Stuart Scott has an interesting title: Chief Conversation Starter.  We’ve been meeting for virtual coffee and conversation on topics related to organizational change. – ES


SS: Any human system exists because individuals are interacting.  A company, an organization, lives and breathes inside those interactions.  So, if I’m in the process improvement business, I’m actually intent on improving the quality of human interactions.

When there’s a process problem, it’s a good bet that either a conversation isn’t happening or isn’t focused on the right issues or isn’t including all the right people.  For example, people in one department will often get together to discuss how they wish people in another department would interact with them. But they don’t actually reach out to the people in the other department to include them in the conversation about how the two groups will interact.

How do we break this?  I like to help groups focus on improving their interactions with other groups, and one tool I like is the “business interaction model.”  It helps people identify the other groups they regularly interact with, and examine the quality of each of those relationships.

ES:  Yes, because most human interactions seem to live in the interstices, the places where various groups come together in an organization, not inside the bounded categories.  I’ve applied the old SWOT exercise of mapping out Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to these in-between spaces.  Inviting subcultures or groups within the organization to consider how to improve their interactions through this kind of Interstitial Planning (as I’m calling it) seems critical to organizational pathfinding and sensemaking.

SS:  I see enormous value in that.  First you draw a line on the diagram to represent the connection or interaction between two groups.  And then have a conversation about what’s working and what’s not working inside that interaction.  This calls to mind a model of human relationships that helped me understand what I’m responsible for in a relationship with another person.

Imagine a piece of paper with two circles for the individuals and a line connecting them.  How do we share responsibility for the relationship represented by that line? How much of that relationship am I responsible for, and how much are you responsible for? Most people I’ve asked have suggested that each party is responsible for 50% of the relationship. The person represented by the circle on the left is thus responsible for the left half of the line up to its midpoint, while the person represented by the circle on the right is responsible for the right half of the line. The goal, it seems, is to meet halfway.

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In practice though, this approach doesn’t work very well. On any given day, I might feel you aren’t owning your full 50% of the relationship. So I might get annoyed with you because you’re forcing me to do more than my share. The only way the relationship can work is if we always believe the other person is doing his or her 50%.

Clearly there are pitfalls.  How about this instead?  Instead of saying that “we have a relationship” represented in our diagram by a single line, we can say that I have a relationship with you represented by a line from me to you, and you have a relationship with me, represented by another line from you to me.

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In this model, I take on 100% responsibility for my thinking and behaviors in my relationship with you. That’s my line across the white space.  My own creation.  That means I can have a productive relationship with you without depending upon you for a certain percentage. Similarly, you are 100% responsible for how you choose to relate to me, regardless of my treatment of you.

Now imagine if you brought that conversation into an interdepartmental squabble.  It might help those human relationships, which are so often filled with confusion and disappointment.

ES:  You might bring the conversation directly into the conflicted space, or you might set it up outside the structure.  In the spaces between departments, systems, and cultures, people can dip into a new way of relating, fill up and then return to their respective positions with greater clarity and perspective.  Like a support group for people trying to find positive ways to handle interactions at work.

You almost need to be in a different space physically, where you can feel a new energy.  That allows you to create what [our mutual friend and colleague] Devin [Hedge] describes as new neural and muscular patterns, in order to go beyond the situations in which the problems originally got created.

SS:  Yes, it can help a lot to set up a different kind of “space” for the conversation if you want the nature of the conversation to change.  That reminds me of how a group of my process improvement colleagues and I set up a weekly conference call so we could stay in a conversation about our efforts to get the right people involved in the right conversations.  Our focus was on how we could contribute in any positive way.  That was five years ago, and we still meet and talk even though we now work for different companies.  People seem to find a lot of valuable in creating this kind of space for sharing interpersonal experiences and challenges within a business. We remember the power of being honest with peers on a regular basis.  Indeed, it’s quite powerful.

ES:  You mention positive contributions. With all the focus on organizational cultures, I’m often wondering how we could create structures that identify and support individuals who are good culture-builders.  I’m working on one now, Scrum of One, which I’ll be bringing to Agile India.  It’s a set of practices inspired by my work over the years with artists and arts organizations.  These practices don’t depend upon a whole enterprise being oriented in any particular way. It’s both ongoing preparation for the creative individuals who get it as well as a way for enlightened organizations to find them so they can work with them.

What if positive culture-builders became fearless at work?  How would business look if we could trust that if a system penalizes them for being authentic, another will be waiting that values them more and is a better match?

SS:  You’re talking about raising the levels of personal responsibility.  In other words, it’s about deciding what I bring to my relationship with you, regardless of how you are behaving toward me. It’s about reaching across the “white space” between the two circles in our diagram above, instead of just trying to meet you halfway.  The motivation for that is not, of course, inside the system.

In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas.  They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear.  To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives. I sometimes call this “creating space for the conversations that aren’t happening yet.”

ES:  I can’t wait to see the energy and cohesion that will come when that occurs.