break from a more structured organizational process: we have all experienced scheduled meetings where nothing really happens, but where all the important stuff is being said during the coffee break (think for a moment what would happen if your next meeting was designed as one prolonged coffee break???) Or the magical moment where a formal conversation is about to come to an end, but suddenly – out of the blue – you open up for new important things which have previously been unsaid.

What both these situations have in common is that the informal – and the uncontrolled – gets more room to manoeuvre. In other words by loosening up the constraints you can design a space which support “the new important stuff”. A space which is often killed off by predetermined agendas, best practice and fast consensus.

Conversations are not about being safe

It was the great Miles Davis who once said that; “Music is not about being safe”. You might say the same about organizational conversations when your purpose is to facilitate change; “Conversations and meetings are not about being safe”. Not being safe sometimes has to do with stopping things that we normally do – and start doing things that feel counterintuitive to our normal practice.

Shaw provides these examples from her own practice – things that she just doesn’t do:

  • I did not prepare detailed designs for meetings, conferences and workshops
  • I did not develop detailed aims and objectives in advance
  • I did not clarify roles and expectations or agree ground rules at the start of working
  • I did not hold back my views or opinions
  • I did not develop clear action plans at the end of meetings
  • I did not ”manage” process

What she is actually doing is loosening up the constraints in order to establish a heightened but not a debilitating sense of uncertainty. Like Bowie she is trying to embrace the unknown in order to enhance the chances of creating – and experiencing – something new.

Not being safe also means to accept and recognize the feeling of discomfort that can arise when we meet and discuss. Using it as a vehicle for navigating complex organizational challenges where we don’t even know the problem yet. Like this team of leaders reflecting on how to move forward:

As we don’t know exactly what the problem is, we can’t solve it and this makes us feel uncomfortable again. To get out of this mess we have to be aware of this feeling of discomfort, use it as a driving force, don’t try to replace it by an artificial harmony…

We need to allow meetings which develop their own momentum and results – without driving them into a certain direction. If there is facilitation and a certain structure this must be to help the meeting develop its own dynamic – not to hinder it…

We need to develop skills of open discussion, covering sensitive issues that all too often get pushed aside by formal agendas” (Shaw, 2002).

Like getting out of quicksand…

Working with living conversations is in many ways equal to developing a new relationship to uncertainty. The more you practice, the more you will develop inner agility, tap into creative possibilities, and enjoy the ride. Each success will help confirm that it is possible to work with change effectively without having all the answers up front.

But living conversations will probably feel counter intuitive to what you are normally doing, and under pressure there is a good chance that you will fall back on old and trusted habits like reclaiming control too soon. In that way working with living conversations is like falling into a pool of quicksand. The more you struggle trying to regain control, the faster you get sucked under. So let go of control, lie back, spread out your arms and legs, and float on the surface. I know this is psychologically tricky, because every instinct in your body tells you to struggle, but it is the only way. Good luck.

 

 

 

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