managing change through conversation

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

I’ve always liked Peter Block’s statement, “To change the organization, change the conversation.” Creating organizational change is largely about organizing the right conversations between the right people—that’s how relationships and ways of working together are altered. Deepening that notion, I was at a dinner with Peter at a friend’s house the other night, and I got a new insight into what Peter really means.

Peter was careful to distinguish that his change approach applies when “you want tomorrow to be distinctly different than today.” In other words, it is not the approach for when you think things are going well and just want to improve them. Rather, Peter’s advice is directed toward radical change.

His approach focuses on changing the conditions of the conversation. In particular, he stresses the importance of the arrangement of the physical space and of organizing people in small groups that will encourage more intimate connections than are typically created in standard business practice.

Small group collaboration
One my insights from the evening was that, although Peter often expresses a general disdain for training, performance reviews, and 360-degree feedback, he’s not suggesting that we convince others to drop those methods. Instead, where possible, he says we should architect small, intimate gatherings that will enable people to relate to each other more authentically. From these, innovation and new insights will emerge.

Peter has for some time also offered Six Conversations that can be used to develop the right conditions for authentic conversation. These conversations, detailed in a pdf on his website, are

  • Invitation. What is the invitation we can make for people to participate in and own the relationships, tasks, and process that lead to transformation?
  • Possibility. This conversation creates a framework for focusing on the future, not the past. It is about postponing problem solving until the the interests of the group are “spoken with resonance and passion.”
  • Ownership. We must see ourselves as the cause of the present situation and “believe in the possibility that this organization, neighborhood, community, is mine or ours to create.”
  • Dissent. We must also respect diversity and differences of opinion. Peter says that “‘No’ is the beginning of the conversation for commitment.” Until we can express our true beliefs and perspectives, we are not ready to form real commitments. He says, “The leadership task is to surface doubts and dissent without having an answer to every question.”
  • Commitment. Once the conditions are right, we can discuss “What promise am I willing to make?”
  • Gifts. And finally, Peter calls for a focus on the gifts that each person brings. “The leadership task is to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center.”

I’ve met with Peter several times, and I’m always struck by the similarities between his view and that of my mentor and dissertation chair, the late Dr. Bela Banathy. Dr. Banathy was also strong advocate for creating dialogue groups and transcending the current system by focusing on an ideal future state. Like Peter Block, Dr. Banathy believed that focusing on the current problems only led to more of the same.

There are strong parallels between the notions of participatory systems design and the conditions for forming community that Peter Block discusses. In each, we seek to unleash the “expert” that is in each of us and bring it together to form a new and mutually inspiring vision of the future. Once the community is formed, and only then, it has the potential for engaging in a design conversation that works out how we will organize our human systems for a better future.


Every few days, I hear someone say “We need more accountability.” Usually the person is  referring to middle management. It seems that the big problem in organizations is that middle managers are notoriously unaccountable. But, when you hear a call for more accountability, (unless it is directed at you, in which case you should probably listen up) you should be wary.

Calling for others to be more accountable generally obscures the real causes of the “lack of accountability” phenomenon. To assume that others are not accountable is to imply that they are lazy or somehow incompetent. They are falling down on their commitments. The call is then often followed by a demand for greater compliance and governance—an attempt to force them to meet their commitments.

In reality, though, most people working in organizations are being as accountable as they can to what counts in their worlds. We work in such complex social and organizational arrangements that there are many conflicting priorities, shifting resource allocations, and unpredictable obstacles that can arise. For the most part, the “lack of accountability” problem in organizations is not about lack of commitment but having too many commitments and unclear, conflicting projects.

Those who call for greater accountability from others are falling into what is sometimes called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is that people tend to to attribute the behavior of others to the other person’s character and to attribute their own behavior more situational or environmental factors. This kind of thinking distracts us from considering the real obstacles to getting things done: the conflicting processes, competing priorities from managements, shifting goals of a management, resources stretched to thin, and the confluence of factors that limit productivity in the workplace. 

So, if you want more accountability, you have to make it possible for people to be more accountable.


If you are are interested in organizational and societal change, you are probably also interested in the dynamics of epidemics. And chances are good that you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s widely popular book, The Tipping Point, which postulated three rules that determine the rise of an epidemic.

After publication in 2000, The Tipping Point was its own minor epidemic, quickly becoming an international best seller. As a result, Gladwell’s three rules compelled many marketeers and organizational development practitioners to take new approaches toward influencing people to buy products and to adopt organizational changes. However, over the last few years, there have been some studies that cast doubt on certain elements of Mr. Gladwell’s theory, and I am going to review some of them below.

The Law of the Few

Gladwell’ first rule was “The Law of the Few,” which holds that there are unique individuals in society who are extremely good at linking people to each other and to information. Of these indviduals, there are three types, as follows:

Connectors, who are people that just seem to know everyone and who keep in contact with many people. Connectors enjoy understanding how people are related to each other and in providing value by introducing people who can help each other.

Building on the the six-degrees of separation notion, Gladwell envisioned that a few of us communicate with each other until the communication hits one of these “super nodes” in the network that then broadcast the message to many others.

Mavens are people who accumulate knowledge and know how to share it.

Salesmen are the persuaders. These are charismatic people who most people want to be like and agree with. They presumably have greater influence than the average person, and it is the belief in this type of connector that causes advertisers to seek out celebrities as spokespeople.

Gladwell’s theory suggests that connectors, mavens, and salesman are particular individuals who use their unique skill to trigger the epidemic. Clive Davis in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company says,

In modern marketing, this idea—that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends—is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you’ll reach everyone else through them, basically for free. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books. In addition to The Tipping Point, there was The Influentials, by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims “E-Fluentials” can “make or break a brand.”

However, in contrast to the mainstream view, Davis discusses his interview with Duncan Watts, a network theory scientist. According to Watts, epidemics aren’t necessarily started by a handful of highly influential or connected people Rather, Watts’s studies and computer models suggest that epidemics are more likely to be started by a random person than a handful of super nodes.

[Watts] found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

The implications of this are somewhat exasperating for those looking for the new and innovative methods of speeding up product adoption curves. According to Watts, who has tested his ideas with some success, the best way to start an epidemic is still with traditional mass media blasts. Davis says, “The ultimate irony of Watts’s research is that, if you really buy it, the most effective way to pitch your idea is … mass marketing. And that is precisely what the wizards of Madison Avenue, presiding over our zillion-channel microniche market, have rejected as obsolete.”

The Stickiness Factor

Gladwell’s second rule was “The Stickiness Factor.” This rule stated that messages that “stick” tend to get transmitted more quickly and more thoroughly through the network. Examples of sticky messages include popular jingles, catch phrases, trendy clothes, and viral videos. Usually, these messages must be simple, easy to remember, easy to communicate, and interesting.

The Stickiness Factor is similar to work done in memetics , which seeks to understand why certain elements of cultural meaning (memes) tend to be transmitted and others do not. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in The Evolving Self the persistence of memes depends (a) mostly on their simplicity in terms of low psychic energy to remember and replicate, (b) occasionally on their logic or internal consistency, and (c) occasionally on their utility.

The Power of Context

The third rule from The Tipping Point was “The Power of Context.” Gladwell explained, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Citing Kelling and Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, Gladwell recounted the lore around a dramatic drop New York crime that was allegedly precipitated by a vigorous campaign to clean up graffiti on the subway. Based on that example and others, he asserted that “an epidemic can be reversed, can be tripped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.”

Although quite a lot of attention was paid to the “broken windows” theory over the years, much of the attention became critical as it was discovered that crime also fell in  other cities across the United States at the same time, including those that did not practice the broken windows theory. There are several other compelling explanations for the drop in crime rate during that time period. One of the most powerful has been Steven Levitt’s claim, in his book Freakonomics, that the decrease in crime was probably best attributed to legalized abortion.

That is not to say that context doesn’t matter. But its impact may be more of providing a nurturing soil for the change rather than stimulating it. According to Davis,

Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone’s odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public mood. Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an “accidental Influential.”


Military metaphors are normally frowned upon in the organizational change world. Instead, organism metaphors and words like empowerment, collaboration, and partnership are preferred. But a friend of mine recently brought to my attention the Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind. Although it is primarily a book about military tactics and operations, this book also has some interesting ideas for organizational change practitioners.

Much of Lind’s book is built on a fundamental insight drawn from the discoveries of a scholar of arial combat named Colonel Boyd. Boyd researched numerous reports of dogfights during the Korean War and found that U.S. pilots were able regularly dominante North Korean pilots despite the fact that the North Korean’s MIG aircraft had far superior performance to the American’s F86. The advantage the Americans had was twofold: Not only could they see out of the cockpit better, they could change flight modes faster. This enabled them to adapt more quickly to the enemy.

According to Mr. Lind, “Conflict can be seen as time-competitive observation-orientation -decision-action cycles,” or OODA loops. These loops depict the ability of combatants to identify the changed situation and to switch to a new tactic quickly. The successive adaptations create an increasing advantage, until the opponent is unable to keep up and is subsequently overwhelemed.

In the domain of organizational change, the “defenses” that we encounter are largely cognitive, but we do know that the “frontal assault” of invariant mandates from management are largely ineffective. Instead, we have to design changes that will will provide incentives for the new behaviors. Then, we have to gather feedback as the change is rolled out and quickly adjust as we learn the countours and texture of any resistance to the change. How quickly the change team can learn and adjust to ensure that the change effort offers a truly better and more effective way or working will be a critical factor to success.

Of course, resistance also adjusts to the change effort. Thus, there can be no fixed schemes, no formulas or patterns. As soon as one method is deployed, the organization will also adapt to it, seeking to maintain the status quo. Each situation is unique, requiring a change design specifically attuned to the specific situation.

These days, learning is often considered essential for competing in the market. Since at least Nonaka and Takeuchi’s The Knowledge Creating Company was published in 1991, it has been often asserted “learning is the only remaining source of competitive advantage in the modern, globalizing knowledge economy.” The metaphor of maneuver warfare described by Lind suggests that it is not so much gathering knowledge as the ability to rapidly adapt that creates the advantage. Both organizations and change practitioners must quickly read the conditions, get oriented to them, and make new decision to act.

© 2016 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha