What do I mean by “changing the way people talk to get work done”


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I’m really struggling to communicate my value proposition. I’m one who has undergone a paradigm shift

a) so that it now seems the most obvious thing in the world to see all work in terms of human-human and human-artefact interactions,

b) and then to see those as certainly not less than metaphorical conversations (“Can you get that printer to talk to my PC, please”),

c) but more usually, (and especially with knowledge workers, mostly), as literal conversations.

So It’s the natural way I see the world. But not so for most others, who struggle to differentiate what I am saying from the images they have of “”Oh, yes, it’s very important to talk to your staff”, or “we’ve found posters in the toilets work well for communications”, or “So, its like mediation, then?”, or “you get involved in conflicts a lot, I suppose.”

So talking to my partner this morning led to another attempt at laying a path others might be able to follow me on. Let me know which bits work for you.

It goes like this:

1. As we work with more and more complex situations, we talk more and more. If I went to a manufacturing company and offered to design their human conversational interactions, they would not consider all the staff who drive forklifts, assemble parts or mix concoctions. But if I head into an organisation that is trying to create change I the social sector, there are almost not enterprise activities that are not conversation based. The work of sense making, naming, exploring what we don’t know, aligning our aspirations, and agreeing on our want, are all “products” that can only be “made” by talking.

2. In these contexts, talking is in fact the right intervention. Like a pest expert saying, “you need Rogor, it’s the only thing that will knock those bugs out”, or a PC sales person saying “you need a 500 MHz processor or above, it’s the only thing that will run those games”, talking is the right prescription for complexity. In technical terms, human conversation is the only process that has the requisite variety to manage complex human activity.

3. For complexity to be managed/negotiated/manoeuvred/channelled, we need multiple people (more than one voice) in more than one kind of interaction. Talking is the mechanism by which humans share their minds and motives, revise and renovate their knowledge and aspirations, and agreed to coordinate their behaviours. Progress along the knowledge development pathways in complex environments requires more than one conversational form.

4. People are not necessarily able to

· craft the conversation they should be in, or

· recognise the shortcomings, the non-fitness-for-purpose, of the conversations they are in.

It takes learned skill to see what is inefficient or ineffective in such a tacit practice as “talking together”.

5. People are not necessarily skilled to be in/execute the conversation forums that they need to happen. We know that chaplains to visit palliative care units have skills in talking about fear, death and faith that we have little or no skill in. Similarly, most people skilled in a technical expertise have little fluency with how to proceed in the ambiguity of design, nor the disposition for sustained openness in emergent contexts.

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.


a small, quick follow up to “Quick Wins vs Small Wins”

It is particularly instructive to note how the CFAR paper concludes:

“Note that in each of these cases the change agents do not have to “announce their change” or force any person to change their behaviour. The steadily applied advantage pulls rather than pushes people to change their behaviour… group members are pulled along by the consistency and relevance of the message.”

This is one of the core advantages of a conversation design approach when what you intend is to change the organisations’ capability for change, not just meet the needs of the current instance. If successful enterprise is “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” (Edison), then we spend altogether too much time on the 1%, when the real leverage can be in changing the way people go about the ACTUAL work.

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

Quick wins vs Small Wins


I probably can’t remember a time when I have been in a briefing about a merger, or an organisational change initiative, or a business improvement project where there wasn’t pressure to ensure “we get some quick wins”.

But what about small wins – the steady application of a small advantage (http://www.cfar.com/Documents/Smal_win.pdf).

This is the territory of Change Conversation, and it is fascinating to see the example CFAR use. It reads like a case study in conversation design. It starts with understanding the current contexts in which people talk in ways that are unhelpful for the enterprise. In the case in the CFAR paper, it is an age old “bunker mentality” divide between two divisions. Then the manager designs a new conversation!

“…the manager would ask the following: “If I want to ‘beat’ the bunker mentality what small advantage can I consistently apply?” This question in turn may lead her to consider the currently utilized forums where managers from different divisions already meet to discuss issues or make decisions. She would then ask, “What small but consistent change can I make to these meetings so the likelihood that they will succeed will increase?” To answer this question she would then formulate her theory of the case. For example, she might say, “People are reluctant to join in on the discussion because they believe that anyone who is seen defending the status quo will be thought of as uncooperative.” With this hypothesis in mind she could then introduce the following practice: When the meeting begins all participants should talk about:
1) how they think the organization benefits from the current decision making process and could be hurt by a change, and

2) how the organization would benefit from a change and is hurt by the current process.

This balanced opening discussion would help meeting participants to be more forthright about how they really feel about change.”

I am constantly struck at how many published papers directly address organisational issues in terms of changing conversations, but completely fail to go on to recognise what they have just been doing. Ah, the power of mental models to keep us away from new options. In this case the authors language their success in terms of “helping people to make small changes to a key constraint on change”. That’s a true window, but it misses the power of what they just described.

Change the Conversation!

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

Conversation design is grounded in the actual ways we talk to get work done


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“…it is not yet more or different theory that we need in management studies, but a better understanding of conversation and conversational realities.”

John Shotter Conversational Realities

The distinctive approach of Change Conversation® is that it is grounded in the actual ways we talk to get work done.

There are three powerful mechanisms bought to bear in a Change Conversation approach.

1. Reframing

So much of what managers do, and what senior managers require in the workplace, is beset with abstraction.

“Our ability to abstract is highly useful. Conversation would collapse without categories like ‘straight’, ‘past, present and future’, ‘responsibility’, ‘quality’, ‘safety’, ‘culture’, etc.. Our ability to abstract is also hugely problematic. It is too easy to build communications and systems entirely around concepts without grounding them in any actual context.” Mark Strom, Arts of the Wise Leader

George Orwell says that this renders our communications insincere

“A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” “Politics and the English Language,” 1946

In contrast, we don’t shift the topic, we don’t use abstractions, we don’t introduce a new theory outside of peoples lived experience. WE DO provide a window on change that is a powerful reframe. People just do not think of work as conversation based. They reach instead for vague and peripheral levers like changing the symbolism of the t-shirt, or the use of visitor lanyards. But “Conversations are the way workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues, and in the process create new knowledge for the organization. In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work … so much so that the conversation is the organization.” Alan Webber, HBR

So to introduce a window on work that is core, not abstract, and readily accessible is a powerful reframe. Seeing work as conversations is

a) enabling and empowering

Everyone already has substantial expertise in how they talk to get their work done. Their ways of knowing are respected by this process.

b) participatory and dignifying

Existing knowledge of what works today is foundational to what will work tomorrow. Knowledge is drawn from those who will be moving into the new conversations, working right in their “zone of proximal development” (Vigotski), the growth edge of those involved.

2. Design

The core methodology of Change Conversation is design – the ability to take a user perspective on complex and ambiguous matters, and produce innovative hypotheses and new ways to satisfy customers, internal and external. Yet it is conversation design – there is a disciplinary frame and substance, just as there is for graphic design. The contexts, roles and dynamics of conversations in human activity systems are able to be patterned and understood and insights reused.

3. Insight

Seeing business activities and processes, human interactions, and work itself as conversation unlocks a treasure trove of insight through mechanisms including reframing, appropriation and theory cohesion. Change Conversation’s underlying theoretical frames – the Knowledge Development Pathway® and the Requisite Conversations® framework enable a coherent theoretical and practical interaction with other theories, unlocking value, as vigorous hybrids do: interaction with network theories (eg ANT), capability instruments (eg the OACI measurement tool for the competing values framework), organisational development theories (eg Jaques, Dejours), and engagement theories, amongst others.

Changing conversation is basic to change management


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“In talking of change management, Ford describes conversation as the focus and unit of work. In this perspective, the work of an intervention designer requires an understanding of how to shift conversations to create commitments, and to act to accomplish those commitments. Ford points out that a monolithic view of change is therefore problematic. If change is shifting conversations, seeing change as removal of a problem (a standard approach in a structural-functionalist perspective) is a gross reduction of the scale and complexity of the work required.”

Simpson, R. and Gill, R. Design for social systems: Change as Conversation E:CO Issue Vol. 10 No. 1 2008 pp. 39-49, emphasis mine

The article goes on to say:

“The new language must be an innovation that aids sense making.”

Hence the need for a genuine discipline of conversation design.

Naming is our way of making knowledge personal


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Naming is not only deeply personal to ourselves – to OUR own name. Naming is our way of making knowledge personal. This is not to say that we make up our own private language, as lovers might do with personal endearments. It is to say that “naming” is the way we create order in the conversational cognition of meaning making, as distinct from that of labelling. Naming is the distinctive conversation based activity (regardless of whether that conversation is audible or inaudible, interpersonal or just plain thinking) that carries the sense we have made, and are making, of our world.

Of course we need to have shared labels for things. This is the basis of “coordinating our coordinations” (Maturana). That is, I can coordinate myself enough to have a drink. But if I want to coordinate that capability with your capability to do the same – so that we end up having a drink together at the pub – we need to “coordinate our coordinations” – our biologically functioning needs to be aligned by the language we use.

Such coordinations using labels become very important when we want to convey the differences between plants to eat (Black Nightshade – Solanum nigram) and plants to avoid (Deadly nightshade – Atropa belladonna). But we can have many such distinctions without ever embracing them personally. Think for example of the vast bulk of your education – of the sheer volumes of distinctions you were required to recognise and label – but which meant nothing to you personally, and is perhaps mercifully seldom drawn upon…

We may learn the scientific name of a thing, but it may remain a “denotation”, until woven into life experience, it carries connotations for us. Two pieces of nomenclature that have significance to me are “Capsella bursa-pastoris” – the first botanical scientific name I ever learnt (for Shepherds Purse), and “Pseudomonas solanacearum Biotype II”, the plant pathogen that consumed my life for a year of research for my Science Honours. These names have extensive personal connotations – personal to me. If you want to see a list of labels that are NOT personal to me, see here http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/node/22

What is personal to me is the mental model formations, attributions of meaning and value, associations and memories, all of which guide my reactions and interactions. These are far from stable labels, precise attributions that are only as broad as the number of lenses in the vertical array of the trilobite species eye….(Richard Fortey: Dry Store Room #1 p77). On the contrary, they have a diversity, flexibility , breadth and looseness that lets me proceed somewhat peaceably – or at least largely without psychopathology – in the the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James description of a baby’s first experience of the world). Undifferentiated life is a complex place. Stamp collections are not.

“As complexity increases, precision and meaningfulness become incompatible. While precision thrives on stable (fixed) meanings, the fuzzy meanings are unstable – they can simultaneously relate to several attractors and express specific types of meaning-generating crises. Instability of the fuzzy meanings make them flexible for interpretation and open for evolution and transformation. And these are precious qualities necessary for understanding social complexity.“ Vladimir Dimitrov, Strange Attractors of Meaning, 2000

Naming is also our way of keeping knowledge personal. We continue to live with and work with attributions that are not precise, not defined, not Latin binary labels, because it matters to the way our conversational cognition performs. “Attributions about what an artefact “is” and what agents “do” matter. The meaning that agents give to themselves, their products, their competitors, their customers, and all the relevant others in their world determine their space of possible actions–and, to a large extent, how they act. In particular, the meaning that agents construct for themselves constitute their identity: what they do, how they do it, with and to whom.” (Strategy Under Complexity: Fostering Generative Relationships D. Lane and R. Maxfield Long Range Planning, 29:215-231 April, 1996, pp.215-231.)

A case study in naming…



I had the privilege of attending several extended workshops with Humberto Maturana in the early 1990’s. Humberto was leading the charge to provide a biological (aka scientifically credible for those committed to materialist presuppositions) account of language and human relations – including such unscientific notions as “love”. I did and do differ with his premises, but as a scientist I loved his effort, and as a person committed to the primacy of language as a defining feature of our humanness, I was and am profoundly grateful for the ways he broke open new possibilities for talk about talk.

In order to pioneer his path, Maturana had to do quite a bit of naming and renaming – of appropriating some language and making it his own in order to then set us on a new knowledge pathway. Some of them remain memorable and quirky, such as speaking of language as the “the coordination of coordinations” – which makes perfect sense if you’ve heard it enough times – and especially if parts of your education include attempts to use second order cybernetics as a theory of learning..

Years ago I spent some time many collecting up some of Maturana’s renaming’s, as recorded by me in my notes from those workshops, because they form a great case study in attempting to reposition the way scholars framed an entire area of human experience. The interesting thing about these (re-)namings is that they may seem very strange when you encounter them in a list, but as a set they created a whole new “world” for one to stand in and look at language. Here they are.

Maturana’s Re-namings (DAJ notes Day-Page)


That which you live and distinguish in your living (1-16)


The coordination of the coordination of behaviour. (2-21)


A commentary – a manner of describing the appearance of the system. (2-12


Entities arise when the relations that constitute the entity (the distinctions you make in languaging) are realised. (1-35) Objects are brought forth in the distinctions of language. (1-19)


The criteria for the validation of scientific explanations are the same as for everyday life. What distinguishes the scientist is

a) the passion (the desire to be always in this manner of living)

b) the carefulness (1-10)

Science is not extraordinary. It is ordinary. What is peculiar about science is the scientist – the commitment to ask questions. (1-17)


Emotioning defines the action.

An action is play, if in the presence of doing it you are not doing it for the consequences, even if you know what the consequences will be and you want them. (3-38)


A generative mechanism is not physical. It makes reference to the coherences of the system within the framework of which the system works. (1-10)


Competence in consensuality – in the coherences of the relations that arise through living together (3-11) Our primary differences as humans are not in our intelligence, but in our passions. (1-25)


Domain of those behaviours through which the (an) other arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself. (3-7)


Implication by an observer of the domain of behaviours which will take place in bodyhood (3-6) An assessment of the circumstances and possible behaviours, not the particular doing.(3-5)

Just to keep fueling your experience and naming of what is naming….


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Two authors who draw out the connection between naming and our identity:

A) The first does it by making a deep connection between the sociology of naming and the nature of a community in a fictional world.

B) The second draws our attention to what is essentially a contrast between the post-specification, labelled and defined world of law (in the Build habitat), and the more demanding open system approach of naming ourselves (Scope)


“Anyhow, the people of the Valley had no objection to long names. They liked them. Perhaps they enjoyed the fact that they had plenty of time to say them. They were not ashamed of having time. They lacked drive, that great urge to get done which powers us, sending us forward, ever forward ever faster, reducing San Francisco of the slow settlers to Frisco and Chicago of the even slower natives to Chi and the town of the mission of our lady of the angels becomes Los Angeles, but that takes to long so it becomes L.A., but jets go faster than we do so we use their language and call it LAX, because what we want is to move on quick, to go fast, get through, be done, done with everything. To get it over with, that’s what we want. But the people who lived in the Valley and gave interminable names to their houses were in no hurry.

It is hard for us to conceive, harder to approve, of a serious adult person not in a hurry. Not being in a hurry is for infants, people over eighty, bums, and the Third World. Hurry is the essence of the city, the very soul. There is no civilisation without hurry, without keeping ahead. The hurry may lurk invisible, contradicted by the indolent pose of the lounger at the bar or the lazy gait of the stroller along the hotel walkway, but it is there, in the terrific engines of the TWA or BSA supersonic planes that bought her from Rio, him from Rome, here to NY, NY for the IGPSA conference on implementation of GEPS, and will rush them back tomorrow, hurrying across the world of cities where there is no tense left but the present tense, every second and tenth of a second and millisecond and nanosecond clocked, the readout moving always a little faster, and the A rising. Mozart’s A was a hundred and forty cycles a second, so Mozart’s piano is out of tune with all our orchestras and singers. Our A is a hundred and sixty, because the instruments sound more brilliant tuned up higher, as they all rise like sirens to the final scream. There is nothing to be done. There is no way to heighten the pitch of the instruments of the Valley, no way to abbreviate their institutions and addresses and names to capital letters, no way to get them to move ahead.”

Ursula Le Guin

Always Coming Home

1986, pp 409-410

“As long as the law is upon us we feel safe. Its bitching, score-evening presence assures us that something out there has our number. Whether it approves or disapproves of us is almost a matter of indifference; the main thing is that, having our number, it absolves us from the burden of learning our name. The law of retribution reigns supreme in our fantasies precisely to keep us off the main question of our lives: What would you do with freedom if you had it?”

Robert Farrar Capon

Between noon and three p6

Naming is deeply personal


Interview with neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, stroke victim, TED speaker, author of “My Stroke of Insight”:

“ROBERT KRULWICH: And, and the other thing that she told us is that lying in that bed without words, she says she felt connected to things, to everything, in a way that she never had before.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Oh yeah I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.

JAD ABUMRAD: You mean like you couldn’t figure out where you ended?

ROBERT KRULWICH: How much of that was about language. A little part? A lot? I mean.

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Oh I would say it was huge. Language is an ongoing information processing it’s that constant reminder. I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I’m a single, I am a solid, I’m separate from you. This is my name…”

(Transcript of Radiolab from WNYC and NPR Words: Transcript Monday, August 09, 2010; http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/transcript/ accessed 010512)

Notice these features of that interview transcript:

Naming sets up boundaries and attractors:
Attractor: I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me…
Boundaries: these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I’m a single, I am a solid, I’m separate from you. …This is my name

The absence of a name means the absence of boundaries:
“lying in that bed without words, she says she felt connected to things, to everything, in a way that she never had before.
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Oh yeah I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.
JAD ABUMRAD: You mean like you couldn’t figure out where you ended?”

Notice how deeply and inescapably personal naming is. It relates to me as an “I am”, and is the source of our rational encounter with everything else. This is not only the recent observation of neuroscience – it is the long observation of authors. Take for example this piece from the screenplay of Last Tango in Paris, a philosophical tract for existentialism in its day. Paul [Marlon Brando] and Jeanne [Maria Schneider] speak, early in their “relationship”:

J. I don’t know what to call you

P. I don’t have a name

J. You want to know my name …

P. No! No! I don’t … I don’t want to know your name. You don’t have a name and I don’t have a name either. No names here. Not one name.

J. You’re crazy.

P. Maybe I am. But I don’t want to know anything about you. I don’t want to know where you live or where you come from. I want to know nothing, nothing, nothing. You understand?

J. You scared me.

P. Nothing. You and I are going to meet here without knowing anything that goes on outside. OK

J. But why?

P. Because, because, we don’t need names, here.

We’re going to forget everything we knew. Every…all the people, all that we do, all that we…, wherever we live. We’re going to forget that…everything, everything.

J. I can’t. Can you?

P. I don’t know. Are you scared?

J. No.

By the end of the movie the impersonality of the sex had given way to the impersonality of death, the literal and figurative sequel to being nameless.

A model for the conversations we have to coordinate in human enterprise


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Without explicitly sharing it, I have been writing and working for some time from within a particular heuristic frame. For example, in the last post, I talked of “naming” as being a feature of the Scope habitat of conversations. I realised that I have been thinking, and creating solutions for clients, in these terms for so long that the model is now woven into the way I design conversations. So I better include you into my own Scoping conversation – my own high level naming of how we coordinate in purposeful enterprise, or it will just be confusing to read my stuff. So here is a top level introduction to the framework – it’s like a circuit diagram for the communication flows necessary to accomplishing shared purpose and being a viable system. If we want to collaborate with other humans in pursuit of a purpose, we need to talk. And even if we could imagine creating a new enterprise all by ourselves, we would still need to have conversations in our heads. The sets of conversations we have to have to build and operate an enterprise are predictable. We always do them. Not always well. Not always evenly. Not always in the best way that we could without frustrating our own desires . But always. There are 3 major terrains through which we must weave our conversations: – Create – the capacity to think up and deliver new things – Perform – the capacity to use existing processes well – Monitor – the capacity to reflect and learn Two notes among the many I could make: 1. This Requisite Conversation® framework is • “heuristic” – it lets you see new patterns • “fractal” – it works at many different levels of “zoom” • deceptively simple yet functions as a complex adaptive system model. The Framework allows the building of extensive knowledge about conversational dynamics at all levels of enterprise. 2. As a language convention, I refer to the larger conversational spaces (Create, Perform, Monitor) as “terrains”, and the conversational subsystems in Create (Scope, Generate, Build) as “habitats”.