What types of conversations transform problems into potential? How might conversations accelerate and amplify change? How do we bring people together in collaborative ways to address complexity, diversity and rapid change? What do I need to deepen in my own capacity so that I can host conversations differently? Yesterday I spent the day with good friend, colleague and strategic partner, Michael Jones discussing these exact questions. Michael provided me with a metaphor of the ecology of a tree to help me understand the distinction and value of learning how to host three very different levels of conversation.
The leaves and branches of a tree symbolize our outer life; tactics, action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. The trunk and lower limbs are the structures, strategies and processes. We spend the least amount of time in the ground underneath. Yet it is the re-generative nature of the roots and the soil that give the tree the resilience and the strength to grow. Eighty percent of what determines the health of a tree is the condition of the soil. Here are the three levels of conversation that Michael taught me this week –
Level 1 Technical/Tactical – At the first level the primary question is; “How do we do things differently?” 90% of an organization’s attention is usually focused at Level 1 or 2.
The content is focused on tools, techniques action and results. It frames the organization as a mechanical system for which all problems have a corresponding technical expert-driven response. To extend the tree metaphor, Level I conversations take into account only the branches and the leaves. If this level prevails in an organization, everything is rushed to market with nothing conserved for the future. As such, Level 1 conversations are highly sensitized and reactive to changing circumstances. Because they are focused on the performance of the parts rather than the system as a whole, their emphasis is on efficiency-based thinking, quantitatively driven results and mechanistic expert-driven responses to problems.
Level 2 Strategic/Transactional – Here the primary question is; “How do we do different things?” 90% of an organization’s attention is usually focused at Level 1 or 2.
It is stepping into the forest and seeing not only the leaves and branches but their connection to the trunk as well. Although Level 2 conversations shift the emphasis from efficiency to effectiveness they don’t necessarily engage the larger meta questions regarding the effectiveness for what and to what end. Their focus is on connecting the parts to the whole and interpersonal or transactional strategic-based learning. They are focused on systems, structures and processes and are oriented to leading groups and teams. They don’t engage the higher order questions that build deep relationships and engage the questions that shift the paradigm we are working within. For this we need to look to another level of learning that is associated more with a perceptual shift and with deeper levels of engagement.
Level 3 Re-generative/Transformational – With regenerative Level 3 conversations the primary question is not on how we act but how we sense and see differently.
Their focus is on the shift from mechanistic thinking to engaging with the organization as a living system. If the other levels focus on the leaves, branches and trunk, Level 3 conversations examine the soil and the complex root systems underneath. Re-generative is participative, reciprocal and imaginative. It means doing things that move beyond preserving the life of the tree to growing it into a sturdy and fertile oak.