Setting Conversations Free

One of the fundamental qualities of being human is the ability to have conversations. To harness the power of language via myth, story and metaphor and to act as a conduit to manifest imagination and creativity.

So why is it, I wonder, we keep them so captive?

I found myself considering this the other day when listening in to a conversation is a client’s organisation. The conversation had all the qualities of the M1 motorway. We knew where started, where it was going and where it would end up and even where the opportunities were for a quick coffee along the way. No chance of taking one of the exits to go and look at something interesting – we needed to get we were going as fast as possible.

Right now, that’s more than a shame, it’s a problem. We don’t think a lot on the motorway. It’s familiar, and we have all the equivalents of SatNav and anti collision technology to keep us on track. There could be elephants dancing the conga at the side of the motorway and we probably wouldn’t notice.

The best conversations have no destination – they are explorations of possibility in pursuit of something  not quite in sight, and we make the path by walking, not rushing down a motorway on cruise control.

Unfortunately, most conversations that take place in business seem to fall into one of two categories.

The  most depressing is the controlled conversation, where the efforts are about advocacy and a form of verbal brawling. We know where it’s heading, and it’s just too difficult – and often dangerous – to differ too much. There’s a mortgage to pay.

The slightly less depressing one is a skilful conversation around a pretty fixed topic. It is dialectic, or the sort practiced by lawyers arguing a point in a contract. We still know where it’s going, it’s just a matter of who’s driving when we get there, and who gets to pay for the coffees in the rest break.

There’s a huge gap between these two sorts of conversations and the conversations we should be having right now. The ones we need to be having are seeking a destination, and that gets determined by asking questions we don’t already know the answer too.

They are open, not defensive. There’s lots of different views, and often argument – but in service of exploration. The etymological  root of conversation includes “to turn with” and “the place where I dwell”.  It has links to Volvere, “to turn” and the root of “evolve”.

We have a choice with conversations – we can use them to close down and defend, or open up and explore.

To be part of a free conversation requires confidence and humility, a willingness to suspend judgement and listen, and the capability to lead without being in charge. It needs those who can hold the space for others, not dominate it. It’s very different to what we have been told is efficient.

Right now however, we need to free our conversations. We need to bring in people we wouldn’t normally and those who see things differently and then listen to them with respect.

Conversations are thre most powerful tool of change we have. We shouldn’t keep them caged.

Effortless Beauty

A Murmuration of Starlings.

It turns out that what drives us is not that much different from what drives every other organism on the planet – and probably beyond.

We crave connection to others – to be part of a group, at the same time as we crave autonomy – the freedom to make our own decisions.

Resolving this paradox has determined our survival and our contentment since the earliest times.

We cannot survive, even now, on our own. No matter how independent we think we are, we’re not. We cannot survive without the help of others. Isolation is terminal.

On the other hand, if we choose belonging at the expense of being ourselves, that’s as bad – survival as subjugation. A wasted life barely worth living.

We know when our lives are beautiful – things are in balance. We experience receiving and giving as part of something that makes our lives worthwhile. That may sound very kaftan, but reality is we all know and revere those all too brief moments that are like that. Just because we can’t measure them, or predict them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

If Starlings can do it……..

Starlings do not have a head office, or HR departments, or policies. They just hang out with other starlings, work in sync with those next to them and be themselves in that context. Behaving in this fashion confuses predators, who can only pick off those who are separate from the murmuration. Independence has its price.

Next most vulnerable are those on the edge of the Murmuration, so everybody takes turns at being at the edge, rather than the safe middle. Leaders and managers please note,

The end result is awe inspiring to behold. A defintion of beauty, created by birds being themselves with others, just doing their thing. No plan. No Strategy.

Given that every living organism on the planet comprises pretty much the same elements, just arranged very slightly differently why are we so different?

Or, if starlings can do this, why can’t we?

Organisation

The answer of course is that we can. We have spent around 99% of the time we have been in our current sapien form on the planet in groups of 150 or less. The indigenous people we have left still do. They know those around them as well as they understand their surroundings and although there are differences in status, there is no organisation chart, and certaintly no HR. They flex their structures in much the same way as starlings murmurate – instinctively, according to need and threat. They self organise.

I’m intrigued by what is happening in many organisations at the moment. For the last four months, I’ve watched many organisations cope not just well, but thrive as they’ve used the power of the internet to effectively “murmurate”. Often, driven by the disruption that Covid has generated, combinations of Zoom, WhatsApp and other tools have linked those who do to others who do in getting things done whilst managers look on in a state of bewilderment trying to take credit.

The boundaries between our organisation, suppliers, clients and others become very porous and left alone, stuff just gets done. I wonder what would would happen if we sent managers on holiday, and suspect that without a need for mostly needless control, the answer would be more of better.

Balancing autonomy and belonging.

Perhaps a difference between good leaders and good managers is that the leaders create worlds of shared significance, and managers resource it. Emotional resonance and operational support. No direction, no control, no permissions in sight. Organisationally, we not me.

One of the things we are learning in the small experiment that is Originize, is that conversations around what matters to uncover shared significance can weave magic.

We are diverse groups – puzzlers and mystics – all doing our own thing who meet together, once a week, with no leader and no agenda to talk about what we’re noticing – in our businesses, in the wider world, with each other. A small group within a larger murmurating flock of those who balance autonomy and belonging. Neither subjugating or being subjugated.

Just hanging out improving each others lives.

Beautiful Businesses are possible

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Moore’s work. I love the immediate tension between beautiful and business – when was the last time you read “beautiful” in a business plan or strategy, or heard it mentioned in a weekly management meeting?

Yet, I believe it to be increasingly not just valid, but essential. If we can balance beautiful and business by balancing autonomy and belonging, we can create remarkable organisations that create real value for everybody involved.

As it becomes increasingly clear that whatever we’re going into post Covid, it’s not where we were, it seems a positive aspiration. To enable those around us to be themselves whilst hanging out together doing stuff that matters.

Less planning and effort, more doing and enjoying.

We can learn a lot about effortless beauty from Starlings

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Beautiful Conversations

Conversations, at their best are beautiful things.

They are a dance of possibility as we pass ideas backwards and forwards, help each other shape them, notice things in the space between ideas and create the start of something.

In the search for efficiency however, we appear to have weaponised them. We treat them like processes, looking at value extracted versus time spent. Dialectic. Not a dance, so much as a tennis match, hitting with ever greater force as we look for weakness in our opponent.

There is a place for this. In stable conditions, with known rules, like the Law Courts, or a manufacturing process this type of dialectic is powerful – testing ideas and improving them.

However, in conditions of uncertainty when the reality is that none of us know what’s coming next, it’s dangerous. We create false certainty to bolster our case and make assertions based at best on assumptions, and at worst on manipulation.

Doubt is uncomfortable, but Certainty is absurd

Voltaire

It seems right now, we’re having far too many of these ugly conversations. Trading off the balance between saving the hospitality industry against the likelihood of a second wave; trying to restore an economy that was dysfuntional rather than using this shock to shape something new.

We have huge opportunity the other side of the pain that is now inevitable. It could be a great story, but it has to be crafted, not bodged.

To craft it we need to bring to it what makes things beautiful. Grace, Gratitude, Intent, Generosity and Courage.

We do not have time for the destructive power of ugly conversations