Talking Is Doing

There were too many tables and chairs in the room. We started the meeting, a circle of people around a broad expanse of table with banks of tables pushed against the walls at our backs. We had to negotiate carefully to find our way to the tea. 

There were too many questions on the first handout. They were designed to stimulate reflection, then lead to an unstructured  conversation about our journeys in the organization, what brought us to this point.

As the people looked at the questions, hesitated, reached for pens, I saw that the questions were a bit like those tables. So much structure getting in the way of the conversation. Some asked for more instructions, two or three times.  Some set to writing out their answers. I felt like a teacher, poised to instruct them in what they had so naturally been doing before the meeting started — talking with each other.

Finally, they paired up. The room filled with the sound of five quiet conversations. Something shifted. The papers were abandoned. The work started.

“Stop talking and start doing!” Have you heard that one? Have you said it yourself?

I have been reading “Changing Conversations in Organisations: a Complexity Approach to Change,” by Patricia Shaw. In this challenging (confronting) book, Shaw makes the case for approaching organisational change—not as an 8-step process, which can guarantee a predictable future—but rather as an ongoing practice of making sense—conversationally—of the experience of change itself.

I am with Shaw on this point:  organisational conversation is THE real mechanism for change.

Sharing her own story about a change process with one organization, she writes:

These mature and experienced managers did not believe they could justify an explicit investment in the free-flow of open-ended conversations despite their conviction that this kind of conversation was precisely what they needed…

Yes! I wrote in the margin.

Then the next sentence, confronted me:

In order to justify meeting you had to know in advance exactly what the topics for discussion would be and what the outcomes of discussion should be. The more uncertain and ambiguous their situation, the more they wanted to meet and talk, yet the less legitimate the expense of doing this became.

As facilitators and change practitioners we live in a world of “deliverables,” our conversations lead to “outputs”, and those outputs show up in our reports. We know, intellectually, that those outputs are not the change themselves, but they capture the future we are collectively pursuing. I see a lot of my work as helping these conversations to happen. I do that by creating thoughtfully sequenced STRUCTURED approaches to conversation. I promise that there will be useful products of those conversations.

And yet, those outputs are frozen in time, in contexts that continually shift. Like still life paintings—the living things change before the paint is dry.

Perhaps it was my choice to read that book on my plane trip to this meeting that made me suddenly attentive to the paradox of my work there.

How the setting of a task was, at once, creating an obstacle and an impetus to leaping into a different future.

How the deliverable tied to this meeting required compliance with my process and while the change itself required the freedom and will to move into and shape a change already underway.

I did not abandon the deliverable. We got there. But we did have one day of organisational conversation, without outputs, living with the ambiguity and complexity of being in the change, rather than designing it.

I’m tempted here to write down the “bullet points” of what all this means, but that is an end to the conversation rather than a start….

So I will say:

Talking is doing. Things change as we talk. 

And what to say about structure?  Maybe less furniture, more space to move around.  Structure can create a sense of safety—a way to move into the chaos of a future we cannot predict. Or, maybe, it gets in our way.


Thanks to Christine Little for this blog post!

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