Conversations and Artful Making

“Everything happens through conversations” is a profoundly rich expression that encapsulates much of Judith E. Glaser’s (@JudithEGlaser and @CreatingWE) wisdom around WE-Centric Leadership and building healthy, thriving organizations leveraging vital instincts and changing I-thinking to WE-thinking through conversations.

It’s not merely about relationships or structure and it’s not merely about behaviors or process, but relationships emerge from and are activated through conversations and behaviors emerge from and are enacted through conversations — with language being an instrument for conversations and everything happening through conversations! Un-activated relationships and un-enacted behaviors remain dormant awaiting to emerge through conversation!

Boris Groysberg’s and Michael Slind’s Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations introduces a conversation-based leadership model based on the following concepts: Intimacy, Interactivity, Inclusion, and Intentionality.

Rob Austin’s and Lee Devin’s Artful Making: Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work suggests that knowledge work should be approached as artists approach their work and introduces a framework (“enabling metaphor”) for managing and doing knowledge work based on the following concepts: Release, Collaboration, Ensemble, and Play.

While Talk, Inc. and Artful Making each contributes a unique paradigm / worldview, they are congruent with one another and the notion that “everything happens through conversations.”

(click figure to enlarge)

While Intimacy & Release are similar and Intentionality & Play are similar, Interactivity’s concept of push-and-pull dynamics is fundamentally embodied in Collaboration and Inclusion’s concept of participation is fundamentally embodied in Ensemble such that Talk, Inc. and Artful Making offer another rendition of the notion that “everything happens through conversations.”

Please see the section below for background information on While Talk, Inc. and Artful Making; and please see See Human Leadership for more information about WE-Centric Leadership.

Talk, Inc. — From Communication to Conversation

Boris Groysberg’s and Michael Slind’s Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations introduces a conversation-based leadership model. They “argue” that while “people are the ultimate source of optimal performance and sustainable competitive advantage,” “organizational conversation” is the “source of organizational power” and that “conversation is what keeps the engine of value creation firing on all cylinders.”

Organizational conversation involves four elements or qualities that likewise reflect the essential attributes of interpersonal conversation (Scale, Structure, Participation, and Focus):

When two people talk with each other, and when that talk is at its most robust, the scale of their conversion is typically small and indeed intimate; the structure of their conversation is dynamic and interactive; their participation in the conversation is equal and inclusive; and their approach to the conversation is focused and intentional.

Furthermore, “through conversation, we contend, a big or growing organization can retain or recapture much of the nimbleness, the cohesiveness, and the raw, productive energy of a well-oiled small company.”

And they emphasize that these elements (Intimacy, Interactivity, Inclusion, and Intentionality) “reinforce each other,” “overlap with each other significantly,” and “coalesce to form a single integrated process — a single source of organizational power.”

Artful Making — Business like Art

Rob Austin’s and Lee Devin’s Artful Making: Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work suggests that knowledge work should be approached as artists approach their work and introduces a framework (“enabling metaphor”) for managing and doing knowledge work. They emphasize that “successful business processes are becoming more and more like art” where “you often don’t know where you’re going when you start a journey” and “the need to innovate, to make midcourse corrections, and to adapt to changing conditions are the main features of a growing part of daily work.”

“Artful,” because it derives from the theory and practice of collaborative art and requires an artist-like attitude from managers and team members. “Making,” because it requires that you conceive of your work as altering or combining materials into a form, for a purpose.

Fundamentally, artful making involves “a process for creating form out of disorganized materials.” They propose “the collaborative art of theater, and particularly rehearsal, as an enabling metaphor” where “management of modern knowledge work resembles directing a theater ensemble more than it resembles supervising a factory floor” with four qualities or essential features (Release, Collaboration, Ensemble, and Play).

Intimacy and Release: Commitment and Trust

Conversation between two people both requires and enables its participants to stay close to one another, figuratively as well as literally.

Conversational intimacy equips leaders to manage change within their company, and it helps them to solidify buy-in among employees for new strategic initiatives. In short, it allows them to build trust through talk.

Through conversational intimacy, leaders narrow the gap that otherwise yawns between the higher and lower levels of an organizational hierarchy.

Intimacy involves “mental or emotional proximity;” it is the foundation of the other elements. The essence of intimacy is a “close, trusting relationship that exists between parties.”

Release at first seems to be the opposite of control. It’s not. It’s a form of control, the first quality of artful making. Control by release requires careful preparation that aims behavior rather than restrains it.

When performers achieve the quality of Release in all aspects of their working together, they collaborate.

Release is a “method of control that accepts wide variation within known parameters;” it is the foundation of the other qualities.

Interactivity and Collaboration: Efficiency 

Talk is a two-way affair — an exchange of comments and questions, of musings and mutterings.

The benefits that accrue from conversational interactivity include lower transaction costs, an easing of the pressure caused by information overload, and an increase in employees’ ability to respond readily to customer needs.

Using tools and techniques that support conversational interactivity, leaders ensure that organizational communication isn’t a one-way proposition.

Interactivity involves the “forms of communication that unfold;” “conversation is an interaction” where the “inter” (between) and “act” “replace a pure ‘push’ mode of communication with the push-and-pull dynamics of vigorous conversation.”

Collaboration is a conversation that arises out of individual release, from which all parties come away with new ideas. The basic technique of Collaboration is reconceiving. Reconceiving in artful making replaces the industrial technique of replication, and the political technique of compromise. Collaborators reconceive a problem or process in light of each other’s contributions, using them as material out of which, in combination with their own ideas, they make new, unpredictable ideas.

When artful makers collaborate, either on a play production or a business plan, they contribute to the making of something else as well, something larger than the sum of the individual makers: an ensemble.

Collaboration involves treating “the contributions of other parties as material to make with, not as positions to argue with, so that new and unpredictable ideas emerge” — this is the essence of push-and-pull dynamics.

Inclusion and Ensemble: Effectiveness

At its best, interpersonal conversation is an equal-opportunity proposition.

Through conversational inclusion, leaders are able to boost employee engagement, to spur innovation and creativity, and to improve the branding and reputation of their organization.

By engaging in conversational inclusion, leaders find new partners to assist them in telling their organizational story.

Inclusion involves “a measure of reciprocity;” participants “contribute actively to the ebb and flow” and “take a share of ownership in the substance” of conversation. The essence of inclusion is “a commitment to full participation by all parties.”

The word “ensemble” does double duty as both a name and a quality. An ensemble at work on a project is a group that exhibits the quality of Ensemble. This kind of tautology is characteristic of art; it accounts for some of the difficulty the industrial-minded have in grasping the principles of art or of artful making. People working collaboratively, in the kind of secure workspace we’ve described, create an entity play makers call an ensemble. This group differs in many ways from a conventional team. It exhibits the quality of Ensemble, which we’ve described. The most important single feature of an ensemble is that it, and the made thing it creates, are larger and more interesting than any one in it: It’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Ensemble doesn’t appear magically as a result of sentimental incantation. It’s the hard-won result of Collaboration, born of the practice that enables Release. We’ve called the product made by an ensemble a “play.”

Ensemble involves members of a group who “relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone” — this is the essence of participation.

Intentionality and Play: Alignment and Value

Even in the most casual two-person chat, the two people in question will each have some sense of where they want the conversation to go.

Among the outcomes that conversational intentionality helps to promote are a keen focus on driving business value and a more effective approach to strategic alignment.

From the practice of conversational intentionality, leaders derive a renewed ability to achieve operational closure and organizational cohesion.

Intentionality involves participating in a “conversion with some kind of goal in mind;” “conversational intent” “gives shape, focus, and direction” and “allows talk to segue into action.” It includes conversational strategy, which focuses on envisioning, and strategic conversation, which focuses on alignment. While intimacy, interactivity, and inclusion “infuse an organization with energy,” intentionality “gives people in an organization the ability to translate conversational activity into operational activity.”

In the theatre, plays are characterized by the fact that they exist only while they are being made. The act of making a play is the play. We have argued (as have others) that this is increasingly true of business products too; that the product of a business should be redefined as the experience of its interaction with customers, an interaction in which both product and customers vary over time.

If the product and the process of making are the same, it follows that attention to the process is the most important aspect of making. An impeccable process will yield a valuable product. This emphasis on process clarifies the artful making shift away from rigid plans and prescribed goals, toward deep preparation and improved collaboration. The product of an artful making process develops during that process. It’s a result, not a goal.

Play involves “interaction among members of a business group, and ultimately between the group and the customer;” it is the pinnacle of artful making.

Conversation and Art

As the saying goes, there is not I in team. Yet there is more than one I in organizational conversation. In fact, organizational conversation consists largely of bringing individuals I’s together for a shared purpose — of enabling them to see I to I, so to speak.

Just as much as culture is an emergent property of a group, a collective “we” is an emergent property of individual “I”s who are in a conversation.

These four qualities, interdependent with each other, give conceptual form to apparently formless complex processes. Release operates to create new and original action. Actions combine in Collaboration, as individuals work together to reconceive old into new. When Collaboration flourishes with skilled workers in a secured workspace, it yields a new creation, Ensemble. Out of Ensemble emerges Play, the form on which action converges, but which never locks in on perfect repetition. Or, to express the relationship in reveres: Play emerges from Ensemble, which results from Collaboration, which needs Release.

As actions reconceive old and yield a new creation, its conversation that fuels individuals in artful making.


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