September 26, 2016
“Every start-up needs four things,” writes Alan Webber, cofounder of “Fast Company Magazine,” in Rules of Thumb, ”change, connections, conversation, and community.” I offer two revisions to Webber’s trenchant observations: First, it is not only start-ups that need change, connections conversation and community, but all endeavors that bring people together to accomplish goals and objectives; and second, Webber’s four requirements are not equal; one stands above the others. Conversations are the means by which the others – change, connections and community – are achieved. No conversation, no change, no connections, no community. And not just any conversation will do. Inadequate or bad conversations will lead to unsuccessful change, incomplete connections, and dysfunctional communities.
Conversations are at the very center of our hopes, dreams, aspiration, goals and objectives. They are the tools and mechanisms with which we address our problems.
Whenever we come upon a problem that concerns us and we want to do something about, a conversation must inevitably follow. Sometimes we converse with ourselves – ”What’s going on here? I’m baffled. How can I figure this out and then do something about it” – but most of the time we talk to others, either one person, a group, or in some cases, hundreds, thousands, and even millions. Whenever President Obama speaks to the nation his purpose is to have a conversation with us about important national problems.
There is an important principle here: When it comes to problems, and especially wicked ones, conversations are the sine qua non for any forward movement. Our abilities to have helpful and productive conversations with others is the single most important factor in making progress in managing wicked problems successfully.
Two Kinds of Questions, Two Kinds of Conversations
If Jerry Harvey were to ask “What is the shortest route to Abilene?” he is asking a question that has a correct answer, and the conversation that follows will be a Convergent one. Maps will be consulted (or these days, someone will ask Siri or google Google), different routes will be compared, and eventually all possibilities will converge upon one correct answer. Jerry Harvey, in his book, The Abilene Paradox, reports that from Coleman to Abilene, Texas, the shortest distance is 53 miles. It is safe to conclude that the conversations that that led to discovering the shortest distance to Abilene from Coleman was a reasonable and calm one. As the “facts” emerged, there would be little reason for arguments or disagreements.
However, if we changed the question to”Why would anyone want to go to Abilene?” then the nature of the conversation will be fundamentally different. In the first place, conversations about this question will be Divergent ones: Based upon different preferences, objectives and motives, most of the answers offered will go off in different directions. Hypothetically, there could be as many answers to the question as there are people in the room. And since answers to this question will not be found on maps, or on the internet, experts, including Siri, cannot provide an answer. Answers must come from the people in the room. If things work as they should, they will feel free to share their preferences, opinions and desires. If some people have unusual or socially unacceptable reasons for wanting to make the trip – and can own up to them – (“To be honest, the reason I want to go to Abilene is to visit the topless bar on 5th Street), tension, conflict, even confrontation, may become part of the conversations.
Tame and Wicked
Those who are familiar with the essays on this website will recognize that these two questions represent the two kinds of problems that interest us: “How far is it to Abilene?” for which there is a correct answer, represents tame problems.
On the other hand, “Why do you want to go to Abilene?” a question that, as I said earlier, could have as many answers as there are people in the room, none of which are objectively true or correct, stands in for wicked problems.
Compared to conversations about tame problems, those that involve wicked problems will always more difficult, risky, and fraught with complications. Differences matter; serious differences matter a great deal. Many people lack the skills needed to manage a successful conversation about wicked problems. When those with limited skills attempt it, things rarely get better and often get worse. The worst case scenario is this: With skills and abilities in short supply, the more that people try to work on a wicked problem, the worse things become until, to paraphrase the poet Yeats, the center doesn’t hold and things fall apart.
Most of us are familiar with conversations that not only do not make things better, but often make them worse. ”Been there, done that, over and over” is a widely shared experience. As a result, faced with an issue or a situation that is on its way to becoming a wicked problem, many of us punt. We choose to rely upon one verbal stratagem or another that ends up diluting, dimishing or disguising the significance of the issue we have before us. We make the serious mistake of “small talking” big problems. Plunging into the deep part feels dangerous and risks exposing our deficiencies and offending others. And yet “real” issues do not get better unless we work on them in serious ways. Staying on the surface, avoiding open and honest expressions of feelings and preferences, playing verbal or semantic games, are all strategies guaranteed to get us deeper into the swamp with little hope of getting to the other side.
Conversations about wicked problem that dilute, diminish, or disguise the real issues are what I call Phony Conversations.
A Trip to Abilene
In the early 1970′s, Jerry Harvey was visiting his in-laws in Coleman, Texas. In was an unpleasant day, with the temperature at 104 and a hot wind blowing fine-grained topsoil through the house. ”There was a fan going on the back porch, there was cold lemonade; and finally there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the [miserable] conditions.” Suddenly Harvey’s father-in law says “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”
“What,” thought Harvey, “go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?” Harvey’s wife spoke up: “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go? What about you Jerry?” Since his own preferences were clearly out of step with the rest, and not wanting to be a wet blanket, he replied, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” ”Of course I want to go,” said his mother-in-law, “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
So off they go to Abilene and, in Harvey’s words: ”My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.”
Four hours and 106 miserable miles later they once again sat on the porch in front of the fan. In order to fill up the silence, Harvey spoke: ”It was a great trip, wasn’t it.”
No one spoke. People seemed uncomfortable. Finally, Harvey’s mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Harvey to himself. To his mother-in-law he said, “What do you mean ‘you all?’ Don’t put me in the ‘you all’ group…I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you You’re the culprits.”
Harvey’s wife looked shocked. ”Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy. I would have been crazy to want to go out in heat like this.”
“Hell,” said her father abruptly. ” I never wanted to go to Abilene I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”
Here are Harvey’s reflections on what happened that day:Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.”
This experience has become known as the ”Abilene Paradox: ” People ended up doing the opposite of the really wanted to do because the conversation that led to the decision was one hundred percent phony.
Characteristics of Phony Conversations
Phony conversations are those that end up taking us in directions in which we do not want to go, leading us to paper over issues we would like discuss, and result in postponing and often making impossible serious explorations of problems that need to be addressed. For many couples, teams and organizations, a heavy usage of phony conversations has become the preferred modus operandi. They play “Let’s Pretend” by refusing dig down into crucial issues that need to be brought to the surface and worked on. When this happens, it is bad news for all concerned. Problems that need attention, often urgently, are skirted or passed over.
Here are some of the most important characteristics and consequences of phony conversations:
- There are significant gaps between what people think and what they say.
- People carry with them a persistent sense of not being heard or listened to.
- People feel that they do not have a voice with which to express their opinion, preferences and choices.
- People find themselves agreeing with others when they actually disagree.
- People hold assumptions about what others think or about what the team wants that are inaccurate, yet they are never brought to the surface and tested.
- As couples, teams or groups move toward making decisions with which one more individuals do not agree, nothing is said to stop the train from leaving the station.
- Because of the way important decisions are made, many people harbor feelings of anger and resentment.
- As a result, they do not “buy-in” or sign on but stand apart, becoming more and more cynical.
- Criticism of decisions that are made are frequently made outside of the group and after the meetings are over.
- People lose confidence in the capacity of the team or group to make good decisions.
Eschew Phony Conversations
Conversations are essential for progress to be made in solving tame problems and for grappling with wicked ones. But they must not be phony ones. If they are, little will be achieved in getting to the heart of the issues or in planning and designing activities to make things better. Here is a partial list of skills that are needed to help people move beyond phony conversations:
-Speak for oneself. Express in constructive ways what you see, hear, want and don’t want, and encourage others to do the same.
-Seek an appropriate balance between advocating what you think is best, and listening what others say.
- Become skilled in helping others reach agreement and with important issues, reach consensus.
-Be prepared to use Meta-Talk: When appropriate, stop talking about the issue on the table, and begin talking about how people are talking about it, and whether or not you see it to be helpful. Labeling phony conversations as phony and then explaining how you come to this observation is an excellent stimulus for change.
-Process Skills are extremely helpful:
- “What I see happening right now is that we seem to be rushing to a decision before we are really clear is this is what we really want.”
- “We are about to make an important decision and there are five of us here who have not spoken up”.
-Frequently, some people do not want a particular train to be stopped but for their own reasons, want to move it forward unexamined. Be prepared to manage attacks and deal with conflict without becoming defensive.
- And one more: Master the skills of Fierce Conversations - the topic for the next essay.
“Shunning, Avoiding, and Staying Away From”
When faced with a wicked problem, eschew phony conversations. ”Eschew” is defined in the dictionary as “shunning, avoiding and staying away from deliberately.” It is difficult to identify a more important contribution one can bring to relationships, teams, and organizations than being skilled at “eschewing” phony conversations: Avoiding and deliberately staying away from them, helping others do the same, and then persuading others to move toward more productive conversations. The payoffs – both personal and organizational – will be well worth it .