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Effective Conversations

Four Conversations to Address Adaptive Challenges

Trish Silber coauthored this post with me

When organizations face adaptive challenges that are complex and unpredictable, the people who have ideas vital to dealing with the issues are those whose work is impacted by the challenge. They know the subtleties of the process and hold the tacit knowledge of how it works and therefore how it will have to be adapted or reinvented to meet the new realities. The leader’s task, when faced with such a challenge, is not to make sense of it for that group, rather it’s to create a forum where it’s possible for those involved in the work to do the sensemaking for themselves. No one can make sense for someone else.

There are four types of conversations that are broadly applicable to any situation, and that are especially necessary for harnessing a group’s thinking during adaptive challenges: 1) conversations for relationship-building, 2) conversations for mutual understanding, 3) conversations for possibilities, and 4) conversations for action.

We are using the term “conversation” to mean,


the interaction that occurs when each person is actively working to understand the meaning the other is trying to convey.

Although each of us can recall times when we’ve engaged in that kind of mutual and authentic exchange, it only rarely happens inside of organizations. Organizational meetings too often seem to be opportunities for each person to make declarative and politic statements about their own position, with little interest in trying to understand the meaning others intend to convey. To convene a conversation rather than the typical meeting requires that the leader act as a conversation architect. The first task of the leader/architect is to determine which type of conversation is required at any particular juncture.


Conversations for Relationship-Building

Until those invited into the conversation have built a sense of psychological safety with each other, serious work on the issue will not take place. Rather people will tend to speak in general terms, rely on clichés, give voice only to what it seems safe to say and withhold any information that might possibly embarrass themselves or others. In other words, only a small part of the knowledge available in the room will be spoken. To break through that caution, the leader/convener has to create the opportunity for people to learn about each other – a relationship-building conversation.

In this context, a relationship-building conversation is often a conversation about the meaning of the task or work for those brought together in conversation. The question the leader poses to the group to initiate such a conversation, draws on the adaptive challenge, rather than being in the nature of an icebreaker. For example, if the challenge is about the difficulty of teams working virtually, each person might be asked to describe a time when they felt most effective as a part of a team. Such a question allows others to hear about what is valued or important to that individual. Through these conversations, held as a series of small groups, members discover their mutual interests and identify areas of expertise and experience. In this way a relationship of trust and mutual respect is built, and the group establishes a sound understanding of the assets and resources it brings the adaptive challenge.

Conversations for Mutual Understanding

Conversations for Mutual Understanding are the conversations we hold to make sense of what we know – to create meaning out of a mess of unstructured data and information. That involves exploring and uncovering each other’s perspectives, reasoning, and ideas about the topic. Weick* says


“...the same event means different things to different people, and more information will not help them. What will help them is a setting where they can argue, using rich data pulled from a variety of media, to construct fresh frameworks of action-outcome linkages that include their multiple interpretations. The variety of data needed to pull off this difficult task are most available in variants of the face to face meeting.”

The Conversation for Mutual Understanding is required before individuals can align, decide, and coordinate effectively. COL Lee Shiang Long, Head of Joint Communication and Information Systems Department (JCISD) for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), describes a practice that senior leadership use consistently. Two conversations are held, often in two different settings. The first of the two is held in the form of planning seminars and workshops for mutual understanding. Here the officers are trying to understand the situation, not to persuade others to their point of view. Everyone in this conversation speaks as an equal in trying to make sense of he complexity. Subsequently, a second meeting is held in the form of decision forums, where decisions are made about the issue under discussion. The physical separation of the two meetings ensures that one does not spill over into the other. Without such separation it is all too easy for a group to move towards a decision before all the valid information is considered.

As Abigail Adams said long ago, “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended with diligence.”

Conversations for Possibilities

By their very nature, adaptive challenges require learning and innovation for resolution. Conversations for Possibilities are those conversations in which we release ourselves to create and innovate, opening up pathways to a future beyond what already exists, rather than a perpetuation of the past. These are forward-focused, transformational conversations that must eventually root themselves in reality, but not before we’ve entertained scenarios unfettered by our current assumptions. At the essence of these conversations is the belief that creativity is a conversational phenomenon, not dependent upon a few inherently creative individuals.

The best Conversations for Possibilities are those in which the group:


- has a common understanding of a minimal set of givens and non-negotiables so that their conversation has necessary boundaries;

- entertains ideas of various scale, allowing the possibility of small moves creating big impacts;

- has enough time to conduct multiple rounds of idea generation, which creates richer ground for true assumption-busting, innovation, and learning. Mark Twain had it right when he said, “If you want to have a good idea, have a lot of them.”

Conversations for possibilities require deliberate pre-planning that prepares people to step out of their current interpretations, constraints, and bias for action. That pre-planning may include an ethnographic look at the present reality, scanning the external environment for trends and new ideas, or posing powerful questions of participants for reflection. Goldberg* suggests that “a paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it.”

Conversations for Action

Conversations for Action generate decisions, commitments, and coordinated actions with others. They are the most frequent conversations held in organizations. In fact they are often the only type of conversation held - the default conversation.

Conversations for Action may include discussions of feasibility; establishment of deadlines; requests and offers between individuals or groups; specific commitments; decisions and measures of success; and how fine-tuning a decision will happen. The wealth of action planning and decision making tools available speaks to our struggle to be as explicit and structured as this conversation usually requires.

In fact these conversations often fall short because the commitment or decision is not clear or publicly owned by a group or individual. A nod of the head in agreement is one thing, but publicly acknowledging the actions each member will take to support the group decision helps to move the group from lip service that too often occurs, to considered thinking about what it will take to make it happen.

• Goldberg, M. The Art of the Question, 1998, Wiley.
• Weick, K. Sensemaking in Organizations 1995, Sage.
• The title headings of “Conversations for Possibilities” and “Conversations for Action” are reflective of Fernando Flores work


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