One of the most powerful tools a leader has is the power to convene the tough conversations that need to happen in an organization – to focus a group of people on an issue that matters. To convene that kind of meeting, the leader needs to be a conversation architect.
We all know that to have an effective meeting we need to have an agenda, keep things moving, and track action items. That is excellent advice when the purpose of the meeting is to work on everyday, routine issues. But much more is necessary if the group is to deal with what Heifetz* calls “adaptive” challenges.
Adaptive challenges are complex and unpredictable; they have no known answers. To address them organizations must invent their way to solutions. Examples of adaptive challenges are, organizations that have merged and now must create a new and joint culture; hospital systems faced with an interminable nursing shortage; the anticipated retirement of thousands of workers in the government sector; or companies that, in order to survive, must change from selling products to service.
By contrast, technical problems are predictable and solvable. There are methods and tools that the organization has already developed to address them. If, for example, a well is to be dug in a new oil field, there are established procedures; if a special issue of a journal is to be published, there are steps outlined that will put the issue out on schedule and within budget; if a new cell phone is to be developed, there are well defined phases of the development process. Technical problems do not require a fundamental change in methods or tools. More importantly, the people who solve technical problems can function within a known set of assumptions about how work gets done in the organization, as well as what kind of behaviors are needed to make that work happen.
It is a different story with adaptive challenges. Existing assumptions, methods, and tools are useless in the face of complex challenges. They may even get in the way. Dealing with complex challenges requires altered assumptions, different methods, and yet to be invented tools. And beyond that, adaptive challenges often necessitate that employees learn and practice new behaviors. Because they are so difficult, many adaptive challenges remain unresolved for years. In some organizations each successive senior management team repeatedly invents solutions for the challenge – solutions that the rest of the organization is unable to implement.
“By trying to solve adaptive challenges for people, at best you will reconfigure it as a technical problem and create some short-term relief. But the issue will not have gone away. It will surface again.” Heifetz
The power of a leader to address adaptive challenges does not lie in inventing solutions; rather it lies in using leadership authority to convene the conversations. And the task of the leader is to design those conversations in a way that learning and knowledge result – to be a conversation architect.
The conversation architect takes into consideration the following design elements:
1. Framing the conversation: The first leadership task is to recognize the adaptive challenges the organization or unit is facing. That can be difficult, because some adaptive challenges have become so much a part of the organizational culture that leaders and employees alike have resigned themselves to, “that’s just the way it is.” The task is to see with fresh eyes, the issues the organization is facing.
Framing the conversation also involves posing the question in a way that gets to the heart of the issue, not just a symptom. Without care, the question can limit the scope of possibilities that could be discovered.
2. Identifying who needs to be in the conversation: Those that do the work and those that are impacted by the work have insights and knowledge to bring to bear on the challenge. It may be that customers or stakeholders can also provide a necessary perspective. Our inclination is to think too narrowly about inclusion so it is useful to ask what voices haven’t been heard.
3. High interaction activities: The goal is to design for conversation rather than for presentations or speeches. Our predisposition is to assume we need someone to speak to legitimize the meeting or give direction - a speech from the president to confirm the meeting as important. The conversation architect designs the meeting on the 80-20 rule so that 80% of the meeting time, participants are in conversation with each other.
4.The small group as the unit of conversation: The small group, (trios, quartets or pairs) is the unit of conversation that is most effective for addressing difficult issues. The group needs to be small enough that members can fully state their ideas and the reasoning behind them, can query each other and probe for understanding of what others have said. If a group exceeds seven, it tends to no longer be in conversation; rather the exchange becomes more like turn taking, with each member declaring their perspective to the others.
Periodically the small groups need to reconvene as a whole to get a sense, (not report outs) of what is being learned in the small groups.
5. Role of the leader in the conversation: There are two roles the leader plays in the conversation. The first is the convener role. The second is as participant in the conversation. The conventional wisdom is that a leader should withhold his/her own ideas out of concern that it will bias subordinates. That is a useful strategy when the format is such that each subordinate is speaking in turn to the leader. But when the meeting is formatted as small group conversations, the manager’s participation in one small group does not inhibit the forthrightness of those in other small groups. And as important, participating in the small groups gives the manager a voice in the conversation.
6. Physical space to serve the conversation: The physical space in which we talk has a greater impact on conversation, than most of us credit. The most ideal configuration for a conversation is chairs drawn together without a table to separate those participating. That is why the conversation with a senior is so different when it takes place at the couch and easy chair off to the side, than when the senior is behind his/her desk. Space matters. Round tables elicit more collaboration (King Arthur’s round table) than do square tables which suggest a contest (opponents in a negotiation). The more the space welcomes participants as human beings responsive to their needs for light, nature, food, and beauty, the more they are able to function as human beings in the conversation, rather than as roles in the organization.
7. Connection before content;*** One of the important benefits that small groups engender is that they connect people more effectively than any ice breaker or round robin introduction could possible do. If a group is going to work on difficult issues, they first need to gain a sense of who others are, the skills they bring, the experience they represent, and the hopes they have. A sense of relationship needs to be built before people can address difficult issues together. The leader’s task is to ask questions of the small groups that will provide them the opportunity to make themselves known to others, e.g. talking about experiences they have had relevant to the adaptive challenge; discussing what importance the challenge has for them and their work.
“Leaders have the power to focus attention and define the conversations for people whan they gather. We might say that leadership is the capacity to name the debate and design gatherings.” Block
Increasingly it is adaptive challenges that organizations face. As the pace of technological, scientific and global change increases, organizations face issues that they have not had to deal with before. The law of requisite variety, which originates in the field of cybernetics, states that the variety in the control system must be equal to or larger than the variety of the perturbations in order to achieve control.
Leaders that find their organizations facing adaptive challenges can no longer rely the method they have used in the past - the senior leadership team meeting to develop the organizational response. However intelligent and experienced seniors are, they lack the requisite variety that can be found in the organization. The task of the leader is to be conversation architect to convene the conversations out of which new thinking can emerge.
*Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers. Harvard University Press. 1994
** Drath, “Leading Together: Complex Challenges Require a New Approach, LIA, Volume 23, Number 1, March/April 2003
*** Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging. Jossey-Bass. 2008