Organizational Change is a Conversation


Buckle in, ladies and gentlemen, for some straight talk about the future of work, the nature of the universe and the power of changing systems to change behavior.

Today I’m sharing a deep and rambling conversation I had a few months back with Aaron Dignan, author of Brave New Work and founder of the Ready, an org transformation partner to companies like Airbnb, Edelman and charity: water. He is a cofounder of, an amazing community of like-minded transformation professionals. If you haven’t checked out their conference, it’s great. I co-facilitated some sessions there last year and I can highly recommend it. You should also check out the episode I had recently on asking better questions with Robin Zander, who hosts the conference.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Aaron. It was his OS Canvas, published in 2016 on Medium, that got me thinking differently about my own work in Conversation Design and led me to develop my own Conversation OS Canvas. His OS Canvas clarified and simplified a complex domain of thinking – organizational change – into (then) just nine factors. In the book it’s evolved into 12 helpful prompts to provoke clear thinking and to accelerate powerful conversations about how to change the way we work – if you are willing to create the time and space for the conversation.

Aaron doesn’t pull any punches – as he says, “the way we work is badly broken and a century old”. And he figures that “a six year old could design a good org, you just have to ask the socratic questions.” His OS Canvas can help you start the conversation about changing the way you work in your org and his excellent book will help you dive deep into principles, practices and stories for each element of the OS.

You’ll find in the show notes some deep-dives on the two core principles of org design from the book. The first principle is being complexity Conscious. The second is being people positive. For more on complexity – dig into Cynefin (which is not spelled the way it sounds). And for more on people positivity, there’s a link to Theory X vs Theory Y, a very helpful mental model in management theory.

Another powerful idea that I want to highlight is Aaron’s suggestion that we all have our own “system of operating” or “a way of being in the world” which is “made up of assumptions and principles and practices and norms and patterns of behavior and it's coded into the system.” 

Aaron goes on to say that “people are chameleons and people are highly sensitive to the culture and environment they're in. And the system, the aquarium, the container tells us a lot about how we're supposed to show up. And over time it can even beat us into submission. And so we have to change the system and that's hard to do when we're reinforcing things that we ourselves didn't even create,”

From my own work on conversation design, it’s very clear to me that communication is held in a space, or transmitted through an interface – the air, the internet, a whiteboard. The space your culture happens in is one very key component of how to shift your culture. Check out my episode with Elliot of Brightspot Strategy for more on changing conversations through changing spaces:

Changing your physical space is easy compared with shifting power and distributing authority more thoughtfully in your organization. To do that, we need to shift not just our org structures, but our own OS:  we need more leaders who can show up as facilitators and coaches rather than order-givers. And that takes, as Aaron points out, a brave mindset. 

If you want to become a more facilitative leader of innovation and change in your company, you should definitely apply before August to the first cohort of the 12-week Innovation Leadership Accelerator I’m co-hosting with Jay Melone from New Haircut, a leader in Design Sprint Training. It kicks off in NYC with a 2-day workshop in September, runs for 12 weeks of remote coaching and closes with another 2-day workshop. We’ll have several amazing guest coaches during the program – a few of which have been wonderful guests on this very show: Jim Kalbach, author of Mapping Experiences and head of Customer Success at Mural and Bree Groff, Principle at SY Partners and former CEO of change consultancy NOBL.

Show Notes

The OS Canvas Medium post that started it all for me:

The Ready

Brave New Work

Complexity Conscious: Cynefin

Being people positive: Theory X vs Theory Y

Capitalism needs to be reformed:

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Game Frame

The Four Sons as four personalities at work in us:


Fish and Water:

The Finger and the Moon:

also from Amelie!

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones


Open Source Agility:

The Heart of Agile



Information Radiators

Asking better questions:

Loss in Change:

Mapping experiences:

Interview Transcript:

Daniel: So I'll officially welcome you to the conversation factory. Aaron. I really do appreciate you making the time to do this. You are in the long, you're in the long tail of your sprint, getting your book out into the world,

Aaron: ...almost there, almost there, and happy to be here. This is going to be fun.

Daniel: Thanks man. I mean obviously like I think back to like when I met you and we're like sitting in the park and...

Aaron: Yeah, you had an instrument of some kind?

Daniel: yeah! ....And you had this dream, like you were building this new thing and you're like, I feel like you've just crushed it .... in the most beautiful nonviolent way of crushing it, building this thing.

Aaron: Well, it looks good from afar. It's actually been, you know, difficult and fun and challenging and you know, up and down. But uh, it is, it's working. It's, we're doing the work that we want to do in the world.

Daniel: Yeah. And so like that's ... So I think that's actually a great transition because like the call to action on your book is strong. Like it's like, are you ready to change your organization? Like I could see how this is pushing out the idea that you're really passionate about. That's what this book is about, is trying to like, get people to say like, yeah, I am ready to do that. Tell me how!

Aaron: we had a, we had a big debate actually at the, at the publisher about, you know, what's the right subtitle for the book. And obviously as you're alluding to the message of the book is that, you know, the way we work is, is badly broken and, and, and you know, in most cases a century old and needs to be changed. I'm to something more adaptive and more human. But um, but the question of how to say that was, was really a challenge. So we tried all these different subtitles that they all felt like sort of traditional business bookie, sort of titles, you know, ditch bureaucracy and change your life forever. It Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah

Daniel: "A five part manual to blank, blank, blank, blank and blank."

Aaron: Exactly. And then someone said, why don't we just do a question? Like no one's done a question as a subtitle in a long time, why don't we do that? And then it became really clear because you know, the work is, is curiosity led. It's about questions. It's about asking yourself things we don't always ask ourselves. So it was cool to start with, are you ready to, to reinvent your organization? And you know, for most people the answer might be no. But for a lot that I run into the answer is hell yes.

Daniel: Yeah. And you're definitely this rallying cry like, and then here's the tools, here's how to do it.

Aaron: Right, right. Here's the way to start at least. I mean, I think one of the, one of my big goals with the book is not necessarily for everybody to have some "from to" journey cause I don't think that's what it's about, but it's really just about like, you know, are you ready to start being more deliberate and more considered in the way you work as an individual, as a team member, as a founder? Like are you willing to sort of take this stuff seriously?

Daniel: Well, so this is, I didn't actually think I would start this conversation this way, but like I think one of my theses in, in looking at things through the lens of conversation is that conversations are organic, ongoing and iterative. And as opposed to, you know, one that's mechanistic...

Aaron: They're not speeches

Daniel: yeah, they're not speeches. And in a way like starting with the question is starting the conversation of like, well are you ready to start changing your organization and what does that mean and how do we start and what does it look like and what does done mean? Does done ever happen? Like it seems to me that changing the organization is, is a conversation.

Aaron: Absolutely. And I mean in many ways an organization is nothing more than a set of conversations. Right? Like the, the main, the main fuel that flows through any gathering of people is communication.

Daniel: Yeah. It's like a bundle of like, I think of it as like a topography, like, uh, you know, like water flows and certain valleys in and other places. And it's like, so this gets to the question of like, what can you change about the topography, right? What's changeable?

Aaron: Right, What can we change about the structure that changes the conversations. Yeah. And the nature of the relationships, right? Cause if we can change the relationships, then we've changed the entity. So how do we change the relationships between us? And that means looking at, you know, our relationships and how they touch to things like power and information flow like we just described and structure and resources and you know all the other things that we get into.

Daniel: Yeah. It's like, I mean my mind is crackling with you know, cause power. It's something I want to understand better but which parts of this is not, I'm not leading the question, where are those questions going at all, but like which parts of the conversation are hard, where does the conversation hit a snag. And I would guess that power and shifting power is one of those those things

Aaron: For sure. Yeah, I mean I think one of the things I find surprising is that the first and foremost snag is to have the conversation like that at the time and space and, and a commitment to say, hey, let's stop working.

Aaron: Let's stop rushing. Let's stop our never ending quest for growth for one hour and talk about how the way we work is serving us or not serving us. That already is, it would be a huge step forward because we just don't have the conversation.

Daniel: Yes.

Aaron: You know, people go from meeting to meeting project or project week two week job to job until they retire or die. Yeah. And, and it's sort of like, you know, how do we actually make pause and make space and they're out the drawer a little bit so that we can think and we can observe and reflect. And so I think that's the first impediment to the conversation. And then, yeah, I think the second one is about, you know, identity and ego and power, which is, you know, if, if we're moving to a model as, as I'm sort of proposing and observing frankly in the book, it's not like I'm just making this stuff up.

Aaron: What I'm, when I'm observing in the book is organizations moving to a model that is more decentralized and requires more, um, you know, sort of more power and more ways and more transparency, um, and more participation in shaping the, you know, not just the work, but the way of working in the organization than a lot of people start to ask questions like, well, who am I then if I was the Checker, if I was the reviewer, if I was the yes, no person, then what does that mean for me? So I think there's, there's a lot of that kind of stuff going on and also just, um, the conversation of being uncertain and uncomfortable. Right? So what might happen if we, you know, what if got rid of a rule that's driving everyone crazy and we didn't have a replacement, what might happen? Right? And how do I feel about that uncertainty?

Aaron: And you know, that that control, I think sometimes even more than power is, is actually the hot button. It's the thing that we're worried about.

Daniel: Yeah. I mean, could, I mean, I don't control different than power?

Aaron: Well in a way..

Daniel: Or are we, like, putting too fine a point on on that?

Aaron: Yeah. Let me see what I mean when I think the distinction is, and it may not be that you know, this is dictionary level true, but what I think the distinction is is often when I talk about power, I think about power with and over others. So how I relate to others and what I can tell people to do or not do. And you know, that kind of thing. I think about control certainly of other people, but also thinking about control of in the world, right? Can I ever really control what happens to me and to my business, my family into the market and, and this illusion of control that we're so in love with, with the plan and the, the rules and the boundaries that say like, Oh, I'm safer now because everything's in place, right?

Aaron: That when I talk about control, I sort of mean controlling the universe. Right? And not just other people

Daniel: You know, it's a friend of mine who's a senior Ux leader, he is being pushed by his organization to like make a five year plan. And he's like, no I won't. And they're like "no you have to!",

Aaron: He knows how crazy that is.

Daniel: Like I can't give you a three or five year roadmap. Like I don't know if people are going to be using apps like I don't know if people are going to be people anymore like

Aaron: right!

Daniel: But that's really scary. But we'll, so I mean cause I mean we're talking about some really fundamental things to like, pardon the French but fuck with, because this fucks with people, I mean just in my own experience

Aaron: And it's really just a trade, right? I mean I think the, when you first started talking about new ways of working and and self management and self organization and things like that, people's, I think many people's heads go to the idea of like, oh well the options then control, no control, chaos or bureaucracy.

Daniel: Like everything is false dichotomy there. Those are false dichotomies.

Aaron: And the reality is like, no, I just want you to trade one kind of control for another. So I always make the analogy, if you were, you know, sailing a boat across the Atlantic and you could steer once or every minute, which would you choose? Everyone's like, obviously I would choose every minute. Why? Because it gives you greater control. And then I'm like, cool, tell me about your annual plan. And it's like, you know, we're just doing the exact opposite in a different context because somehow it feels more like control.

Daniel: That's sneaky! That's not fair. You know the answer to that question, just setting people up to fail with that thought experiment!

Aaron: I do a lot of that, Actually I do a lot of that in my speeches, in my workshops. So I sort of, I ask, you know, questions that, that the commonsensical answer is yes.

Aaron: The point though is, is that yes, common sense is actually pretty good when it comes to org design. Like, if you actually just listened to your comments and sentence and then translate it. It's that we have all these other ideas that we've absorbed and metastasized that, that make the way we work. So, you know, weird and Byzantine and inhuman. Yes. Um, so like we're actually a six year old is capable of designing a good organization. You just have to like ask the Socratic questions.

Daniel: Do you think this is a very potentially controversial question? Like is all of this stuff that we're trying to do create more human companies being more um, uh, distributed? Is it, uh, in opposition to capitalism? Like are...

Aaron: no, no, I don't think it is actually. I think, um,

Daniel: because it seems like capitalism like, concentrates power necessarily and, uh, it's about ownership of the system versus authorship and...

Aaron: it is in opposition to advanced capitalism and crony capitalism. Yes. Um, but I think, you know, there's a big difference between the capitalism that we live in right now and capitalism, the idea ...of you say like, do we need competition and free markets? I would say, hell yes. And in fact, most of the companies we study in the book have extremely marketplace oriented systems, right? They have people serving people in relationships and agreements that you know where the things that work continue in the things that don't work, die. So that's very capitalist. The question though is in service of what, and so if you know, if you're capitalism os basically says that this is in service of never ending growth and ultimate winners who control monopolistic enterprises, that will lead you to a very particular definition. But if the, if the free market and the competition is about who can do you know, what's best for the community, then we're still competing.

Aaron: We're just competing on different terms. And so to me like capitalism is, you know, yes, obviously there's some, some aspects to, you know, who owns labor and who owns the means of production and all that kind of stuff. And, and I think you can get into that, but it's becomes a gray area to me. Like yeah, we already live in a world with a lot of socialism and a lot of capitalism and guess what I think the future is going to contain. Bits of both. Yes. And that's all fine.

Daniel: That's not American! Aaron, first of all, I'm just telling...

Aaron: sorry!

Daniel: ...but did you ever get pushback from leaders on this of like, well if I, if I let go of this control, it's, you know, they own the company, right?

Aaron: No, actually what's funny is with people who literally own their company, they don't have a problem because they're probably quite wealthy already and they're much more interested in the meaning and impact and nature of the work they do and being less stressed out by having to try to run everything.

Aaron: The problem is people who run companies but don't own them, who are subject to the demands of a faceless investor class that that effectively, that's where the real issue lies, right? That you know, your, your 401k holds shares in a thing alongside a big, you know, police pension fund that are demanding a certain rate of return actually, you know, nobody's really accountable for, and then it's put on the, on the, you know, sort of before the feet of the CEO. So, but what's weird is like in the book I talk about these two, mindsets, people positive and complexity conscious and the people positive mindset was the one about how almost all the cultures and examples I looked at, take it, take it as a given that people can be trusted and should be respected and should be, you know, that they're motivated by autonomy and mastery and purpose and connectedness and all these sorts of things rather than carrots and sticks.

Aaron: And rather than saying that people are sort of inherently untrustworthy or evil or stupid or any of the other myriad things that most businesses assume in their, in their model, right?

Daniel: Yeah, yeah.

Aaron: If you, if you have a clock where people punch in and punch out, you are assuming and not people positive characteristic that people are going to take advantage. So, so that was one view. And then the other view, complexity conscious is about recognizing that the world is complex. It's dynamic, it's uncertain, it's unpredictable. And so therefore we need to, uh, solve problems and build models and build organizations to adapt to that, to be, to be able to, you know, respond and sense accordingly. And what's weird is when you put them in tension with each other, that's where things get really interesting. So it's sort of the map back to the capitalism question, you know, all way itself, the complexity conscious mindset leads to these companies that are like relentless learners at the expense of the people inside and the customers themselves.

Aaron: And you can think, you can think of who I might be referring to, right? Like you can think of companies that learn really fast, but it sounds like they're ultimately not going to be good for us. Um,

Daniel: well cause we're gonna automate everything and put people out of business, out of jobs

Aaron: but they're just gonna, they're gonna follow the data to our, to our lowest common denominator,

Daniel: out worst impulses of clicky, click, click, click.

Aaron: yeah, we end up in the Wally World. So I think that's, that's one side of it. But then the people positive side pulls in the other direction says, no, you know, what's the most humanist, most human centric, most community oriented thing we can do. And of course that left to its own devices becomes really bad because you end up making you make bad stuff. Like it's, you're not even necessarily learning, adapting, you're not, you're not competing in a market of ideas.

Aaron: And so you end up with some really lazy work and some, you know, some, not all, but some nonprofits kind of go that way where they're there. So people focused that they almost suck at what they do ultimately. Right? Yeah. They've sort of forgotten what that is when their in tension, that's when things get really interesting. And I would say the same thing for capitalism and socialism, right? Like it's when we, it's when these things tug on each other that things get interesting.

Daniel: I think it's interesting and I'm glad that, I mean like I assume you saw the, um, the Ray Dalio video where he was talking about like, capitalism needs a reboot.

Aaron: Yeah.

Daniel: And so it's great that people are questioning the rules by which we live by. I I want to talk about OSs, but I will before we go into that, like we sort of touched on this idea of theory x versus theory y and I want to make it like explicit because I think in the book you made a really interesting point that, uh, for ourselves we're like, oh yeah, I'm conscientious, I'm, you know, thoughtful. But those people like...

Aaron: those other people...

Daniel: Yeah. So like that's a really, that was kind of an interesting, I'd never really heard x and y sort of put in that sort of like us versus them way of like, well, I'm responsible

Aaron: I think it's the lake Wobegon effect like gone awry, which is that, you know, we always think of ourselves in a better light. And then when we look at others, particularly distant others, we that are very, very unlike us. We just, we attribute all these things to them that are probably not the case. And so I just noticed that, um, you know, yeah. When you think about like am I creative, am I self directed? Do I seek responsibility and greatness? Yeah, of course. Yeah. What about the people at the grocery store and it's like, oh well the people at the grocery store obviously lazy and don't give a fuck.

Daniel: Okay, so here's our opening to talk about Game Frame! You gave it right to me! I was reading game frame, your first book that you're trying to bury with this second book, there's like the woman's not the, it's like she's there on job. And on her first day she was like, okay, there's lots of stuff to do. I'm learning things. And then everything flattens out and then, "I'm bored. I'm disengaged". She doesn't, you know, she's just clocking in and clocking out. And so the thing is like, it's not her fault, it's the way the thing is designed. And that...

Aaron: That's my general thesis about all of it is that um, people are people and people are chameleons and people are highly sensitive to the culture and environment they're in. And the system, the aquarium, the container tells us a lot about how we're supposed to show up. And over time it can even beat us into submission. And so we have to change the, we have to change the system and that's hard to do when we're reinforcing things that we ourselves didn't even create, you know, um, Seth Godin had on his podcasts recently, this story of this psychological or I guess a biological experiment where they have all these monkeys, they're reaching for a banana up on a tower and they spray them with a hose. And so the monkeys obviously don't like that. So they come down and then they bring new monkeys in and the new monkees see the banana and they're like, I'm going to run up the tower and get it.

Aaron: And the older monkeys had been sprayed, stopped them and they're like, don't, don't climb young blood. And then, and then they take out over time, all the monkeys who have ever been sprayed. And when a new monkey comes in, the monkeys who have never been sprayed still stop the, the new entrant from reaching for the banana because that's just what we do here now. So it's like when I ask questions of teams, like why do you have meetings this way? Or why do you budget this way or why you need a boss that looks like that or acts like that. It's just like, I dunno, that's what these monkeys do.

Daniel: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, so this gets to the point of like, why is it designed the way it's designed? Was it even designed?

Aaron: Why indeed!

Daniel: and this also goes back to the question of in this happens in my work where people are already operating at 100% and when you give them new tools, you know, I go in and I teach them new facilitation methodologies or design thinking or whatever. And they're like, yeah. So it was really hard to get those two days to even think about this stuff. You know, there's no time to think about how to use these tools in our work. And so it's just like, where's the space to like

Aaron: yeah, it just bounces off.

Daniel: yeah, it just bounces off...Cause they were like, well we're already at 100% like we don't, we can't think about designing our systems because we're using our systems all the time. So there's no time to design the system or to redesign the system.

Aaron: That's right. Yeah. If I find the same thing. And in many ways I think like the, the simplest version of explaining what myself and other people at the ready actually do is we're just good at asking slash helping people make that space. Like it's, you know, at the end of the day, a lot of the value is just in having a partner who's like, Hey, on Friday we're going to not do that. Like we're going to change our rhythm, we're going to make space and we're going to kind of hold ourselves accountable to that. And, and if you're not ready to do that, obviously it's not going to happen. But if you are ready to do it, I think having, having someone around who's encouraging it and coaching to that is almost more valuable than the ideas. And the, you know, new fangled way ways and not like all that's great, but you can find all that if you stop anyway and just pay attention.

Daniel: So like if, I mean the kind of clients that you and I work for are ones that are asking the question. Um, this is like, this is, oh, it's Passover coming up. This is perfect. Um, this won't release during Passover, but, you know, do you know, do you know about the, the, the, the, the question, the four questions. In other words, there's a story of the three sons, um, and, and uh, one of the sons, I'm going to get this wrong in the middle of like a horrible Jew, but the, the idea is like, one of the sons says like, okay, well what's going on? Like why is tonight different than all other nights? And you're like, okay, well here's why. Like, where's his, why we'd Matzah this is why you tell them the story of Passover. And then, um, the other son's like, well, why do you do all these things?

Daniel: And so he's separated himself from the question. And then the, the response is to say like, well, this is what God did for me when he brought me out of Egypt and this is what you speak to your own experience. And then there's another son that where they're just like, they don't even know how to ask a question. And, and for that you sort of like take time and you really stretch it out and you break it down piece by piece for them. And I imagine that there's like the spectrum of people who read this book, some of them are like, this is already a priority for us and we have budget for it. And that's why we're going to make time and space for it by paying consultants to do it. And there's others who are like, not even asking this question and some who's gonna read this book and they're stuck in the middle of this fershlugenah organization (that just working my Yiddish in there and get it in). And they're like, where does somebody start when the, when the company does not have the extra resources, right. Mental, emotional, physical to be having this dialog.

Aaron: Yeah. And I think, I mean, if somebody reads this work and it speaks to them, then I think that's one thing and it doesn't speak to them and who cares? Um, but if it does speak to them. Then they kind of have two choices. And I've seen people go both routes. One is that it feels like the organizational debt is just too high to pay off and by that I mean, so many policies and practices and norms are out of whack. That and the level of openness is so low. Um, then the easiest thing might be to just not work there. Um, and if that's a privilege that you have, then it's a privilege you can enjoy. Yeah. Not everybody has that privilege, but I think if you can choose where you work, then choose better.

Aaron: Um, so I think that's, that's one piece. But the second piece is if you, if you choose to stay or are you have to stay, then you can start where you are. And that means, you know, do I lead a team? Do I have, do I lead a project? Do I have an open ear of someone who does? Um, so that we can start by asking the question, you know, what's stopping us from doing the best work of our lives in this domain, in this space, in this sphere? And then start, um, start iterating, start playing with, with, with how we show up. So I think sometimes we get overwhelmed by the scale and the magnitude and all the other people we have to convince and it becomes this big thing. But reality is like, at least 50% of the stuff is driving us crazy is right here.

Aaron: You know, is right...And they can't see me. I'm waving at my face.

Daniel: Aaron's actually the problem, everybody. that was a metaphorical...

Aaron: So it's in the way for everyone. Like it's, it's going on with us. How we, uh, how we meet, how we share information, how we plan our work flow, how we do what we do. And then, and then certainly the people we're closest with, our teams are our colleagues. The people that trust us. Like there's, there's a lot going on just in those small pockets that frankly, you know, if you move on some of the stuff and you move it in the right direction, everybody else notices and they notice the, the energy and the engagement and the commitment and the service level that your group or team is providing. Um, and they start to be curious themselves.

Aaron: So I think the best way to create curiosity sometimes is to, is to just start acting where you can. Yeah. And then the other thing is, you know, being brave enough and it's why it's called brave new work, you know, being brave enough to ask these questions in larger forums like to ask, because one of the things I find is people are like, oh, I want to change this, this and this, and I go to my leader and maybe they won't like it or they won't agree or they won't hear me or I already have and they don't give a shit or whatever. And I'm like, don't ask, don't do that. Go to them and ask, what do they think is holding back the team from doing the best work of its life? And then they'll say, oh, well, you know, I, this is like everybody has an answer to that question. Everybody's got a thing that's on their mind that's, that's holding the organization back. Nobody's ever like, oh, it's perfect. Just keep doing what you're doing. So though when they say, then let's start there, let's start with what's true for them. And that's a way to invite and open possibilities up. So I think a good way to...

Daniel: I'm a big fan of that word invitation. Uh, you know, in my own model of conversations, you can either just initiate them or you can invite them. And what's interesting about the canvas is this idea, this is, I think this is a direct quote. The canvas can provoke the conversation. I also feel like it contains the conversation and in and in both good ways.

Aaron: It focuses it

Daniel: Yes, it focuses it and provides, like in my language, every conversation has an interface, something that mediates it. Like, like the luminiferous ether of, of space and time. But it's like, it's like it's an interface for the, for the dialogue. It's a place where it can happen.

Aaron: Yeah. And I, I did not want to create it as a, as sort of a frame or a tool to limit, but I did want to create it to focus because if you've done this work for awhile and you've had these conversations and you're, and you're digging deep, you're going to find all these nuances and interconnections and other things you want to talk. And that's all great because now you're doing it like it's going to the gym, your 500th time versus your first time, right? Like 500 time at the gym, you can make up your own circuit, you know what I mean? But, but for the people that I was encountering that were sort of coming to this fresh are coming to this for the first time or in a long time, they were kind of like, there's so much in our way of working. Like where should I begin? Where should I look?

Aaron: Where should I, where should I start to ask questions? And so the thought was these 12 spaces are the spaces where the organizations that seem to be working most differently that have ditched bureaucracy and found more human, more adaptive ways to work. These are the spaces where they're doing things most differently and where they're most aggressively flipping the table over. And so it's a good bet that if you dig in these holes, you're going to find little opportunities and treasures and, and things to, to act on. And then, yeah, if you want to go beyond that, are you, are you figure something else out? That's great that I'm not trying to restrict that, but I am trying to say, boy, if you haven't asked yourself the tough questions about these 12 spaces, we haven't even done the work of 21st century org design. Like you're not even there.

Daniel: Yeah, yeah. You know, it's, it's amazing. And I, and I wanna I want to honor your work because like I read the medium article that you wrote almost like 2015. Now it's long time ago when it was just nine elements and uh, um, I think the idea of a, an operating system was interesting and inspirational for me and in my own work, you know, so the book that I'm working on, I think I sort of tried to ask myself like, what is the smallest number of elements that one can think about to make a canvas for what, what is controllable and what is alterable about a conversation? And it kind of blew my mind in the book that you, that you expanded it from, from nine to 12. Um, changing the symmetry significantly and, but also maybe being, is it, is it, is it MECE now is, is that even, does that matter?

Aaron: No, but it is, but it is more MECE now. So it's not,

Daniel: Oh, and can we define MECE for those people who are not as geekalicious as you and I are...

Aaron: mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive. It's actually an old consulting term. Yeah. So, no, it's not, it's never, it was ever intended to be. But what I found is that the first version, while it had nine boxes, really each box had many words in it. It was like a run on sentence in each one. So it wasn't really fairly nine things. It was, it was these sort of groupings of things

Daniel: you've chunked.

Aaron: Yeah, they were chunked. And so it was arbitrary in a way. And what I wanted to do is actually simplify it and say, all right, one big idea, one focal point in each space. And, and so in a way the 12 is actually a reduction.

Aaron: It's actually a simplification of what was there before. It just feels like more of a pain in the ass. I mean 12 not that many things. Um, right on top of things of things that you could, you could count. There's lots more numbers. There's 12 months. We can name them all. We're fine. Totally.

Daniel: So I think the thing that's really amazing is that in the opening of the book, I think you, you explained this idea of an operating system very well using the intersection analogy. Like, I don't know, where did, did the operating system concept come in from the game frame book, like your interest in games on, like how did that sort of filter into your brain and then into my brain?

Aaron: No, I mean I think it was, this is a, a way of using that phrase or that, that term that was bubbling up in culture in lots of different pockets I think over the last decade. In some ways it's a bastardization of the term, right? Because if you should go real technologists, like an operating system is a very specific thing and it's not this thing. And I was like, and then I, and then I talked to people on the, on the very like sort of teal, you know, um, new work side of the spectrum and they're like, an operating system is way too mechanistic a metaphor. It's a terrible metaphor for that reason. So, so I'm like, I don't, I don't appeal to either. I'm not trying to appeal to either of those things that I'm trying to say is there is a a system of operating, a way of operating, a way of being in the world and it's made up of assumptions and principles and practices and norms and patterns of behavior and it's coded into the system. It's sort of, it's the foundation upon which other things happen.

Aaron: And so what I mean by that is like, you know, we walk into a conference room and there's a table and chairs in there, table and chairs, our assumptions are baked in from the get go and no one who works in the company gets to change that. That's just the way things are. And so if you want to do something in a meeting where you want to move people around, tough luck. If you want to have another whiteboard in that space, there isn't one. Like it's just the choice has been made for you. And I think when I was, when I was originally scratching at was this idea that there seemed like there all these things in culture and the culture of business, particularly Western business that were like, the decision has been made for us, we're going to have an annual budget.

Aaron: That's how it is. Nobody even thinks to say, wait a second. Does that make any sense anymore? Did it ever make sense? Yeah.

Daniel: And this is the water the fish are not noticing

Aaron: exactly. Yeah, this is water. Yeah. So, so I think, um, that was the thought. So I don't mean it literally, uh, I, I just mean, you know, I know as a way of working a, a set of assumptions and, and so, uh, that metaphor, good or bad has really helped people that I work with connect the dots and be like, Oh yeah, I get it. Like there is an underlying set of stuff that we're living and breathing in and that might need to change. And so what does that look like?

Daniel: Yeah. But I, going back to that mechanistic thing, it's, it's um, I mean we're definitely, it's, it's, it's, it's interesting that we're using a technological metaphor instead of like a truly mechanical metaphor. We're using a metaphor of our age that people understand this idea of like an operating system and applications you can install on it.

Aaron: Yeah. But one, by the way, that's one way to go with it. I take umbrage at that as well because I'm like, look, DNA is an operating system. Physics is an operating system. Like don't tell me that they're not.

Daniel: They are, well, I mean, as a person with a physics degree, I would say I have a hard time with physics as an operating system versus like, the geometry of of space and time.

Aaron: But that's what I mean, the, the underlying first principle rules of physics or an OS layer on this universe and like do stuff that they don't allow.

Daniel: Sure. I mean with the presumption that there's, and, well this is an amazing rabbit hole, but there are other universes within our multi-verse where gravity is stronger. Right? But there's still gravity.

Aaron: And there are other companies for whom their OS is different.

Daniel: Yeah, totally. Well, so here's the thing. You cannot, uh, cut and paste somebody else's operating system, right? Like, which is, which seems frustrating, I would guess to some people where they're like, can we just do 20% free time and be, you know, as profitable as...

Aaron: Yeah, and we'd be Google

Daniel: Right...and be Google …can we do, because the cookies are not Google. I mean the cookies in San Francisco, Google, San Francisco office are delicious, but that's not what makes Google, Google. That's an outgrowth. You're looking at the wrong thing.

Aaron: Right. And also, I just think again, it mistakes the Organization for the complicated system. Like a watch and not a complex system like a garden. Yes. You know, you can't, you can't rubber stamp. So yes, if you, if you like my watch, you can buy all the same parts and build your watch. It'll be exactly the same. It'll work just the same. Yes. But if you like my garden, what are you going to do? Yeah. Talk. The only choice you have is to nurture and grow and look and try to compare and see what works and what serves because your sunlight is going to be a little different and your seeds are going to be a little different and your soil's going to be a little different. You can't rubber stamp my garden.

Daniel: Yeah. Micro climate. It's a thing. Um, so like the thing that's, um, it's, it's on my, my sketch notes near this, this idea of uh, the, the moon and the finger pointing at the moon. And this is like, um, I grew up reading zen, zen flesh and bones and I was sort of like pleasantly surprised to see that story, that analogy in your book. And maybe can you talk a little bit about that idea because it seems relevant to this context of the goal versus the path.

Aaron: Right. One of, one of the, um, results of having a culture of work that really came out of a factory model and that came out of a very mechanistic, complicated oriented model is that we, we want things to be the one best way and the answer and the method and the checklist and all that sort of thing we hunt for that were actually trained to look for that in business school. You know, the whole idea of the MBA business case, it's sort of like look for the lesson and apply the lesson liberally everywhere else you go. And so that we look for that stuff. And as a result, a lot of the emerging trends in ways of working like agile or lean or open or you know, you name it, um, are become kind of get turned into something else other than what they are.

Aaron: So instead of looking at like, what is the essence of agility, we look at capital A agile, how do I get certified as a scrum master? Right? And one of the boxes I have to check to be a, uh, you know, scrum organization and now I've done it and I've checked the box. And so I've done. And so the point of the, of the story obviously is that if you, you know, if you mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon, then then you sort of go down this path that is not wise, that you lack the wisdom. And in the same way, you know, when people get obsessed with the tactics and the practices and not the principles and the, and the meaning, they get lost as well. So there's so many teams I've coached who are like, Oh yeah, we, you know, we use a Kanban board already.

Aaron: We're hip to that. We got that stuff figured out. Cool. Why, why, why, what does the Kanban board, why a Kanban board, what does it do? Like what does it mean? And they're sort of like, it's the, it's a box that we chat. Like we're doing it as opposed to saying like, oh, well, you know, theory of constraints and here's how I think about flow and stock. And like, you know, all the ways in which

Daniel: Transparency!

Aaron: Yeah. Like information radiators and all this stuff that would like explain that they understand the reasoning behind the math behind that practice. And if you took it away, if you'd like, you can have a Kanban board, they'd be like, we can figure out another way to have all those things because we understand what all the things we're trying to have actually are. And so to me, the finger pointing at the moon was just a really good, you know, obviously little piece of Zen wisdom. But the idea that like, we love to look at the finger and we love to standardize and we love to sort of get preoccupied with the, with the best practice and with like, you know, the magazine article on what the cool company does.

Daniel: Yeah.

Aaron: It's much, much harder to wallow in the reality of figuring it out for yourself.

Aaron: That's true. Right. It's, it's because it's, and it's, and that's why, you know, conversations are messy and organic and fluid and, uh, there's no endpoint necessarily, right? Because right. Raymont until the company goes out of business,

Aaron: you can't, you can't borrow wisdom and you can't finish. So it means that you to decide to be a player of the game. Right. You know, you have to, the infinite game is something you have to be like, I'm going to do it.

Daniel: I'm so glad that I feel like every interview eventually has to touch on finite and infinite games. One of the books that everybody should read if they want to understand how the world is, well, how did you find the book that, that, um, which we would used to be a big secret. And now like Simon Sineck, as you know, I'm not going to get ripped off. Yeah. I mean, I'm a little offended that he's like, yeah.

Aaron: Well, I hope he does. I mean, obviously it could go either way, right? Like you could be, it could be very much a regurgitation of someone else's great work. But what I hope he does is um, mainstream at more because it, it is a secret thing. Like it is a kind of like passed from one person to the next kind of a book. Yeah. Yeah. I'm not sure that it never found its full footing. So if nothing else like, like I like seminar, the big platform can maybe help it find, find broader flooding, a best case scenario. But um, yeah I honestly don't remember how I got it. That's the whole point, right? It was like, it was sort of, it was handed to me. Um, and you know, and I think it's, it's an idea whose time has come for sure. Cause we, we've been obsessed with the finite for the last century and you know, start it's time to start thinking longer term than are the front of our own nose. Yeah. Is that, is that the sort of the fundamental yeah.

Daniel: What was the life lesson you took from that book? Like what, where, where does it, where does it live for you? I can tell you where it lives for me.

Aaron: Um, I think there's a lot of lessons to take from it. Obviously. I mean it's, it's, you know, how attic and weird and it's applications. My, my take is just that simply that, um, you know, they're like operating systems. There are different ways to approach problems and there are different ways to approach showing up in systems. And if we, you know, there are, there are games that are deemed finite and that have ends and winners and things like that. And there are games that are deemed infinite and don't have winner and continuing or more conversations, et cetera. I think what is, what is not necessarily set overtly in the book, but that I believe is that like the, that's totally arbitrary. Like we get to decide which games finite and infinite. And we, and so as a result, like when we, when we characterize it the wrong way, we've, we lose. And if we, if we characterize businesses finite, we lose. If we characterize politics is finite, we lose, if we characterize the environment as finite, we lose. So, um, so in some ways I think it's just about, uh, elevating, you know, to it, to a higher level of play. Yeah.

Daniel: Yeah, totally. Um, so we're, we're almost at the end of our time together. Like, is there anything we haven't touched on that you think it's important for us to, to dive into about,

Aaron: I mean, this has been, this has been pretty far reaching. Yeah. I haven't attended the physics operating system of the multiverse. I feel like I would be remiss to criticize the size, the scope and breadth of the conversation.

Daniel: Well, fair enough. I mean, I'm looking at my notes. I think, I mean, I guess the one question I would have is like his bravery enough.

Aaron: Hmm.

Aaron: I think it, I think, yes, I think it can be, um, you know, obviously the work that we face ahead of us to rethink our institutions. And I mean that very broadly, um, is, is huge work and it's the work of the next decade plus of it's the next generation plus that have to have to deal with that. And so I think the question is what are we willing to risk, um, and what are we willing to give up. And in many cases, you know, to let go of one vine, you have to grab the next. And you know, there's like a little bit of a, of a fear and a vulnerability and an a loss that goes along with that. So to me, I think the bravery, um, if we had a lot more of it would certainly go a long way. The bravery, you know, to be, to be vulnerable, to be bold, to take risks, to leave space to, you know, to do more with less. You know, all those things I think require us to sort of face ourselves and, and face the void. Um, so yeah, I mean, I mean Shit, you know, we could, we could use a lot of other things too, but I think if we had a lot more bravery, uh, pointed at how we work and solve problems together, um, that would, that would be quite far reaching.

Daniel: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's really powerful. And also just like the thing you said about loss, I haven't published it yet, but I did have a wonderful episode with um, with Bree Groff who obviously, you know, um, her, we talked a lot about this idea of like, change requires grieving loss and dealing with, with, with loss and letting go of the, of the old. And so I think that's like,

Aaron: Yeah, it's a rite of passage, It always is

Aaron: Yeah. So I think there's like that piece. Yeah. And we maybe don't talk enough about the sort of like, I think maybe there's a yin and Yang of, of bravery and also grieving.

Aaron: I think that's true. Yeah. I think that's very much very much the case. But of course you can't, you can't grieve what you're not ready to, to lose so that, you know, they go one there, one, two punches. I think, uh, which we could use more of all of it. Yeah. More of all of that. I say "pay attention...bring it!"

Daniel: So, I'm going to conclude our conversation. Like people can find you. Where should people go to look for the more of the things about, you know, all the, all things Dignan... Like obviously they can just Google brave new work and they'll probably find you

Aaron: They'll find stuff. Yeah. I mean is the site for the book, which is nice. And we've got information there about, uh, workshops and other things going on around it. Um, the is the site for the organization that I work with, with that sort of tries to do this work in the real world. And then I'm uncleverly Aaron Dignan on almost every social platform that I participate in.

Daniel: So it's reliable. That's, you know, there's nothing wrong with that...

Aaron: Full name, no spaces, hyphens, no underscores, just

Aaron: not love death and robots..Dot..You know, whatever?

Aaron: No, No, none of that.

Daniel: Well that's, yeah, that's pretty straightforward. Um, Mr Dignan, I really appreciate you making the time for this conversation. I'm glad we made it happen.

Aaron: Yeah, me too. Yeah. Thanks a lot. This is fun. And, uh, you know, we'll, we'll talk again when something happens or the next one happens.

Grief and Loss in Organizational Change

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Design means change and change means loss of the old. Even if a new design is better in every way, there is no design so perfect that you can “flip a switch” and step into the new instantaneously. Change takes time. And in that space between the old and the new there is a sense of loss. I’ve been doing my own work around trauma and healing it, and I couldn’t agree with more with Bree Groff’s sentiment that “Sometimes you have to step into the darkness with people” in order to heal things. Don’t fear the pain and loss, anticipate it, embrace it, design for it.

Today’s episode features Bree Groff, who at the time of the recording was transitioning from CEO of Nobl, an organizational change consultancy to Principal at SY Partners, a transformation agency based in NYC and SF.

Our conversation focused on a few key ideas around organizational design. Design, in the end always seems to require deep empathy and co-creation for it to be a success. Bree points out that the conversation about Org design should include as many people as possible, in order to make the change process as co-creative as possible. If you haven’t checked out the IAP2 spectrum, I’ll link to that in the notes.

Bree has identified six key types of loss to consider when designing organizational change: 

Loss of Control

Loss of Pride

Loss of Narrative

Loss of Time

Loss of Competence

Loss of Familiarity

I really love this framework to help focus our attention on the key needs of people we’re designing change for.

I highly recommend you also check out Krista Tippet’s interview with Pauline Boss on ambiguous loss to learn more about loss and how to process it. I’ll link to it in the show notes.

I’m also really excited to be working with Bree on a special project: She’ll be joining the Innovation Leadership Accelerator as a guest mentor. The ILA is a 12 week intensive workshop and coaching experience to help you grow as an organizational leader. I’ll link to the application in the notes as well.

Enjoy the show!

Bree’s Website

finite and infinite games by James Carse

“anyone who must play cannot play”

The IAP2 Spectrum of Power in Collaboration

On feedback: 

Adam Connor & Adam Irizarry

Designing a Culture of Critique

Being Soft on the People and Hard on the Problem (in negotiations and in life)

Robert Bordone on turning negotiations into conversations

Krista Tippet on Ambiguous Loss

The Innovation Leadership Accelerator


Bree:                   You have to start by understanding what people are feeling because, whether you address it or not, people will feel it. Of course, my intent is to get everyone feeling energized about change positive. Really first, sometimes, you have to step into the darkness with people and address the kind of frustrations or resentment, even like a PTSD that they're feeling from change in the past.

Daniel:                Today, I'm talking with Bree Groff, who, at the time of the recording, was transitioning from CEO of NOBL, an organizational change consultancy with an amazing newsletter, to principal at SYPartners, a transformation agency based in New York City and San Francisco. Our conversation focused on some key ideas around organizational design. Design, in the end, always seems to require deep empathy and co-creation for it to be a success.

Daniel:                Bree points out that the conversation around her design should include as many people as possible in order to make the change process as co-creative as possible. If you haven't checked out the International Association's Public Participation spectrum, which is just IAP2 ... It's a long, long thing ... check it out in the show notes. It's a really, really helpful framework when you think about involving a large number of people in a complex process.

Daniel:                Bree has identified six key types of loss to consider when designing organizational change. Talk about them well into the midpoint. It's a really, really amazing framework. Very simply, it's loss of control, loss of pride, narrative, time, competence, or familiarity. When you're doing change, you're always going to find one or more of these types of loss at play. I really love this framework to help focus attention on the key needs of people we're designing change for.

Daniel:                I also highly recommend you check out Krista Tippett's interview with Pauline Boss on ambiguous loss to learn more about loss and how to process it. I'll link to that in the show notes. Also really excited to be working with Bree on a special project. She'll be joining the Innovation Leadership Accelerator that I'm running in September as a guest mentor. The ILA, as we call it, is a 12-week intensive workshop and coaching experience to help you grow as an organizational leader. I'll also link to the application in the notes as well. Enjoy the show.

Daniel:                Welcome to The Conversation Factory. Thank you so much for joining me. Can you tell the universe here who you are and a little bit about what you do?

Bree:                   Sure, yeah. My pleasure to join. I'm happy to be here. Let's see how I got here through a few various careers, first stop in education, second stop in innovation and service design and realize that it's really hard to get good ideas out into the world unless you have an organization aligned and excited for those internally. Did my master's in organizational learning and change, got properly nerdy about how companies and also industries evolve.

Bree:                   Now, I have the pleasure of doing that with all of our clients every day, so really big Fortune 500 organizations who are doing transformation work and really quickly scaling startups, as well, who are trying to figure out how to grow up gracefully.

Daniel:                Yeah. I, too, have had the heartache of trying to help companies with innovation when they say they want to innovate, and then, when you show them what it looks like or even when they show you what they want to do, sometimes it still doesn't actually happen after they leave the engagement.

Bree:                   That's right. Yeah, Words are easy, and a lot of times in companies, people get what the right answer, quote/unquote right answer, is. I found, in innovation work, that it can be easy to dismiss change for a variety of reasons, everything from, "Oh, we had this offsite, but nothing's really going to come of it. It's a flavor of the month. Oh, our CEO read a book again, and now we're doing that thing."

Daniel:                Oh man, when CEOs read books, that's the worst. "We're going to scale up excellence, everybody. This month, we're scaling up excellence."

Bree:                   That's exactly right. Yeah, it's like, "Oh no." It's like, "Disable that guy's Kindle." Yeah, for a variety of reasons, it can be easy to dismiss change or dismiss innovation and feel like, "Hmm, if I just sort of keep my head down, I can go back to doing the things the way that I know and like." That's not to say that everybody doesn't like change, but for those who don't, it sometimes can be easy not to.

Daniel:                Yeah. This is where I get hung up because it seems like there's a limit to the idea of organizational design because there are people that are part of the organization that maybe aren't part of the design conversation and then ... like any design, like I design a product. I put it out into the world. People use it in a way that I do not intend for them to use it, and then we have to redesign our product.

Daniel:                So I'm wondering about ... Again, this is just my own ax to grind about everything is a conversation, but it seems to me that org design is, in fact, a conversation between different parties. Who's at the table or not at the table? Who are the stakeholders in the org design conversation?

Bree:                   Yeah. I would say, first, fundamentally, leaders have to be on board with, if not leading, cultural change or organizational change and organizational design. But changing some structures around will be for naught if it's not in the service of actually helping people do their work better or helping people collaborate better. So fundamentally, those conversations need to be with the people whose mindsets and behaviors you're trying to shift.

Bree:                   So you can design organizations a thousand different ways. You can design them for efficiency. You can design them for creativity. You can design them for novelty in a market, for perfection or design sensibilities. There's so many different ways that you could set up an organization to have a certain culture, a certain set of values.

Bree:                   But to not involve the people on the ground or everyone throughout the organization, it would be like almost declaring a bunch of people that they must now have a new religion. It doesn't work. You can make them, I guess, show up at some church on Sunday, but fundamentally, to get people to behave differently or think differently, that's a conversation with them. That's the co-creation.

Daniel:                Yeah. Have you ever read a book, Finite and Infinite Games?

Bree:                   No, I haven't.

Daniel:                I think you'll dig it. Well, I always say there's two types of people in the world, those who think there are two types of people, and those who don't. But the people who have read Finite and Infinite Games, it's like it's one of these ... It messes with your head. One of the things the guy who wrote the book talks about is that anybody who must play can't play. You can't force somebody to play. You can force someone to show up. You could put a ball in their hand. You can tell them to run up and down the field, but they won't be playing. They'll just be acting the part. They won't be living it.

Daniel:                It seems like there's a really big difference from changing the culture to just like saying like, "Oh, we all fill out this new form now," or, "Here's this new interface where all issues are funneled through." Those are two very, very different things.

Bree:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I would argue, too, that the employees are who the culture is for, if that makes sense. You set up a culture so that employees ... so that their work can be a little bit easier, so that they're all making decisions in the same way. They're all valuing ... Not that you shouldn't have diversity of thought, but generally, everybody understands, "Oh, this is how we operate. This is what we value. This is how we get our work done." So it's really for the people executing the work, and so it's a little counterintuitive then to make people buy into a system that really should be for them.

Bree:                   When I'll do organizational design, cultural design work, it always starts with an interview of people who are doing the work to say, "What's easy about your job? What's hard about your job? How could we change some of the systems around you or the processes around you to make that easier?"

Daniel:                Yeah. You said something a moment ago that blew my mind, this idea that an organization can be ... There's a heuristic by which you can judge the design of the org, like speed, efficiency, variety, joy, whatever. It sounds kind of socialist ... I'm just going to say it ... that we should be designing it for the people who are part of the system.

Bree:                   As an example-

Daniel:                I mean, I don't think it's a bad thing. I agree with you, but it feels like a mushy thing.

Bree:                   It's a little mushy, so let me give some examples. Apple, for example, the beauty ... They've always been a user-centered and aesthetically driven and design ... and all of that. In order to create products that maintain that standard, you need people internally to accept a culture of design perfection. It has to be in the blood of the way that people operate and think and user-centered versus ... If you think about Amazon's operational wing, that needs to be execution- and process-focused. If you're going to get people paper towels in two hours tops, then you need a culture in which efficiency and process is prized above all else.

Bree:                   In that way, like the culture ... It's such a mushy word ... or the water you swim in, it should be in the service of helping everyone know what's good work like here.

Daniel:                Yeah. Yeah, and that we all agree on that standard.

Bree:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                Then org design sort of shows up as a co-creation challenge, like many other co-creation challenges, like from the product-design side where I come in. There's a spectrum of power and engagement. Are you informing people of what you're doing? The org design we're designing, it's top down. Or it collaborative? Or do you empower people in the org to design it for themselves? How do you sort of play with that dial of power and empowerment when it comes to ... because you said the top needs to be involved. But obviously, like one person who reads a book in the middle of the organization can't necessarily say like, "I'm going to change the org. Today's the day."

Bree:                   Yeah. Honestly, we have done both. Depending on the employees in the organization that we're working with, sometimes, it'll be much more, "We're going to teach you how to change your organization." Sometimes, it's middle of the spectrum, like, "We're going to facilitate and lead you through this." But sometimes, it is more top down. It's top down in the times where it feels a bit like chaos, a bit like Lord of the Flies. In those situations, what we've found ... I've actually made the mistake in my career of trying to teach people how to design when they're drowning.

Daniel:                Here's how to design a life preserver.

Bree:                   Right, exactly. You're like, "Let me teach you ... give you a swimming lesson." They're like, "For fuck's sake, you have a life preserver there."

Daniel:                Yeah. "Please just hand me ..."

Bree:                   "Please just hand it to me." There's a certain level of capacity and stability that an organization needs in order to learn how to design for themselves, which is an ideal situation because consultants can't nor should be around forever. A company that knows how to org design themselves is like ... Well, that's just brilliant. You're going to be in business a long time because you can ride the changes of the market.

Bree:                   But there are some times when, for whatever reason or whatever changes have gone on or whatever fatigue exists within an organization, that sometimes, you need to throw the life preserver, which sounds like, "Try out this way of doing it. Let's see if it works or doesn't work. You're still in control of telling us. Did that make your life easier or harder?" But there are some times where we have to say, "Here's three other ways that companies have done it. Pick one and give it a go."

Daniel:                Yeah. Well, this goes to one of the sticky notes I have here, which is about starting the org-design conversation. With many things, like somebody who's got a crappy website may not even know that they have a crappy website and probably doesn't have a big digital transformation budget ... They're not even thinking about. Like somebody who's desperately ... whose org is just totally broken, they may not even be willing and ready and conscious of the need.

Daniel:                How does somebody pop up and be like, "Okay, this needs to happen"? What's the arc of that conversation to bring somebody in and say, "We're ready to do this"? Because it seems like a potentially unclear timeframe and arc from when you become obsolete, from when we start the engagement to when you've made yourself successfully obsolete. Good job for you doing that. That's not nothing.

Daniel:                That was a meandering question. Take whatever you can from [inaudible 00:15:45].

Bree:                   Okay. So I'll start with the ... what if you see ... Someone doesn't even know they have a problem. In that case, from our perspective, they don't hire a consultant.

Bree:                   But if you are internal and you see, "Oh shoot, our website is a disaster," and no one seems to recognize this, then the best thing that I've found is to start a conversation, not putting yourself on one side and other person on the other side ... "I think our website's bad. You think it's good" ... but rather to go and find the effects of a bad website, so like, "Oh, we got this customer feedback that they were really confused, so I'm just the messenger. Here's what I have," or anything inside, even if it's not external-facing, just asking for a survey to be done or just simply talking to three people, like, "How did this expense policy screw you up?" "Oh, it's screwing everyone up and slowing us down," and just bringing some evidence.

Bree:                   Or rather like if you were doing product-design research, you'd go say like, "Hey, try this product. Let me watch you use it and give me your feedback." Same thing with an organization, so it's going to find whatever you feel like might be wrong. The website's bad, or some policy internally isn't good. To go search down what are the effects of that makes it much less scary to ... internally than saying, "I think ..."

Daniel:                This is so interesting because it feels like it mirrors, as many things do, one-on-one dialog, giving a person feedback and saying like, "So can I give me some feedback?" Like blank.

Bree:                   Nobody likes that.

Daniel:                Nobody likes that, and it's not feedback. The question of when does feedback become feedback, is it when it's asked, given, and utilized? Or is it feedback when it's given and rejected? Is that still feedback? It's interesting, this idea of oppositional versus like, "Let's look at something together," like, "I'm not opposing you. I'm just saying, hey, here's this thing. Would you look at this thing with me? Let's look at some data together."

Bree:                   Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, because, especially internally and especially in our day and age where people very much conflate, for better or for worse, their identity with their job in the company, it can be really hard to hear at times, like, "Oh, this didn't work," or, "I'm unhappy about this," or everybody's grumbling. That's why change gets such a bad rap internally because people can be angry about it, and I get it. I totally get it because your work can be very personal. But if there are ways to say, "Here are the effects. Let's look at this at a systems level," rather than, "You did this to me, and I did this to you," level, I've found it's a much more productive conversation.

Daniel:                Yeah. That's really just focusing ... In negotiation, they call it being soft on the people and hard on the problem.

Bree:                   Yeah.

Daniel:                I think there's an interesting aspect of like, "It's not your fault this thing is happening."

Bree:                   Yeah, and I feel like that's always half our role working with clients is ... I'm going to steal that. That's great ... like hard on the ... What did you say?

Daniel:                I went to the Harvard Negotiation Institute. It's like five days in heaven. I just did negotiation simulations with mediators and lawyers. I had Bob Bordone, who's my professor, on the podcast. Actually, he came to the workshop that Mathias and I did, too. The idea of turning a negotiation, which we think of as a hardball thing, into a dialog, is like we think we have to be soft on the people and soft on the problems because, otherwise, we'll break the relationship. It's being soft on the people and hard on the problem. It's like, "It's not you. It's this."

Bree:                   Yeah. That's exactly right. When we hear internally like, "Oh, this department, blah blah blah, and they're doing this, and we're doing ..." or like, "Joe in accounting always blah blah," it's personal. I guess what I'm trying to wake up in organizations is the idea that it's possible to be happy and kind to each other and forgiving and still fix whatever problems exist within an organization.

Bree:                   But it's hard. There's no shortage of fraught, toxic workplaces with stress and, honestly, bullying, and so there has to be a way to separate ... It's like, at a base level, we're all going to be nice to each other. It's so very like kindergarten rules. My daughter has these rules at school, like, "Be nice to each other. Respect each other."

Daniel:                Yeah. When did we forget those things?

Bree:                   Yeah. It's like, you have to want to come to work. You just have to be nice to each other while, at the same time, fixing whatever problems may exist from an organizational perspective.

Daniel:                Well, so that, I think, goes to the question of loss and healing of loss, right?

Bree:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                Because the pain that I feel, the resentment that I feel towards Charles in accounting or Maggie in HR, it's a small trauma, but it's a trauma nonetheless. I feel like there is a sense of loss that like, "Well, I just have to move on. We have to do this new thing," and you have to heal that. Do you have to? Does one need to? Or how does one heal those pains? Because just saying, "Let's be nice, and let's move on," I don't know if that would necessarily cut it in all these cases if there's truly a ...

Bree:                   Oh yeah. I mean, I'm saying that here, but that does not cut it. You can't say that to people.

Daniel:                Well, what do you say to people then? Help us, Bree.

Bree:                   That doesn't work.

Daniel:                What do we say to people?

Bree:                   You say, "I hear you." That's just the very first step. Yeah, I talk a lot about loss. I do a lot of public speaking, and the talk that I give most often is on the six types of loss that people experience through change.

Daniel:                Six types? That's a lot of types.

Bree:                   Yeah, not seven, not five. Yeah, you'd be surprised. There's just six. They are, if I can rattle them off, loss of control, pride, narrative, time, competence, and familiarity. You'd be surprised how you can map any sort of resistance in an organization to one of [inaudible 00:22:14]. If there is resistance, people are likely feeling one of those six types of loss. "So they're changing this whole thing, and I have to figure out a new system, and it's taking me twice as long."

Daniel:                Familiarity.

Bree:                   Loss of time and familiarity. Both, actually. Yeah, they're overlapping.

Daniel:                Like, "What is this new thing? Why do I have to use it?"

Bree:                   Right, or if the company pivots to a new strategy, and that can oftentimes be loss of pride. "All of my work to date, was it for nothing? Why are we changing our position in our work? Was my work not good?"

Daniel:                I feel that. I really ...

Bree:                   Yeah. You have to start by understanding what people are feeling because, whether you address it or not, people will feel it. So the spoiler is it's better to address it than to let that fester. So you just start by making sure that people are heard. Of course, my intent is to get everyone feeling energized about change positive, being nice to each other. But really first, sometimes, you have to sort of step into the darkness with people and address the kind of frustrations or resentment or even like a PTSD that they're feeling from change in the past.

Daniel:                Yeah.

Daniel:                Hey, everyone. We're at the halfway point. Now is a great time to stretch your legs, refill your popcorn, and head over to to check out the show notes for this episode and, while you're there, explore the other amazing episodes or visit the Resources page for handy templates and activity guides to transform your collaborations and your communications.

Daniel:                What's the origin story of that model? Is it yours? Is it founded on other research? Where do those six steps ... I'm new to that model. It's fascinating to me.

Bree:                   Yeah. It's mine, actually. I sourced it or came up with it having done lots of different transformation projects, my first one being in the field of education. I started to track what I've heard in terms of resistance. Then, once I started to know the people behind that resistance a little more and to try to suss out what they were feeling, I just started categorizing then what were the underlying feelings behind outward anger or resistance.

Bree:                   After lots of years of categorizing those, I came up with those six. Actually, a lot of them I saw when I was working in education. My very first job was a teacher, and then I was an instructional coach. Then I worked in innovation. I led an innovation department within a school. I had so many brilliant ideas, I thought, about education, and I was like, "Well, why is nobody agreeing with me or changing their behavior? What could be wrong with these people?"

Bree:                   To really sift through ... like loss of competence, for example. A lot of teachers, they can have the same job description for 30 years. If you, all of a sudden, tell them their way of teaching is no longer modern or good, they have to stop and consider, "Will I be any good at the new way if things are changing so quickly? I have decades of experience doing it, what's now considered an outdated method." So you start to see that across organizations, though. As I started to categorize all of those, those six really floated to the top.

Daniel:                It's fascinating. Your brain is amazing because I feel like, on one side, there's this very deeply human aspect, zeroing in on the human loss and connecting with people in a very, very human way.

Daniel:                Then on the other side, there's this analytical piece where ... I feel like there are some practitioners of these things who would never think about categorizing the types of loss and sort of taking that 35,000-foot view. Do you have a sense of where these two sides of you ... Do you see what I'm seeing? I don't know, but it's an interesting ... Not everybody is a reflective practitioner is maybe what I'm saying.

Bree:                   Well, thanks. I should say, I am a sort of math/science person by brain chemistry.

Daniel:                What did you teach?

Bree:                   Yeah, I taught a high school math and physics.

Daniel:                I didn't know that. My first degree's in physics. I'm all about physics.

Bree:                   Ah, no way.

Daniel:                That's why, when I was talking about air pressure, you were like, "I got you."

Bree:                   Oh, I should have guessed. I should have guessed. All right, well, next podcast, we talk about physics.

Daniel:                Well, I mean, people write about the physics of organizations, for sure. It's a thing.

Bree:                   Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It's always come easier to me, the quantitative aspects of the world. But I think that's why I like this work because it was harder to understand people's motivations, the complexities of human systems. That, I felt like, "Oh, this is going to be interesting forever and infinitely complex, and I'm never going to get it." I think that's always been what's been attractive to me about really going into people, a very people-focused field.

Daniel:                Yeah. Do you feel like having this framework helps you be a better practitioner?

Bree:                   Yeah. It's like, consultants are famous for frameworks and 2x2s, but ...

Daniel:                Is it in a 2x2? Are the six in a ...

Bree:                   It's not. I should fit it into one. Yeah. Yeah.

Daniel:                Well, I mean, are you going to write a book about it?

Bree:                   Maybe one day. That's a good idea.

Daniel:                You don't have to have a diagram in order to have a book, but it's nice. I'm just saying.

Bree:                   Well, if I write a book, I'll say it all started here. But yeah, it's helpful to have them, I'd say, for two reasons. One is people can soak up frameworks better than they can soak up ... I don't know ... long-winded explanations. So for public speaking or communicating with clients, it's a way for people to organize their thinking. When we work with clients and say, "Oh, you're experiencing a lot of resistance internally or a lot of frustration. Let's try and map that against these six things," it gives people something generative to do or a way to hold onto the ideas.

Bree:                   The other reason is, candidly, for my sanity, I think. It can be really easy to get sucked into all of the different swirling dynamics of a company that you're working with. In order to be a good consultant, you have to hold onto something that's a little bit more 40,000-foot view that keeps you out of the swirl enough to be able to give sober counsel.

Daniel:                Yeah. Not that it's intellectualizing your emotions so that you don't feel them, but it does give some helpful distance to know what's happening to be able to have a name for it.

Bree:                   Yeah. You have a name for something, and all of a sudden, you have the concept of it, right? Just like 16 different types of words for snow.

Daniel:                Yeah. Exactly. Totally. Are you familiar with ... I feel like, when you were naming the types of loss, do you know the ... I forget who was the ... It's about the types of power. French and this other guy had this sense of charismatic power and social power, legitimate power. A couple of those felt like they were connected to these types of power. Loss is about loss of control, in a sense. I wonder when it's like loss of blank, where that comes from.

Daniel:                I'm thinking about what little I know about psychology and how it's related to how a person works. These are all things that people really want and need. They want ... Familiarity is a way to help us use less energy every day, right? We're just asking more of people to give them something unfamiliar. It's just literally exhausting, like it demands more of our working memory.

Bree:                   Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Within those six losses, there's just a lot of very simple human needs, so as you say, a need to be able to roughly predict our future, a need to feel pride in our work, a need to be able to tell a coherent story about like, "This is my work. This is what I do. This is how I contribute to the world." At the biggest level, it's like, "Here's the legacy of my life's work." There's a lot of needs in there, need for control, all of those, a need for time to sleep and enjoy your life, as well. If you mess with those of your employees, then you have to address them.

Daniel:                Yeah, yeah, unless you want to design your org for misery, obviously, in which case ...

Bree:                   That's also a choice one could make. Yeah.

Daniel:                "I think unhappy employees do better work," said nobody ever, maybe.

Daniel:                So it's interesting to me because, in a way, loss seems an interesting entry point. Maybe loss isn't the entry point to the conversation because that seems like a very hard ...

Bree:                   Yeah.

Daniel:                Maybe explain to me, when we're talking about starting the org-design conversation, what are people asking for? What's the pain that they're asking to solve when they sort of kick off that process?

Bree:                   Usually, things are ... They're either pretty tricky, or pretty good. By that, I mean like companies thinking about org design, either they've gone through a lot of change. Maybe it's good change, new leader, new strategy, merger, acquisition, so there's some pain there. Their initial ask or the reason why they want to think about org design and change is because we want to take away some of the pain.

Bree:                   There's also a situation in which companies are growing and they're doing great. This is a lot of the work that we do with scaling startups. It's just a matter of we need to figure ourselves out so we have some way to operate without having to make it up for the first time all the time. The conversations, they can either be like, "Oh, we've gone through a lot," or, "We're about to go through a lot."

Bree:                   There's always a need there to think about not only how do we get through this period, but also, how do we continue to grow in a way that's ... Ideally, org design serves the company over many, many years, the idea of how you work together, and isn't just the band-aid. Yeah. Sometimes, there's pain. Sometimes, there's excitement at the start of a conversation. Sometimes, there's simply things that people or companies need or want to leave behind, especially after a bunch of layoffs. Sometimes, the beginning starts with an ending, actually. What's no longer true, and what are you helping people to accept, that something is lost or gone? Then what do you want to help people get excited about?

Daniel:                This is just crazy because I want to go back to this human side that ... I think some people feel like, when somebody's had a loss, just saying like, "Better stuff's on the horizon," is what helps them. There's a lot of research that shows that that's just not the case.

Daniel:                It's interesting because I feel like, on the org side, I think people would feel that we should be selling the vision and selling the mission and selling the goal. The idea that we should stop for a moment and say, "Something beautiful has died. We are at this inflection point, and we know that this is hard," that takes a lot of bravery, I would think, to sit with that discomfort.

Bree:                   Yeah. Yeah. We always say there's three steps to change, first an ending, then a transition point, then a new beginning. That model is from William Bridges. Most leaders want to start with a new beginning because that feels so leaderly, like, "Oh, shiny, new vision. Here we go starting a course ahead." But a lot of times, that's just not where people are. People are still dealing with an ending.

Bree:                   I often give the example of ... I guess it was Prince Charles who was asked by a reporter once if he was excited for the day he'd become king. That sounds exciting, right? But he was like, "No, that would mean my mother just died." I'm pretty sure that reporter's not asked back to Buckingham Palace.

Bree:                   But the idea that it can be so tempting to look at the future, especially if you're a leader who's been thinking about that future for a while or having lots of conversations about that future, likely in board rooms, it can feel so tempting to dangle the shiny in front of people. But a lot of times, it's just not what people want or need when they're still coming to terms with ending.

Daniel:                Yeah. How do you coach a leader to have that kind of inner fortitude to stay with that discomfort?

Bree:                   We do, actually, what I advised before, which is survey people, interview people, get the human statements, the quotes and verbatims from people, and share those with leaders so that they can empathize with what their people are going through because even the very best, most empathetic leaders we know usually just aren't in the room with their people a lot of the time. They're in board meetings or C-suite meetings, so if a leader has that kind of empathy ... The good ones all do ... it's just a matter of showing them what their people are feeling and then just giving them a little bit of time to process. The good leaders will understand that that's what people need. We help them get there and can literally craft what are the words that you can say to help people feel heard.

Bree:                   I use this other example of a fast-food rule. The idea of a fast-food rule example ... You go through the drive-through at McDonald's, say, and you say, "I'll have a burger, fries, and a shake." Then what's the first thing they say back to you? Can you guess? It's not a trick question.

Daniel:                Oh no. I literally have ... I haven't ordered fast food in so long. I can't even imagine. They're like, "Go down to the next window," I think, is what they say.

Bree:                   So close. [inaudible 00:37:09]. That's probably the second thing that they say, but the first thing they say is, "Okay, so that'll be a burger, a fries, and a shake." Very first thing they do is they make sure that you are heard.

Bree:                   We coach leaders as well around this principle of, first, you have to make sure people are heard before they can listen to you. That's the order of operations in a conversation because, otherwise, they're just going to keep trying to be heard. Then it's just two different parties talking against each other. In those situations, we always do the FFR, if you will.

Daniel:                FFR is ...

Bree:                   The fast-food rule.

Daniel:                Oh, the fast-food rule. I got it. That's the order of operations in a conversation.

Bree:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                I'm obsessed with the idea that we can design conversations. It's very interesting to just have that heuristic, that rule of thumb where you're like, "Acknowledge them first." It's active listening, right? "What I'm hearing you say is this." But it's also interesting to me that you coach the leaders on ... because you can say what they said exactly, or you can rephrase it in a way that can soften it or deepen it or hearten it. Finding the right balance of pessimistic and optimistic or empathetic and forward-looking ... It sounds like there's a lot of knobs there for you guys to jiggle with those.

Bree:                   Oh, it's all art. It is all art. Yeah.

Daniel:                It's copy. Everything's copy.

Bree:                   Yeah.

Daniel:                Our time together is almost up. Is there anything we haven't talked about that we should talk about, anything that I haven't asked you that you have the answer for, that I don't have the question, but you have the answer?

Bree:                   The other thing that's been exciting me lately ... I mentioned I've been doing a bunch of speaking. I've been working with this amazing speaking coach. I'll give him a shout-out. His name is Nick Morgan, and he's phenomenonal. Because I'm getting on so many stages, he helps me think about my voice, my body. How you embody your message makes such a difference.

Bree:                   There's some research that, when your body and voice are in conflict with your message, people, of course, they believe your body and voice 10 times over. If you ask your significant other, "How was your day?" and they say, "Fine," there's not a chance in hell you're like, "Great. You had a fine day. I'm so pleased to hear that."

Daniel:                Yeah. "Thanks for sharing. My day was fine, too. Let's have dinner."

Bree:                   Right. Right. Yeah, your body, your voice, it just screams over any words that you're saying. Particularly when we help leaders talk about change, coach their people through change, when they are dialing up those knobs, as you say, I find it fascinating and also really impactful to think about what does your body and voice, as a leader, say. Are you overconfident? Are you empathetic? I know that this is a podcast, and no one can see me, but are you slouching your body? Is your shoulders back? Are you putting your hands in front of you, which demonstrates a bit of protectiveness, or are your arms wide open?

Bree:                   Those things can make a huge difference. Even beyond the copy that we help ... Here's what you can say, or here's a message to make people feel heard ... it's like, "How do you show up in your body and voice to let people know that you are open, accessible, listening, and still confident?" That's a bunch of the knobs, as well.

Daniel:                I think they're all really amazing ways to think about designing the conversation in a way that gets you what you really want and gets other people what they really want, too. If you want to be heard, here's how. Hear someone else first. That's really important and super critical and deeply, deeply human.

Bree:                   I know. We just all want to be listened to, right? It's so, so very human. We just want to be understood. That's it.

Daniel:                Well, that seems like a perfect place to end. On the internet, if people want to go on the internet and learn about all things Bree Groff, where do they go? We will send them there.

Bree:                   Yeah. My husband got me this awesome URL for my birthday last year, which just describes how nerdy our relationship is. It's from Estonia, and therefore, I got the URL, my name. That's where you can find me.

Daniel:                Nice. I love that. That's cool,

Bree:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                That's badass.

Bree:                   Thank you. Yeah. I was really excited about it. He was really excited about it. It was a real high point in our marriage, getting that present.

Daniel:                That man is smart. Those are husband points. That's how you rack them up. Understand your audience.

Bree:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                You heard it here first, folks, All right. Bree, thank you so much. That was really ... I'm delighted to spend some time with you.

Bree:                   Thanks for having me. This was a ton of fun.

Daniel:                Oh, I'm glad you think so. I think it's a ton of fun, too. I like talking about talking and changing things. That's all we talk about.

Daniel:                We'll leave it right there. If you made it this far, you're a rock star. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify to never miss an episode. If you want to help spread the word about the show, head over to iTunes on your desktop and leave the show a review. It only takes a few minutes and really helps.


Asking Better Questions: What's your North Star?


Today’s guest is Robin Peter Zander, an author, strategist, and performance coach. (scroll down for Robin’s full bio and links)

The big insight for me in this episode is to ask myself a simple set of questions, often: why am I opening my mouth? What’s my goal?

Wanting the best for the other person you’re talking to is a fine place to start. But there’s a level of humility we could all benefit from: Starting from a firm belief that each person has their own wisdom, rather than believing I know better what they need than they do.

We talk about four levels of questions:

1. Fact based questions

2. Judging questions

3. Questions that elicit Stories and Narratives, ie, questions that pull at a thread

4. Loving Questions, which are present and non-judgmental

I shared a 2 X 2 framework I’m working on in my book, How Conversations Work, that contrasts these two question stances: Asking vs. Telling. We’ve all heard (and asked) these type of non-questions.

The North Star Conversation Framework

The North Star Conversation Framework

The other axis is being problem-focused or solution-focused in your questions. “Have you tried this?” is a really different question from “What have you tried?”

We reference two magnificent quotes about questions that I want to offer here in full:

In the word question, there is a beautiful word - quest. I love that word. We are all partners in a quest. The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours - and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people.

Elie Wiesel

Krista Tippett, the host of NPR’s On Being, suggests that “questions elicit answers in their likeness. It's hard to transcend a simplistic question. It's hard to resist a generous one. ”

If we’re willing to take risks in communication others can respond in kind. The shift has to start somewhere, with someone.

More about Robin

Robin Peter Zander is an author, strategist, and performance coach. With a diverse background ranging from management consulting to the circus, he has spent his life working with individuals and organizations to maximize potential. He is the founder of Zander Media, a creative agency which works with start-ups to grow brand and culture, and Responsive Conference, which convenes annually to explore the future of work. Learn more at


How to do a Handstand

Don't Trust the Process


On this episode, I’m talking with Bárbara Soalheiro, founder of the Mesa method, a five-day process for bringing people together and solving extraordinary problems. Sound familiar?

Think again. Mesa is unlike any other accelerated work environment I’ve encountered. And Bárbara  is the first facilitator I’ve heard say “don’t trust the process.”

We philosophize about power distribution, problem framing, Masculine vs Feminine leadership and the difference between a mystery and a quest. It’s a jam-packed hour of conversation, so buckle in. 

Bárbara started the Mesa method based on a few fundamental principles, essential beliefs abut human nature and the future of work.

  1. That work is actually fun and what we’re here to do. 

  2. In the near future, the best and the brightest people will be impossible to hire. They will be busy doing their own thing

  3. If you want to solve the biggest problems you have to work with the best minds.

  4. The only way to work with the best is in short, clear bursts.

  5. The best way to work is to be 100% focused on results

The Mesa method brings together internal stakeholders with external talent – in Bárbara’s language, “pillars of knowledge” – for five days. This external talent shows up for day one with no briefing, with just the general mission in mind. And they end their week, not with user testing, like another sprint model you might have heard of, but with a prototype that is as close as possible to what the company will build.

Barabara’s perspective is a breath of fresh air and unconventional thinking, and her approach has resonated with some big names. She has been helping organizations such as Netflix, Google, Coca-Cola, Nestléand Samsung make bold moves and she’s worked side by side with some of the most extraordinary professionals of our time, people like Kobe Bryant, Cindy Gallop, Perry Chen, Anthony Burrill, Fernando Meirelles and many others.

Find more on Mesa here:





The space is in New York and New York is in the space: tokoro and three other Japanese words for space

Oblique Strategies

Facilitating Co-Creation


Douglas Ferguson is a deep and brilliant facilitator, entrepreneur and technologist. Douglas and I met at the Google Sprint Conference and got to know each other a lot better when he came to NYC to join my Facilitation Masterclass. It’s always humbling to see the caliber of leaders who come out the masterclass.

Douglas’ Innovation Agency, Voltage Control, is hosting a Facilitator Summit in Austin May 23rd and I’m excited that he invited me to do a session on Narrative Models for facilitation. We’re also co-hosting a pre-conference Masterclass. I’m really excited about it and I hope you can make it out. Learn more and get tickets here.

Douglas and I go deep on Innovation, Co-creation, sprinting and he talks about his journey as a facilitator and how he keeps learning and growing.

At minute 19, we dive into why and how diversity helps groups solve problems and towards the midpoint Douglas reveals his facilitator’s secret resource: Camp counselor activity books.

By minute 35 we muse about a leader as someone who sets the cadence of work, and who makes sure that cadence doesn’t become a rut or burnout.

At minute 40 we talk about the Austin facilitation summit and why we’re co-running a masterclass together.

Finally, at minute 53 we talk about how to talk to a CTO and how, not surprisingly, they are people.

Some other episodes you can dig into to learn more about sprints and conversation design:

Things we dig into, and some links to help you dig even deeper:

Co-Creation cultivates Advocacy, ownership and Mutual Understanding

Co-Creation builds requisite Variety/Diversity

IAP2 spectrum as a model for the spectrum of co-creation

Complexity Theory

Liberating Structures, a model for modular workshop mechanics

Cynefin (kuh-nevin)

The power of Making and Sharing Tools (The Voltage Control Sprint Scorecard)

The History of Design Sprints and the power of AWE (Accelerated working environments)

Jake’s Book:

Google’s Toolkit

Timeboxing and Raising the Stakes

More on Holocracy in my Interview with Sally McCutchion

Liberating Structures: Troika Consulting

Liberating Structures: 1-2-4-All

Note and Vote as a Modular Component (thinking alone before thinking together)

To Engineer is Human

Places to Learn about Douglas and Voltage Control:

The Power of Perspective


This episode features Michael Roderick, founder of Small Pond Enterprises and Host of the Access to Anyone Podcast. Michel is a coach and consultant who knows how to design conversations large and small. We talk about closing the loop on free advice (let people know if if it works…otherwise we’ll keep giving bad advice!), teaching through simulations and how to see patterns and build frameworks.

Michael sends a daily (yes, daily!) email that I actually read!

His claim to fame is that he went from High School English Teacher to Broadway producer in under 2 years, which is fast for *any* career shift, let alone a jump like that.

I first learned about Michael’s work years ago through his conference, ConnectorCon, which he designed to build a safe space to talk and connect, and to learn what it takes to be a great connector.

One of the reasons I was excited to bring Michael on the show is that he sees the world through a lens of frameworks, just like me! And we hit on several key ideas that resonate with some components of my Conversation OS, which is always nice.

  1. The Power (and limits of) Narrative. We live our lives through the stories we tell. Stories help us build connections and relationships, but they can also limit us. A positive self-story feels better than a negative story, but it can also limit us and tell us what is and isn’t possible. It’s worth asking for time to time “what stories are serving me? What narrative can help me build a new future and a new identity? What do I believe is possible? What do I *not* try, because I believe it’s impossible?”

  2. The Cadence of Connection. We talk about how Community is a resource you *can* draw from if you’ve built it up over time…and how you need to build it before you need it. Like sleep, it’s something you have to do regularly.

  3. What’s On TV (or…the importance of perspective) Michael has many, many great aphorisms, but this one is amazing. The idea is that you will always be too close to your own issues to solve them… unless you take time to pull back and see the big picture. This is also why we’re always better at solving other people’s problems! And why having a coach is essential.

  4. Competition doesn’t exist… just specialization and niches. We are in competition with ourselves, each of us trying to find our own niche. But watch out! All specializations aren’t compatible…what’s interesting about this to me is the idea that if we can’t connect with someone, it’s not always because of anything other than incompatible approaches, not something “wrong” with you or them.

  5. The Power of Invitation. As Michael points out, “People love to feel useful, but they hate to feel used.” Pressure never works well as an engagement tactic, at least not in the long term. Asking permission, asking nicely and giving people the option to say no gives people choice and allows them to choose to be highly engaged.

You can find links to find Michael on the internet and some deeper learning points in the show notes.

Thanks for listening! You might have noticed I’ve been a little slow on the episodes lately…I’ve been focusing on my next book, due to come out next year! I’ll be kicking the podcast back into gear soon. 

Enjoy the show…and if you do, please take a moment and leave a review on iTunes.


Small Pond Enterprises

Access to Anyone Podcast

Morning Pages

Liminal Thinking: an interview with Dave Gray

The Conversation Operating System (OS) Canvas

Building an Ethical Sprint Culture


Today’s episode features Kai Haley, Lead of Design Relations and the Sprint Master Academy at Google. We talk about design sprints and building a “sprint culture” as well as a much bigger question: The need for ethics in design. If you can build anything, faster, it’s a kind of super power. And with great power comes great responsibility. While you might have heard Spider-Man say that, it also made me think of my favorite Plato’s Dialog, Gorgias, which points out that power without knowledge of good (and evil) is pretty dangerous. Kai believes that training a sprint master means giving them the tools to keep people honest and mindful of their choices.

What I really love about this episode is how open, honest and humble Kai is about how hard this work is. The Sprint can make it seem like solving big challenges is simple – all you need is five days and Google’s list of activities – widely available on the internet! (and in the show notes!)

But Kai makes it clear that any attempts to “copy & paste” the Sprint (just like any new way of working) into an organization will experience some turbulence.

Adopting a new way of work can create a wave of change that will ripple out into the organization. To find sustainable success means changing rewards and recognition practices, building training and management support and lots and lots of flexibility and patience.

We don’t get into the basics of the design sprint in the interview so I’ll say a few words of background. A design sprint is a structured process for getting a group of people to get together and make a big decision in a shorter—than—normal period of time. Sprints are a general term in use in Agile software development for some time and they have become really popular in the digital product design world as User Experiences Designers have had to contend with the spread of Agile in the world.

In the last few years Google has developed an approach to design sprinting that blends parts of design thinking and parts of Agile into a powerful structure; building a clear, compelling narrative thread in the process. Inside Google, sprinting has developed into a key part of their culture, and the world is starting to take notice – starting with the NY Times bestselling book “Sprint” by former Google Ventures employees Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky who took their own unique flavor of the Sprint and wrote a clear, thorough, check-list approach to the method that made it seem simple enough for anyone to try.

While it’s often shorter inside Google and other organizations, the canonical structure is a five-day workshop that opens up a key challenge for a group or a company, explores several options to solving it and closes the loop with user research. Often workshops (that people like me run) *can* wind up feeling like Innovation Theater. Workshops can help teams get clear on a strategy and excited about big ideas. But those ideas can fade once the workshop ends. The ideas and the excitement get lost inside the organization. People who weren’t there can question the validity of the ideas and power of their shared conviction. The Sprint format helps a workshop gain momentum and power though a key difference from the average workshop.

For Kai, the key distinction between a workshop and a sprint is that a sprint develops a prototype and puts it in front of customers to get feedback on a key idea. A sprint helps end debate with evidence – and helps continue the conversation long after the workshop.

The Sprint makes use of the Conversation OS in some interesting (and totally unintentional) ways – pulling on a few key levers of conversation design:

 The cadence of work is sped up to force a decision and to create positive pressure, all while holding the work within a clear and powerful narrative thread. The visual map of the 5—day process helps get teams bought in on the power of working this way, establishing clear goals and agreements – regardless of how tough the middle of the week-long workshop gets, there are customers being recruited to test out the ideas, making it harder to give up and loose momentum!

Pair this episode with a few others for a richer perspective on these issues:

—> Conversation with Dee Scarano, who’s a Design Sprint Trainer and Facilitator at AJ and Smart, for more background on the sprint and being an awesome facilitator

—> Conversation with Alistair Cockburn, one of the original Agile Signatories, if you’re new to agile or want to go deeper into it

—> Conversation with Daniel Mezick, who uses a unique, open-space approach to bring agile practices into organizations at scale


Google Sprint Kit

GV Sprint on Medium

Sprint Stories on Medium

The Sprint Book

Plato’s Gorgias

Gransfors Bruk Axes: We have unlimited responsibility for Total Quality.

Changing the Conversation with Sprints

The Conversation OS Canvas

Everyday Design Sprints with Dee Scarano

Agile and Jazz Dialog with Alistair Cockburn

Agile as an invitation to a game with Daniel Mezick

Changing the Cultural Conversation About Men


This episode is about four really big conversations that are worth designing:

1.      How do you shift an entire cultural conversation?
2.      How do you build a sustainable business and team around it?
3.      How do you sustain yourself as an entrepreneur though all of this changemaking?
(that is, take care of your own internal conversation through it all!)
4.      How do you get the help you need to grow in all of these conversations?

Dan Doty is the founder of an organization called Evryman that exists to help change the cultural conversation about men, to help provide support, tools, and experiences for men to build deep connections that unlock and accelerate personal growth. And it’s something that’s really needed in the world. The current cultural conversation about men is about Toxic Masculinity. Dan’s work is about shifting the cultural conversation to what Healthy Masculinity looks like, and how to build it.

I’ve been to a Men’s Emotional Leadership Training with Dan and his team (also called MELT) earlier this year and it started a new phase of growth for me…and my own dad went to Evryman’s men’s weekend called the Open Source Weekend and he experienced a major shift. My mom noticed it the moment he came home! So I’m a real believer in this work. In fact, I just started co-hosting a men’s group recently with Evryman.

Together, we build a conversation map for Dan. A conversation map is a reflection tool for leaders to examine key areas in their work and life and to get them in order.  If you check out the video or the show notes you can see some of that visual work. I’ll link to some templates as well.

Dan is a coach and an entrepreneur, and he’s got an incredibly holistic approach to supporting himself as he leads change – one of the most balanced that I have seen. Of the four core conversations (Community, Team, Dialogue and Inner Dialogue) Dan is cultivating space and time for each. Leading a big cultural conversation while still making time for your internal conversation is a huge challenge for leaders.

Enjoy this episode and pair it with an episode from last season with Claire Wasserman, founder of “Ladies Get Paid”, an organization which works to eliminate the gender pay gap. There are a lot of similarities in the patterns these two change-makers are building to help them lead a BIG change in the world – changing the conversation around gender is no small task.

Key Insights from Dan’s Conversation Map

Dans Conversation Map.jpg

We dig into a conversation map for Dan, looking at how he manages the four Core Conversations in my 9 Conversations modality:

1.      Self
2.      Coaching
3.      Team
4.      Community


1.      The Self Conversation: Pre-hab vs. Rehab

Self care is core to Dan’s work with himself. He takes refuge in green spaces, meditation and time with himself. His quote that self-care is either pre-hab or rehab is absolutely brilliant!

2.      Coaching Conversations: Asking for help is human

The “lone wolf thing” isn’t working anymore. Dan finds and integrates coaches and coaching for things he wants to excel at: for his TedX talk, for his business, for his emotions.

3.      Team Conversations: Finding the thread

Like many early-stage startups, they have a small team that’s spread out. Having a clear set of principles and goals helps them focus. What’s very cool about Everyman is they integrate team and community very intentionally, working with community members to build and extend the core team.

4.      Community Conversations: Building the thread and cadence to connect and build a culture

Dan’s organization is doing a lot of awesome things and doing them consistently, with a thoughtful cadence. The Open Source retreat happens on two coasts regularly, helping bring in new men to this work and helping reconnect people to the work and each other, as well as giving new leaders an opportunity to grow and practice.

The work Evryman is doing to connect to other communities of practice across gender lines is awesome as well, Women Teach Men for example, seems amazing.

They’re also giving back to specific communities, working on project for veterans and another project for Israeli and Palestinian men.

Enjoy this rich and deep episode!

Learn more about Dan here:

Check out Dan’s Podcast here:

Dan’s TedX talk here:

Learn more about Evryman here:

the MELT weekend we mention here:

and the Evryman Open Source retreat here:

Women Teach Men:

And Owen Marcus, a co-founder of Evryman and leader of my MELT group:

And check out the episode about Claire’s Organization, Ladies Get Paid, here:

The 9 Conversations Map v2.0 can be downloaded here, so you can build your own conversations map

The Conversation OS Canvas can be downloaded here:

And you can check out the video of this episode here:

Designing a Culture of Critique


Critique  is  one  of  the  most  crucial  conversations  there  is.  How  to  ask  for  and  get  feedback  when  you  need  it  is  a  core  life  skill.  Without  it,  we’re  in  the  dark.  Setting  up  a  special  time  and  place  with  clear  rules  and  goals  to  get  the  crucial  feedback  you  need  to  move  forward...that’s  designing  the  conversation,  and  I  can’t  think  of  a  conversation  that’s  more  critical.  Pun  Intended!  

My  guests  today  are  the  authors  of  the  wonderful  (and  quick  reading!)  book  Discussing  Design:  Improving  Communication  and  Collaboration  through  Critique Adam  Connor,  VP  Organizational  Design  &  Training  at  the  strategic  design  consultancy  Mad  Pow  and  Aaron  Irizarry,  Head  of  Experience  Infrastructure  at  Capital  One.  

Critique  isn’t  just  fancy  feedback...Critique  is  about  asking  for  and  the  designing  the  conversation  you  need  to  have,  with  the  people  you  need  to  engage.  Do  you  want:  a  Reaction,  a  clear  Direction  or  deep  analysis?  That’s  Critique:  it  has  rules  and  boundaries,  and  if  you  don’t  ask  for  critique,  you  can’t  get  it.  

We  dig  into  the  3  myths  of  Critique,  how  critique  isn’t  really  a  designers  skill,  it’s  a  life  skill  for  anyone  trying  to  bust  out  of  the  status  quo.  

I  want  to  highlight  a  few  things  you’ll  hear  towards  the  end.  I  asked  Adam  and  Aaron  to  discuss  how  they  handle  a  few  key  aspects  of  the  Conversation  OS  Canvas  in  their  critiques,  like  power  dynamics,  turn-taking,  and  interfaces  and  spaces  for  the  conversation.  

Invitation:  The  core  point  (and  what  the  opening  quote  is  all  about)  is  that  you  get  the  critique  you  ask  for.  And  that  if  someone  *isn’t*  asking  for  critique  it’s  pretty  tricky  to  offer  it  to  them  successfully.  In  those  cases,  getting  permission  to  give  feedback  is  essential.  

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Power:    Adam  sets  the  ground  rules  that  if  you’re  invited  to  the  critique  session,  your  voice  should  be  heard,  and  that  in  this  session  we’re  all  equal.  The  facilitator  is  there  to  balance  voices,  to  call  out  people  who  are  to  dominating  or  hiding  in  the  conversation.  

Interface:  I  always  say  that  when  you  change  the  interface  you  change  the  conversation.  Adam  and  Aaron  both  prefer  in-person  critique  conversations  –  email  isn’t  designed  to  support  the  depth  of  communication  real  critique  requires  and  as  they  say  Asynchronous  feedback  will  never  be  the  same  as  a  live  conversation. But  as  teams  become  more  distributed  and  digital,  they’ve  found  some  benefit  in  doing  a  pre-read and  a  notation  round in  a  tool  like  InVision  or  Mural,  and  then  moving  to  a  video  call.    

Turn-Taking:  While  I  am  pretty  obsessive  about  turn-taking,  Adam  says  that  he’s  sensitive  to  it,  but  doesn’t  want  to  over-control  it,  preferring  an  organic  flow.  He’ll  sometimes  use  a  round-robin to  make  sure  everyone  speaks  in  turn  and  at  least  once.  Finding  a  way  to  balance  voices  within  an  organic  structure  requires  a  skillful  facilitator.


Also: There's a video, if you prefer watching over listening! 

Everyday Design Sprints with Dee Scarano


Our guest today is Dee Scarano, Head of Design Sprint Training at AJ&Smart. They're an agency based in Berlin that is 100% google-sprint-based. They have a *fire* youtube channel that you should check out if you want to run more sprints, well.

I met Dee at the Google Sprint Conference back in late 2017 and when I saw her run a large group workshop, I knew I had found a kindred spirit!

Dee is what I would call an Atomic Facilitator. Not because she's small and powerful (which she is) but because she has a tendency to break facilitation down into tiny, tiny components. I do the same thing, so it was fun (like, really fun: Bucket of puppies fun!) to sit down with her and dig into how she designs her group conversations and why.

Again - If you haven't checked out AJ+Smart's *aces* Youtube channel, you should - they have a boatload of helpful content, and they are launching an online course about Design Sprints which you'll hear about in the show and which I'll link to below.

Atomic Facilitators are different. Last week I was in Boston run ning a 3-Day Design Thinking Intensive at a giant consulting company and I was working with a facilitator who was a "big arc" facilitator. He gave the groups a task to do, a goal to get to, and didn't choose to manage the "micro process" of how they got there. Each team negotiated at their tables and chose a different path.

One isn't better than the other, but it's worth asking: Which of the tables had more fun? Which of the tables felt less tension? Which of the tables made a better decision? Atomic Facilitators like Dee have thought through and tested and tried many, many ways to get people to make better, smoother decisions together, and has chosen ONE that they love and feels great about. They hold that design choice in their minds and carefully guides a team through it, step by step.

Dee and I talk about Design Sprints, but we also talk about how to take that Atomic facilitation style that's baked into the standard 5-day design Sprint process and bring it into your work, every day. AJ+Smart uses the same tools from the sprints to facilitate their Friday retrospectives (they do a 4 day sprint each week, with a day for reflection).

The clarity and confidence that come from examining your approach means you feel comfortable teaching it, which is something Dee does a great deal of. As Head of Design Sprint training, she's responsible for helping teams get the knowledge *and* confidence to get started on their first sprint, which we talk about, too.

Some things to look out for:

My book! In pre-order! Just saying!

The Lightening Decision Jam in Detail (mentioned in the opening quote)

Why it's critical (and maybe obvious?) to map importance before (and separately) from difficulty)

How trusting a process can help you relax

How Reflection is key to AJ+Smart's process

How taking care of the people in the sprint is essential


Cultural Change and how building a small coalition, underselling and over-delivering on your process can help you start a movement

Why 3 X 5 stickies *might* be better than 3 X 3 (the conversation interface matters, people!)

How Aj+Smart handles power dynamics in the sprint compared with

Google vs GV Ventures (Also, the GV collection on Medium rocks)

You can find her on twitter:

I hope you enjoy the show as much as I did making it!


Alison Coward on the Luxury of Facilitation


For some people, facilitation is a means to an end: Getting things done, more in less time. Taking the time to think and talk can seem like a luxury when your team just wants to just "get going". Facilitation, then, becomes like any tool like a drill, or a don't actually want the tool, you want a hole in the wall or a carrot sliced. When you're done with the tool, you go on to the next thing!

But for other people, this space between posing a challenge, thinking, talking and doing, is worth deepening. Facilitation then becomes more than a thing you do to get to the next thing...It becomes a way of being and approaching the world.  Facilitation becomes a core value, a principle.

The problem with facilitation as a means to an end is that facilitating well is a design problem in and of itself, which requires thoughtful work and practice. Focusing on the ends instead of the means, in this case, can cause people to give light consideration to facilitating masterfully. But when the conversation really matters, someone really should design the conversation.

It's really delightful to talk to someone like Alison for whom, like me, facilitation *is* the work...deepening it for ourselves and others is why we do what we do: Not just helping teams as a facilitator, but helping others to develop as facilitators.

Alison is the founder of *Bracket*, a consultancy based in the UK. She helps teams at companies of all stripes to work better together. She's also written a lovely book  “A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops”. Alison is also, like me, a workshop geek.

Facilitation is a design skill, and like any design process, each facilitator is going to bring their own assumptions, good and bad, into the process. So it's critical to be self-aware: Why do you make the design choices that you make? Alison is a thoughtful practitioner who helps other facilitators become the same way.

Design is about intention. A facilitator needs to be able to visualize each and every step through the workshop process... What size paper will people be using when and why? What color and thickness of pen?

The sheer number of design choices involved in the process means that facilitators *can* fall into a rut. Finding fresh perspectives and approaches is crucial...which is what this podcast is all about! I hope you enjoy this episode!

We talk about:

  • The importance of making time for silence and reflection in reducing power dynamics and "groupthink"

  • Finding your own unique "stance" as a facilitator

  • The struggle to find purposeful energizers

  • How crucial it is to get people in the room deeply connected with each other's expertise

  • Knowing your workshop's narrative arc


Further Reading:

Richard Florida "The rise of the creative class"

How to Kill Creativity by Teresa Amabile


Gamestorming (of course)


Collective Genius by Linda Hill


the Progress principle by Terese Amabile


Twitter: @alisoncoward


Alison Coward is the founder of *Bracket*, a consultancy helping teams in the creative and technology sector to work better together, with clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to startups. She is a strategist, trainer and workshop facilitator and the author of “A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops”.

With over 15 years’ experience working in, leading and facilitating creative teams, Alison is passionate about finding the perfect balance between creativity, productivity, and collaboration.


Behavioral Design in the Real World with Matt Mayberry


In this episode, I talk with Matt Mayberry, Head of Business Development at Boundless Mind. Boundless Mind popped up on my radar when their awesome and free ebook on Behavioral Design shot up to #1 on Product Hunt.

I'm thrilled Matt came on the show and shared his story. His own passion for behavioral design came from his experiences watching critical patients resist changing behaviors that would save their lives. Even with death staring people in the face, changing deep seated behaviors is hard!

Behavioral Design was something I was aware of as a UX designer but was by no means an expert. Behavior design researchers like BJ Fogg and his behavior grid was something that inspired me early on in my UX career. Since then, behavior design is something I infuse into my  innovation consulting: Big change takes a big impulse. Smaller changes are easier and can snowball with the right motivation and momentum. Sitting down with Matt helped open up some new avenues to think about how behavior design is everywhere you look!

Boundless mind is fascinating: They serve two sides of the challenge, for companies seeking to change behavior AND consumers wanting to reboot their addictions. The Boundless API helps companies find the optimum timing for motivating rewards and the app Space breaks that timing cycle when you need some freedom from the apps that grip your brain.

We talk about how choice architecture in the real world can help shape behaviors, from organ donation rates in Germany vs Austria to how supermarkets get you to wander the whole store and buy more than your intended. Giving people too many choices makes choice harder: Architecting or limiting choices is a form of behavior design. Pulling back, Matt places *all* design into behavioral design: Industrial, UX, Service and Conversation Design *all* seek to shift behavior!

One big take away I had was how small acts of mindfulness can have a big impact. Matt's CEO keeps a database of how people in his organization take their coffee and other preferences. The idea of keeping a Delight Database is amazing. While the ideal of behavior design might seem like manipulation, in the end, it's about understanding what will delight people and giving them more of what they want, at the right time. I hope you enjoy the episode as much as I did making it!

Key Ideas:

Delight is Delight: Our Brain Lights up based on the timing, not the size of the reward

There are three types of rewards: Rewards of the Self, Rewards of the Hunt or Rewards of the Tribe

(more from Nir Eyal here)

Rewards are *not* incentives: The "hit" from expected Incentives get dampened over time, variable rewards do not.

Choice Architecture is simple way to bring behavior design into your work: Just Ask Thoreau!

Show notes and Links:

The Behavioral Design backstory:

How a 1930's Harvard Student laid the ground work for Modern Phone Addiction: More about BF Skinner

Bj Fogg's Behavioral Grid

BJ Fogg's Behavioral Model

Learn more about Boundless

Read the ebook

get Space at:


Find Matt Mayberry on the internet! (if you Google him, you'll find there are several very famous people named Matt Mayberry!)


 Much Much More on Behavioral Design, persuasion, and habits.

Hooked by Nir Eyal

Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Predictably Irrational by Dan Airely

Nudge by Richard Thaler

About Matt:

Matt Mayberry is a Behavior Designer and Head of Business Development for Boundless Mind, a persuasive and behavioral technology company using Artificial Intelligence to drive behavior change in technology products. You can find his sporadic 140 character short-term writing here and his 1400 character longer form writing here.


Seeing the Structure of Conversations with Marsha Acker


What is your conversation lens? How do you even see what's happening in a conversation at work or at home? How do you know it's going well or awry? How do you get conversations "back on track"? And how do you see and *shape* how *you* show up in them? How do you know what you bring into the room, good and not so good? In short, how do you become a mindful facilitator?

Conversations impact the outcomes we get: Conversations propel people  and organizations forward, or they get stuck: The groundhog day conversation! Marsha Acker, the CEO of TeamCatapult, sat down with me to talk about her unique view on these things and much more, along with her passion for ending stuck conversations in organizations. Marsha has over 22 years of experience designing and facilitating organizational change initiatives and TeamCatapult has been helping develop leaders and transform organizations since 2005.

 Meeting someone with a *totally* different "heritage" who has come to some very similar conclusions about the nature of conversation design is truly delightful!

What I loved about chatting with Marsha is connecting around a sound that's deepening in me:

That facilitation is about being conscious of what conversational  tools you pick up: Knowing where and when you're stuck and picking up the right tool for the moment, instead of the habitual one.

The Structural Dynamics concept (scroll to the bottom for a nutshell description) of a conversational operating system is deeply resonant with the three creative energies of Open, Explore and Close that I sing about non-stop and it was amazing to get her take on the Four Conversational Actions, which give a better shape to idea of "threading" in a conversation than any model I've encountered yet. It's really profound to see how each time someone speaks they are shaping the course of the conversation, helping it to slow down or speed up. I geeked out pretty hard with her...nevertheless I think you'll find a lot of amazing tools to bring into your own work!

I'll link to some of her upcoming workshops in the show notes: Her company offers a host of amazing experiences, from a 2-day Advanced Facilitation workshop to a 5-day Agile Facilitation and Coaching Intensive with several dates coming up in May and June.

Do check out the show notes, where I'll break down some of Marsha's points on Structural Dynamics and share lots of other links.

You'll also learn about:

The Facilitator's Stance: Finding another place to lead from. The "front" of the room is familiar to most, but facilitation can increase your "range" of leadership capacity.

Developing a shared "pool of meaning" to help people get to the same "place" together

Setting agreements with your group: Asking people to  say what needs to be said *in the room* so it can be processed and worked with.

Marsha's Three key takeaways to transform conversations at work:

1. Start with the Tusks: Find the conversation that matters - the critical or most stuck conversation. Start where it's hot. Go to the elephant in the room!

2. Look at how *you* show you are is how you'll facilitate.

3. Bring Your Authentic Voice: Find your natural stance and work from there, instead of trying to imitate someone else's.

Structural Dynamics in a Nutshell

1. Action:

A move (sets direction)

A follow (continues)

 An Oppose (offers correction)

A Bystand (morally neutral comment)

2. The Language or communication domain is where we're speaking from or our goals in talking

Power: Using language in order to get something done.

Meaning: Asking for evidence and action that can support their desired outcome.

Affect: This is about using emotive language to affect feeling and to develop connection and intimacy with others.

3. The Operating System:




Links and Workshops from Marsha

Advanced Facilitation: Self-Mastery and Reading Group Dynamics is June 27-28, 2018 in Washington, DC Sarah Hill and I will be co-leading this workshop. You will learn about your own model for communication and how to shift the nature of the discourse in conversations and how to work more deeply with group dynamics to become a more confident and effective facilitator.


Reading the Room by David Kantor. This books tells the story of a coach working with an executive team and how they learned to see and shift the structure of their conversations

Where did you learn to behave like that? by Sarah Hill.

In the fourth level of structural dynamics is the important role that childhood stories play in how we behave in the room today. Sarah tells many stories, including her own, of how she worked to become aware of the story and change the narrative.

Diagnosing and Changing Stuck Patterns in Teams

What to do when change requires a new operating system

Big Apple Scrum Day, New York May 11, I’m giving a talk on Diagnosing and Changing Stuck Patterns in Teams. This is a brief introduction to the model of Structural Dynamics

Marsha's Full Bio, Credentials and company links:

Marsha Acker is a leadership and team coach whose passion and expertise is helping leaders and teams identify and break through stuck patterns that get in their way of high performance. Marsha is the CEO of TeamCatapult, a leadership development and organizational change firm, founded in 2005. She has over 22 years of experience designing and facilitating organizational change initiatives.

She has served for six years as the track chair for defining the ICAgile Coaching and Enterprise Coaching learning objectives and is currently a member of the ICAgile Agile Coaching Expert Certification panel. Marsha is a Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF), Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), Professional Certified Coach (PCC – ICF), Certified Interventionist in Structural Dynamics and Changing Behavior in High Stakes (Kantor Institute and Dialogix), Organizational and Relationship Systems Coach (Center for Right Relationship), Certified Change Management Professional (CMP), and an ICAgile Certified Expert Agile Coaching.


Twitter: @marshaacker and @teamcatapult2

Facebook: @teamcatapult2


Building a Group Mind with Steve Portigal



It's always such a pleasure to get to sit down with one of your heroes...and it's especially wonderful when they are just warm, wonderful people. Steve Portigal is a prominent author of two excellent books on user research ( Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories) and Steve also speaks prolifically on the conference circuit. And while he maintains a solo practice on the west coast, he somehow makes time to also give a lot of his knowledge away, blogging, podcasting...When I was coming up in the design world, Steve's writing was always clear and helpful. And when we first met, he was approachable and human. Steve is a model for the kind of design thought leader we need more of!

Sitting down with Steve for this episode was an interesting risk, though. We ran into each other in SF and talked about the possibility of an episode grounded in a topic Steve is an expert in, but indirectly. Let me explain. Steve is a User Researcher, heart and soul. And he talks and writes about it, fluently. Facilitation is something that he *has to do* in order to bring people together. He's an extremely reflective practioner  about research, but about facilitation, less so. For me, it's fascinating to see that divide. I think there are a lot of people where facilitation is a means to an end.

Steve illustrates something I coach people on often - you have to be your own kind of facilitator. I can be theatrical and energetic. Steve is more introverted and centered. My way of solving for group work isn't Steve's : he's adapted his own approach that feels natural and gets the job done.

There are a few key insights I got out of this conversation that I want you to look out for:

Treating Workshops as a series of games with clear rules and goals

Steve breaks his time with groups up into "beats" or "scenes" just like an improv person would. Each scene has a focus, an outcome and rules. It breaks the time up and keeps energy moving.

Narrow Ranking

0, 1, 2: If you're going to get participants to rank things solo before comparing, make the structure simple. 0 is meh, 2 is awesome. 1 is good. That's it. Too much granularity confuses things.

Direct vs indirect facilitation

Steve talks about comedic scolding of groups, pushing teams but using humor, vs letting them do their own thing, watching and listening…and stopping the room to call attention to something worthwhile that group is doing. One way might be called extroverted or direct facilitation  and the other introverted or indirect facilitation. Steve says that the extroverted practice of calling people out, using names is "not in my energy." Facilitation is about using what feels natural to you.

Being conscious of your choices as a facilitator

What are you doing, when? And is it working for you? Why or why not? What to absorb or drop? I know that facilitation is a means to and end for most people, but taking time to reflect on your practice can provide significant dividends

The "chef's roll" of facilitation

Bringing what you really need into the room. The tools make it go smoothly. Some people love 3 X 5 stickies, others want black, or manage color in other ways. I hate pop-up notes with an undying, smoldering passion. The tools matter.

Insights generate energy and clarity by making things simple

Steve tells a story about how one woman's insights infused the room with energy and clarity. My feeling is that insights pull multiple threads together, grouping complex behaviors into a simple narrative core. Is it the management of too many mental/narrative threads that's exhausting? And the reduction of threads that gives cognitive release?

Expand the frame of your work

Steve is a researcher, but he doesn't let his work stop there. He knows nothing will happen with the research unless he pulls the work forward into the org. Running ideation or concepting workshops can tip the energy of the team forward and shift the momentum


Steve on the Web

Steve on Twitter

Steve's Podcast: The Episode with EBay's Pree Kolari

Interviewing Users

Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories

Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies on WikiPedia and the App I use! (android)

DSchool Facilitation Guide

The McDonald's Theory



Jim Kalbach gets teams to map experiences


Today I talk with Jim Kalbach, author of Mapping Experiences, an amazing resource for anyone who wants to help a group of people gain alignment..alignment on what's actually happening in their organization, with their customers, and alignment on where to go next.

This season, I'm investigating ideas and tools around thinking alone and thinking together.

Thinking together matters because whenever we meet, it's a chance to make a choice...and if our thinking is habitual, based on power dynamics or just plain haphazard, the choices we make will be habitual and haphazard! Great facilitators help groups of people think together in amazing ways...Jim is an ace facilitator and I'm thrilled to talk with him today! If you want to see our faces, there is a video in YouTube of our conversation.

As Jim said (to my heart's delight) It's not the map, it's the conversation *about* the map that creates real change. The map is just a durable artifact of the conversation, and lasts longer, communicates better, than a report or slide deck. It's also something people build together, so it gains power from the IKEA effect...people love what they invest time in.

We also talked about the powerful draw the idea of "mapping" has for people: It's like asking for a name brand mustard! He got a call from an amazing organization called Hedayah way out in Dubai to do a mapping workshop for former radical extremists to talk about their journeys out of radicalization and into helping others. He Had to figure out *where* in the long journey of the extremist's experience the work needed to be focused...and we talk about how he got it wrong and how it got it right.

Some key takeways from our conversation are in the show notes on the conversation


1. The Map Frames the Narrative,  but leave it incomplete, creating  a  lean forward Conversation

This is one really interesting takeaway from our conversation: Jim is very intentional about how much to do *with* the group, live and in person and how much to build *for* them, through research and his own reflective  process. Leaving it incomplete helps people enter into the world of the map and make it their own. Showing a perfect artifact is *not* the point of these tools. He sees it as a proposal, an opening to the conversation, like a first offer in a negotiation.

2. Alignment is not Groupthink: Breaking the team up helps them work together honestly

Jim calls these maps he makes "alignment diagrams" because they help the team see the same world. But the time spent with people in the room isn't about getting everyone to agree on your map, it's about getting everyone's perspectives out and up on the wall and rebuilding the map to match everyone's understanding, knowledge and experience

3. Where to play, how to win: Focus on a portion of the map for clearer insights

Hendauah asked him to come to Dubai and bring together former gang bangers, white supremacists and Al Qaida members to talk about and map their experiences. T here's a long arc of that experience...and the organization wanted the focus on a particular *moment* in the journey: Not the radicalization journey, not the de-radicalization journey...but the journey of those who choose to help de-radicalize others. Figuring that focus out took a lot of conversation with his partners in Dubai. The more specific you are about your journey "moment" the more clear your work can can zoom in on what's really crucial...and situate that moment in a larger arc.

4. Map the workshop experience, manage the energy

Find an arc and a flow for your mapping workshop: Just like your customers have experiences that you can map, you can map the experience of the team as you think about how they will enter into the workshop, what the flow of energy will be...and always have a plan B: keeping things moving along. Jim talks about shifting the energy and activities between introspective, conversational and game-based.


We also talk about remote workshopping and more!


Links and notes

mapping experiences: The book!

Hedayah: The NGO Jim worked with to map the experiences of violent extremists

this book isn't just about software, it's about any challenge with people: brand, customer experiences, social challenges

the hero's journey

star wars and the hero's journey (a fun episode of the ted radio hour)

being thoughtful about who to bring along with you on the pre-work interviews

it's not the diagram, it's the process of building the diagram

The chronology of the experience phases  follows a certain logic (although arbitrary), along with tracking Doing/Thinking/Feeling at each moment

The 5 Es of Experience Design: A handy framework

Experience Inventories with the 5Es: a conversation guide

Facilitation Means designing conversations

Have a Goal at the end of the map, use Verbs

Shout out to GameStorming: Looking at Game Mechanics to get teams to work together better

To get the team to read the map, get the team to give themselves (ie, their company) a letter grade at each moment in the map

How do you keep the momentum of the conversation going? The Map can be the compact, compelling artifact that keeps the thread of the conversation going: A touchstone

How can you get from the map to an experiment?

Remote can work with the right tools, enough focus and time: Don't try to replicate the in-person experience...but a mapping workshop is a good reason to get a geographically spread out team together. is a great tool for this, but you *must* rethink your methods, cycle through your participants and break exercises into much smaller chunks of 3-10 minutes.

To get remote to work, weave multiple tools together to give people a multi-tasking mindset *on the workshop*...using chat, surveys, mural and other tools.

The remote design thinking workshop with Glenn Fajardo and Kal Joffres with the D.School.

Don 't have mixed remote/located teams: different paces of communication make it very hard

The experience map can become a container for the interviews, empathy and notes as the workshop progresses.








Professor Paul Pangaro on the Cybernetics of Steering Conversations and a Theory of Everything



So...Cybernetics. I was describing the ideas behind this episode to a friend and he was like "cybernetics is about steering?" And yep, it is. Check out the show notes for some essential links on cybernetics, *and* an essential diagram to help follow along with this episode.



The idea is this: You have goals and I have goals. If we're in conversation, the way we find a shared goal is through probing, experimentation, alignment on means, revision of the goals, mistakes...and recursion. The recursive process of seeing a goal, aiming for it, seeing the "error" or gap and then moving to close the gap...that's cybernetics. And the principles of cybernetics really are a way to think about everything. Or, rather...anything that has a purpose, goals, intention. So, orgs that need to shift business models, teams that need to tighten timelines...getting your friends to pick a restaurant for next week...So, everything that really matters!

If need people to agree on things before they can happen, you need cybernetics. And if you're good at getting people to agree, you're a solid cyberneticist. Or, in my language, an ace conversation designer.

In my journey through conversation design during this first year of the podcast, Dr. Paul Pangaro has been a rich guide and mentor, one of the people who sees the diverse ways that conversations shape the world, how systems can have purposes and goals....and in true conversational style, I've certainly been altered by his ideas. When I recorded this interview in 2017, Paul was the chair of the interaction design MFA at Detroit's College of Creative Studies. Currently (in 2019) he’s Professor of the Practice in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Paul got his BS from MIT, where he wound up getting hired by Nicholas Negroponte into a program that evolved into the MIT Media Lab. He then went on to get a PhD in Cybernetics in the UK and came into contact with Gordon Pask, a cybernetics and conversation design visionary, whose work Paul is still evolving and processing.

The application of cybernetics to conversation has been a mind blower for me. It's helped me think about how to structure longer projects, to design teams, to form powerful framing questions. That ability to frame a question in an invitational or motivating way, making it seem solvable without giving the's an amazing superpower to be able to kickstart an amazing conversation.

But asking that question designs the conversation,  sets the stage for what comes next...and so I'm always cautious in my conversation designs to control for writing solo before group conversation flows...because whoever speaks first sets the stage for whatever comes next...they speak in response to what's been spoken already.

We talk about three big conversations design concepts that are worth paying attention to: how to think about group composition and cadence, the conversation with yourself, in the past (time travel!) and the relationship between goals and play.

1. The group conversation. Do we have the right people in the room? Do we have enough diversity to answer the question at hand? Can we design a cadence of interaction that allows us to shift the question and the composition of the team in a responsive way? In Cybernetics, a system that wants to influence another system has to be at least as complex.

Is your team more complicated that the problem you're solving? Good!

But...who gets to frame the group and the cadence? How do we invite people into the group conversation? Who has the power to give permission?

2. The conversation between myself now and myself in the past through writing. I'm a fan of pen and ink...because as we write, we watch the ink flow and see our thoughts as they were moments ago as we move into the future. The act of sketching or writing allows us to witness our thoughts as they were and converse with them. Crazy right?

3. How established, shared goals allow us to play together, even become one. If we're dancing, a "form" helps us know our roles and goals. Are we dancing the Tango or a Waltz? Knowing this makes it possible to better respond to stimulus from our partners. I think that's why Agile/Design Thinking/Lean are so popular. With Parkinson's Law of ever expanding work, there seem to be no rules anymore. We've broken partner dancing (starting with the twist) and now we never know what to do on the dance floor. Some of us crave for a throwback time, the swing era, the mystery of the tango...where we knew what to do, where there was more clarity. Agile, Scrum, Design Thinking...they are a dance form that makes it clearer what the roles and goals are. They're a game we can play if we know the rules and have a shared vocabulary.

When we share goals, the line between us blurs, or dissolves. We live in "amity"...or you can draw a box around us and call us a system with a shared purpose: to dance!

So...this is the last episode of season one. It's been a year, 22 episodes, hours and hours of conversations in real time and many times that in listening and editing and writing about them. I've learned a ton and had a blast. I'm taking the holidays off and am working on season two! Stay tuned and enjoy the show.



Show notes and links:

Paul on the web

More on Pask

Martin Buber (I and thou)

Requisite Variety: On Paul's Site and Elsewhere

Alex Bavelas

Ambiguity experiments - people start to break down when there's too much of it, blaming each's exceeding our bandwidth (or requisite variety)

The Self Talk NYTimes article: When people repeated their tasks to themselves, they did it better, if it was a clear task. Also check out the Conversation Within Your Head.

Heinz von Foerster: If you desire to see, learn how to act

The Dhatupata: There's a lot less online about this than I thought there would be! The author is here, but deeper info is not. hmmm...

Jesse Israel gives People Permission to Connect


Have you ever had that feeling right before a party you were throwing starts? That creeping dread that no one will show up? Today I talk to Jesse Israel, who doesn't seem to have that fear. Jesse flips that feeling on its head. For Jesse, it's very simple: People *want* to connect. And the invitations we, as organizers and conveners, send out...they're just permission slips. The invitation gives people permission to connect.

Jesse Israel is the founder of Medi Club and the Big Quiet, which hosts huge public meditations in places like Madison Square Garden and the World Trade Center's Oculus for literally thousands of people. I met Jesse Israel at a dinner party way back in early 2015 at a Rabbi's house. We had a great conversation and discovered a few shared interests. Somehow we discovered we both loved biking the city and he invited me to check out his cycle club, the Cyclones. And then he mentioned that he had a meditation club, too. As a life-long meditator (before it was cool!) I was intrigued. When I went to my first Medi Club, I was struck by the energy and the intimacy of it. How easy it was to connect with the crowd, which got larger and larger each time I came. The Medi Club meets monthly and regularly attracts a few hundred people ready to sit in silence with their peers. The Cyclones is similarly huge, and a blast, every time I make it out.

So, to be clear: In Jesse's view, we connect *through* things: the bike, the meditation, is permission to connect. It's the connection we crave. He just opens the door.

There are few key conversation design principles I want to pull out of this conversation, to look for as you listen, all around how to frame profoundly motivating invitations: What permission will you give for people to connect? What's the deep and clear purpose of it? What are the boundaries of the invitation? And something else I saw that Jesse does: he pre-invites. He builds a coalition of the willing early, before he opens up the larger invitation. 

Deeper into the conversation, we talk about how to sustain yourself as a community builder: Jesse talks about how he's learned to develop compassionate boundaries, to maintain his internal integrity. If you don't say no to some requests, you can't continue to give. We also talk about how to trust and develop your team. When that trust is in place, that's where the growth really happens.

For more in-depth consideration of this conversation, head over to the conversation and take a look at the show notes! I'd also suggest you take a listen to the episode with Daniel Mezick, founder of open space agility, who's thoughts on invitation match up with Jesse's profoundly!

What Permission will you grant?

At Medi Club it's okay to open up. When you step into the door, you know you're among friends. How is that permission granted? Jesse shares first. He leads the way and opens the floor. He makes the example clear: He's going to be real and so you can be, too. Over time, the community attracts more and more of this energy. Others take up the charge and spread the norm.

What's the Clarity of your Purpose?

Early on, Jesse wrote a medium post to declare the intentions of the community he was forming.

The article lays out why Medi Club exists in extremely clear language and outlines the purpose of the club in a way that passes the T-shirt test (a rule of thumb that seems to be from Peter Drucker)

Also: Is there a larger purpose? The Cyclones is a fun Saturday around NYC, but became something more when they started an Indigogo campaign to get bikes in the hands of 1,000 children in Tanzania.


Is there an authentic way to enlarge the purpose of your invitation over time?


Boundaries show up in two ways: Boundaries for the invitation and boundaries for the inviter. The Cyclones invites you to give up expectations and planning...for one afternoon. You don't know where you're going, and that's okay. Medi Club stretches that boundary with their circles: Anyone can host a Medi Club circle and create the same energy with a smaller group, anytime they want. Medi Club holds the larger circle and gives each smaller circle an "authorization" to share the same invitation.

At min 26: Jesse talks about another form of boundary: A boundary for the convener.

"If I don't have compassionate boundaries, I can't show up as a friend or a community builder."

When he's at medi club, he's a public person, and everyone there feels some sort of connection with him. But after the club night is over, Jesse has to find a way to restore his strength and be with himself. And if he said yes to every interview, every request to "pick his brain" from the community...there'd be no time for anything else!  This compassionate boundary is a huge challenge, because saying no doesn't feel generous. Finding a way to create a generous no is a critical skill for leading communities.

I'm terribly grateful that Jesse was willing to sit down with me for this conversation. I learned a ton from it and I hope you do, too.


The Big Quiet

Jesse's Former Record Label

Cyclones Bike Club

Medi Club Medium Article

Cyclones Indigogo


Claire Wasserman knows how to design powerful experiences, communities and organizations


Women make 79 cents on the dollar compared to men and that's wrong. (depending on how you cut the data it's either slightly worse or slightly better - but it's still bad). It's a systemic problem and most of us would throw up our hands and say "There's nothing I can do about it!"

Instead of doing nothing, Claire Wasserman has built a powerful community called Ladies Get Paid around a powerful and critical idea: Fixing the wage gap. And while she says that "this conversation needs an overhaul" it's not just talk. Claire's organization brings women together in town halls all over the country where they focus on what woman can do with their own hands, like learn better negotiation skills and apply for jobs they might not feel ready for, but probably are. Men have been trained, somehow, to be more (slash-over) confident, while the imposter syndrome seems to effect women more strongly.

Claire is an experience designer, designing in-person, transformational events in the same way that a UX designer crafts an app or an HR manager crafts a personnel policy: Thinking about the goal, the intended effect it will have on a person, and working backwards. It is, in the end, Human Centered Design. The materials change, but the goal is the same!

That, after all, is the nature of, and best definition for, Design: Making something to shift the way things are to the way you want them to be. Ladies Get Paid is designed *by* Claire to make the change she wants to see in the world, to change the conversation about gender and money. Beyond her amazing story and her journey to creating this company, I dove into how Claire architects her business, her events and her community.

One issue that Claire and I get into is how to include men in the conversation. What are the levers available to us to design an intimate, safe and productive conversation for women (her primary audience) while allowing men to participate, to help, to learn? How do you design a conversation about gender issues without letting gender become an issue?

Claire has been tinkering with a design that allows men to ONLY ask questions...this format would draw a hard line on mansplaining. Like Jeopardy for conversations, it's a rigid restriction, but would keep men honest: Am I talking to be heard, or to be curious and to learn? It's giving men who want to come to the town halls a hard line: Ask or be silent. Don't declare or explain. When I heard that idea, I offered another option: The fishbowl, where men can *only* listen, from the outside. It's a harder line (but easier to follow for the men!)...and there's a lot of intimacy created for the inner circle of the fishbowl, with no cross-talk possible.

Which is "better"? No men? Men listening in, with no input? Or men inside the circle, but only asking? Each conversation design has implications, repercussions, challenges...there's no best! Claire, like any great designer, will tinker, test and try and see which feels right for her and her community.

Two conversations we didn't talk about enough: How Claire manages her own *internal* conversation. Claire is bootstrapping LGP financially and emotionally! Right now, she doesn't have the mentorship and support she is offering so energetically to others. Taking a step back and getting you core needs cared for is 100% essential for founders!

The other conversation we didn't dig into is negotiation tips and perspectives. For that, you might want to listen to my interview with Harvard Negotiation Professor Bob Bordone, and download my negotiation prep sheet on the downloads page!

You might also check out episode 13 with Rei Wang , Director of the Dorm Room Fund, where we talk about community building and episode 4 with Sara Mitchell of Faraday Futures, where we talk about listening to users: but not all of them!


Enjoy the conversation!


Show notes and links:

Claire on the Web

Ladies Get Paid

Claire's Hyperakt talk

Robert Bordone can Transform Negotiations into Conversations


When I look back at the way, way too many Instagram photos I posted during my week at Harvard's Program on Negotiation, I'm left with a sense of awe and gratitude. If you take a listen to episode two, you can hear me getting a solid tip to take the workshop from Leland Maschmeyer, a very smart dude and chief creative officer at Chobani. When someone like that tells you that this class is the best, most worthwhile he's ever taken, you listen. It was *still* hard to take time and money to go. I'm seeing this now with my upcoming Facilitation Masterclass that I'm co-hosting with Think Clearly's Mathias Jakobsen. Someone just canceled their attendance due to a client workshop coming up! I get it. I told my biggest client that I was taking the workshop at Harvard and to not even *tell* me about anything that might pop up that week. I didn't want to get FOMO.

I couldn't know, wouldn't have guessed that my experience as a design thinker and facilitation coach could have prepared me well for my experience at Harvard, or that there would be so much overlap in the Program on Negotiation's approach and the design thinking approach to empathy, active listening, co-creation and ideation. I didn't even think that negotiators cared about that stuff. Robert Bordone, my professor, turned out to be a kindred spirit. And while some of my negotiation counterparts during the training felt that my drawing, colorful post-its and whiteboard use was weird, Bob got it and loved it. We've been talking for months now about how to combine our offerings into something fun and exciting!

Robert Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Founding Director of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program. He teaches several courses at Harvard Law School including the school’s flagship Negotiation Workshop. Bob also teaches in the Harvard Negotiation Institute and the Harvard Program on Negotiation’s Senior Executive Education seminars.

As a professional facilitator and conflict resolution consultant, Bob works with individual and corporate clients across a spectrum of industries. He specializes in dispute systems design and in assisting individuals and groups seeking to manage conflicts in highly sensitive, emotional, or difficult situations.

Negotiation in our culture is a bad or fraught word: it makes people anxious. We see negotiations as win/lose, contentious. That's a misunderstanding. It doesn't have to be win lose. Bob sees negotiation as a creative act that generates possibilities and that can create new value.

I took away three big Insights from our conversation.

1. Perspective Taking: FROM THE "OTHER SIDE" and The BALCONY

You *must* take the perspective of the "other side". The "untrained" negotiator only asks their counterpart questions about their interests and preferences 7% of the time. Finding more about *why* people want what they want is the key to great negotiations. Before you even get into the room, you need to spend half of your prep time thinking, not about what you want and think you can or should get, but what the other person thinks *they* can and should get and why. That's why I made my 1-pager negotiation prep sheet, which synthesizes and summarizes the key elements I learned. It's divided down the middle to remind me to take that time and think one-to-one on all aspects of a solid negotiation preparation. You can download that in the show notes.

Bob also talks about going "to the balcony" to look at the whole situation from an outside perspective, which can be very powerful.



2. Move from Negotiation to Conversation

When you find the points of difference in criteria, interests and positions, the negotiation doesn't have to devolve into conflict. You differ. Congratulations! You've identified a dilemma, a core issue. You can call that difference out, and ask "How might we close the gap in our positions?". Then, you can negotiate about the negotiation. You can discuss the differing positions, and lay them all out. The fresh air and sunlight will only help make the process more enjoyable and productive. Don't be afraid of the conflict. Name the game, and find a new way to play it.




If you can frame the core conflict with an opening, welcoming question, you and your counterpart can generate multiple potential solutions using many of the tools available in the Design Thinking canon. Negotiating about the process can be a lot easier than deciding the issue. A fair process is easy to choose. A fair outcome is then a lot easier to see, even if we don't get everything we want.

So... Enjoy the episode. Bob is a wonderful thinker! You should check out the show notes and watch some of his other lectures online, especially his talk about increasing conflict capacity!

Below are nearly all of the images I scribed during the week. There's a lot!

Kate Quarfordt On the Seasons of Creative Conversations


Today I talk with Kate Quarfordt,  the Founding Director of Arts Integration & Culture at City School of the Arts. My conversation with Kate was a rich and wonderful surprise! I found her 4-seasons framework someplace in the corners of the internet and was immediately enchanted with it. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter as metaphors for the flow of work... The Framework is so powerful in the types of conversations it allows into the larger conversation about work, especially winter, a time to reflect and consider, to heal and incubate. It's rare to make space for that type of work! (see a link to the model and our first meeting on twitter here)…her original image is really lovely, a watercolor work of art! I’ve made a “cleaned up” black and white version here.

the four seasons-01.jpg

The opening and closing circles Kate hosts in her school to bookend the touched my heart! It's such a beautiful way to work. And so similar to how Daniel Mezick gets organizations to shift how they work through Open Space Agility! Check that episode out here!

This conversation has started to open up the idea of threads and threading in conversation design for me. I first got the sense of threading from my conversation with Nandini Stocker, Google's Head of Conversation Design Advocacy. As I see it now,  the arc of a conversation  is made of stories. And the way Kate describes our stories coming together to make a new one, using the word "Braiding", makes so much sense.  Conversations are the exchange of stories, and placing ourselves and others into the hero role, shifting perspective as empathy and generosity demands is the flow of real dialogue.

Finally, we talked about how creative work requires an audience! An Audience provides a "pull" and "push" for work. At least, that's the way I experience it. Even when I don't feel like it, I push myself to finish work on an episode because I know people are waiting (pulling) for it. And there's a loop of feedback on the work: People write me to tell me what was great and where I missed the mark. That's one of the reasons that I feel the conversation between an organization and its customers is one of the most critical, missing pieces in companies that struggle with a sluggish work cadence. There's not enough urgency.  If you want to dig into that conversation more, check out the episodes from Rei Wang, Director of the Dorm Room Fund and Sarah Mitchell, Lead designer at Faraday Futures. Both helped me see principles at work in sustaining great conversations with customers and community.

 Thank you so much for listening and I hope you enjoy the episode as much as I did making it !


Notes and Links


Meeting Kate on Twitter

New York City Charter School for the Arts (CSA)

Specials On C


Threading in Conversation Design: In Podcast Show notes

What we need is a Montage (montage!)

The X that we were solving for: Feeling out of synch, loss of clear cadence

The Seasons Wheel applied to a Week or a Cultural Transformation:

Open and Closing Circles: Open Space Agility with Daniel Mezick


Mary Oliver: making yourself visible to yourself in a way you never imagined!

From Blue Pastures:

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one piles, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe – that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.



The Inner Winter Process: Leaving yourself voicemails! (creates a third point for reflection, just as a drawing or journal does)

Dave Gray on Drawing creating a clearer interface for conversations

Morning Pages

The Inner Conversation

Spring Cleaning Script from Mama Gena:


Holding Space is incredible power: Who initiates the request? Who Has permission? The Paradox of Flow vs Framework: Absence of Structure vs. Structure vs. balancing who introduces the structure.


What's the Deal with Agile?


How is a school like a conversation? Moving from the School-As-Script model to the School-As-Dialogue model.

Waterfall vs Agile


Kate's Post-call reflections on Winter and Work as a Relay Race:

"As I was transitioning into the rest of my day I realized that there was one last thing that I wanted to share apropos of the winter phase and the importance of rest and rejuvenation--not just in the creative learning space, but also in the context of activism and resistance. As I mentioned, we are doing a lot of work with young folks around using the arts as a vehicle for activism, especially given how passionate they are about making their voices heard in this current political moment. On Monday night I had the chance to perform with the Resistance Revival Chorus, a women/femme-led singing group created by the leaders of the Women's March to keep the momentum of the march moving forward and also--crucially--to frame joy and rejuvenation as acts of resistance in and necessary elements of a sustainable movement. Paola Mendoza, co-artistic director of the March, and one of the producers of Monday night's event, said something that evening that resonated super powerfully with me.


She said, "The resistance is not a sprint, but it's not a marathon either. It's a relay race." I love that image because it evokes the sustainability that becomes possible when hard work and leadership are shouldered by a full community instead of by a single individual. There's a sense of permission implicit in this approach, the understanding that it's ok for each member of the community to pause and refill the tanks every so often, because there's always someone else right there who's ready to take up the baton and run the next leg. In the context of the season wheel, this is the idea that different community members can be in different phases at different times...  it's OK for you to be in winter, because you know I'm in summer and I've got you covered, and then we can switch so I get a chance to rest and reflect while you keep the work moving forward. I'm excited to bring that relay race image back to the kiddos when we gather to kick off year two.