conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category

Bad Career Moves: Eating Light Bulbs

leave a comment »

Always sound advice: Stop and notice which parts of your work you enjoy.



Quote Via Star Tribune News of the Weird, 5/24/2001, p. E5

Written by kirkistan

November 19, 2014 at 9:21 am

Can You Engineer a Conversation? (How to Talk #2)

leave a comment »

Depends: Are you looking for control or insight?

In Moments of Impact: How to design conversations that accelerate change (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014), Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon argue that some of our most productive conversations come from deciding ahead what we want from the interchange. Their book presents a system of on-ramps that will be particularly useful for anyone charged with gathering a group with the intent of going further than the old, fallow brainstorming sessions allowed.


Conversation, as everyone knows, can be far from benign. For those looking to control a conversation, unless highly skilled, the better (and far less productive) option may be to continue with monologue.

Because a strategic conversation consists of live interactions between people with different perspectives and passions, you can never predict exactly where it will lead. (41)

That is the beauty of conversation: the whimsy factor can drop participants in places they never expected to arrive. That is also the danger—especially in corporate settings where a particular outcome has been strongly hinted at, if not guaranteed.

For those daring souls willing to let go, but who still retain a preferred outcome, Ertel and Solomon’s notion of a “strategic conversation” may just fit the bill. Start by sorting what you are trying to accomplish: build understanding, shape choices or make decisions. And then employ divergent and convergent thinking and other group exercises as necessary.


What I appreciate about Ertel and Solomon’s work is they have built a framework around the basic serendipity of conversation and brought it as a tool into even very hierarchical structures.MomentsOfImpact-10272014

I am convinced we’ll find strategic conversations a formidable tool indeed, especially as we create brand new stuff out in the world.


Image credit:

Wait—English Majors Win in the End?

with 2 comments

Start Writing Your Own Future

  • Announce your goal to lose weight and chances are better the pounds will flee.
  • Sign up for NaNoWriMo and chances are better you will actually write that novel (no matter how badly it turns out).

What we tell each other has a way of happening. What we tell each other about our preferred futures has a way of guiding next steps.

  • Write a letter to your collaborative, inventor friend about a business idea and find yourself planning concrete marketing and distribution steps at Spyhouse Coffee.
  • Write a business plan for your startup and suddenly remember your friend who became a venture capitalist. And then remember the friend who bootstrapped her idea.

See the pattern? Each step forward started with communication. You may say,

“No. the idea came first.”


Create in real time as you go.

Create in real time as you go.

But consider: the communicated idea created a spark. And—given the right collaborative conditions—the spark lit a fuse. And the fuse burned, gathering other ideas until the explosive, disruptive future no one had considered.

What if English majors learned entrepreneurship and began to see their talent for orderly, persuasive, deeply-rooted writing as a way to help themselves imagine new futures and chart forward-movement for others? What if they learned to solve real-world problems with story and emotion and analytics? Their solutions would drop-kick the spreadsheet & PowerPoint crowd. What if some English majors created Lake Wobegon while others created the next Google?

What if English majors learned business lessons alongside the standard fare of reading and writing? What if they were expected to serve up the occasional business plan or marketing strategy along with the usual essay, short story and poem?

If that happened, English majors would connect earlier in life that art and work and commerce and fiction and meaning-making all fit together in the same world. And they would begin to write their own future vocation.

By the way: 16 Wildly Successful People Who Majored in English


Caveat #1: I was never an English major.

Caveat #2: I teach English majors. They are smart, innovative people.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why Work Out Loud?

with one comment

Living out loud—even at work

Way back when our first child was born (lo these many years ago), back before there was language, when crying and inchoate grunts were the sum total of signals this small being could muster (along with unblinking stares), a strange communication pattern emerged in our household: narration.

Mrs. Kirkistan and I both found ourselves narrating in real-time to this youngster. His wide eyes and (relative) silence seemed enough to make us think he was curious about, well, whatever. We narrated pacing the floor at 2am (“We’re walking back and forth because someone is crying. But we’re not pointing fingers. No sir.”). We narrated cooking and cleaning. We talked about sitting on the couch and driving in the car. We told the story of outside—every window had a story.

It seemed to work if only because it was met with silence which we took for interest. Eventually he started narrating back at us.

Thank you, Veterans.

Thank you, Veterans.

I’m reminded of this as I read John Stepper’s blog and anticipate his book, Working Out Loud: How to build a better network, career & life (Due Feb, 2015). Mr. Stepper makes the case that we do ourselves a favor when we “work in an open, generous, connected way.” The benefit is to ourselves and to others. Check out his “5 elements of working out loud.”

Lately I find myself talking more with clients about how they communicate internally and externally. I continue to see the emphasis wrought by free and open social venues (Twitter, bloggery, Facebook) working their way backwards into the way organizations conduct business. I predict more collaborative encounters and less monologue from a guy with a tie and a pen to sign your paycheck.

Stepper’s “working out loud” codifies some of that collaborative energy that rises like Spring sap with honest and open communication. I think of it as another perspective on the “dumb sketch” approach to life.

Narrating our day, asking for input, remarking on a remarkable idea—it’s all part of human contact and cannot be separated from the business of making meaning.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

About the Node Not Taken

leave a comment »

Steady There, Young Philosopher

My hardworking, entrepreneurial colleague surprised me in conversation the other day:

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like had I stayed in the corporate world—what would I be doing now?

My friend was in one of the periodic slumps that happen to anyone building a business of their own. Those slumps squeeze out long-suppressed questions. These are the questions that precipitate momentary crises of faith for those constructing wings as they plummet.

No. Really. Is there an actual "Afton State Park"?

No. Really. Is there an actual “Afton State Park”?

Young philosophers like to ponder the “What ifs” of life:

  • What if I had dated that person rather than this person?
  • What if I had taken that job rather than this job?
  • What if I had studied engineering rather than philosophy? (One certain answer: the world would have to cope with a very bad engineer.)
  • What if had dived 12 inches to the left and missed that rock in the lake?

One problem with our casual “What ifs” is that they often assume a straight line from the point of decision. You go this way. You go that way. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

But what if our lives are composed of nodes that become roads? What if each decision is followed by another so that our paths are constantly changing in real-time?

Another problem with casual “What ifs” is they forget the tiny but forceful pinpricks of relationship and conversation and motivation that accompany every choice. Thousands of tiny insights and histories and dreams contribute to each action as well as each subsequent action.

Personally, I cannot help but wonder if the nodes that become roads all lead to the place/people we were meant to be in the first place. Wait—don’t call me a determinist yet. Stick with me: what I mean is that whether we stayed in the corporation or went on our own or dropped everything to join the circus, would we end up as the kind of people we were meant to be?

This is not a perfect thought: we build things into our lives, good and bad, by daily habit. We grow, or not, because of those habits and subsequent opportunities. Admittedly, the determinist take on choice has holes.

But I’m reminded of that inveterate letter writer who wrote his friends about walking in the “good works” begun in them.

Today I’m looking for nodes and roads.

And I hope to step in a good work along the way.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Don’t Bother Me. I’m on Fire.

leave a comment »

Too Busy: 4 Takes

  • My contact is too busy to talk about collaboration: “Too many deliverables, scheduled too tightly.”
  • Another colleague laments the lack of time to think ahead about the broader picture. She chides the constant race to get stuff done.
  • A friend observing the inner-workings of a logistics department 2000 miles from where he was trained could identify key process components missing. The very components that created the immediate chaos the team waded through each day.Gears-3-10162014

We earn our keep by being busy. None of us want the boss to wander by and say, “Fire up that keyboard/drill press/classroom/spreadsheet and get to work.”

Busy is always good.

There are no exceptions.

And yet:

  1. We lament “busy” but secretly get a buzz from opening the adrenalin spigot.
  2. Busy looks productive. But looks can deceive. We easily deceive ourselves with busyness.
  3. When taken out of action (for instance, when downsized/right-sized/laid-off/fired), we suddenly have time to ask:
    • “Where am I?” and
    • “What (the heck) am I doing?” and maybe
    • “What was I thinking?”
  4. No one likes the off-balance, adrenalin-free stance of waiting, watching, knocking and waiting. Are we genetically predisposed to seek action? After all, aren’t verbs the action-heroes in our favorite writing?

It’s hard work to look at the bigger picture and make difficult choices about direction, use of resources, usefulness. And yet those are the very questions that help us move forward. As the wheel of seasons grind toward winter in Minnesota, we might take a page from the farmer’s playbook and let snowy fields lie.

Even on purpose: the fallow field may allow us productive time to consider what it means to be productive.

Versus just busy.


Dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

October 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

Beware the Information Hoarders in Your Office

with one comment

Collaboration opens as the sharing economy pushes back into your organization

Old-School Corporate Climbers held information and doled it out on a need-to-know basis. Knowing secrets was their key to moving up and sometimes they purposely withheld information so you might fail/they might succeed.

Maybe you know someone like this.


But as we watch the sharing economy slip free of social media venues and push back into organizations (simultaneously raising the expectation of being heard), I expect we’ll see another kind of corporate operative: the sharer. Maybe I’ll call that person the Sharing-Economy Newbie. In this new world of sharing information, the Sharing-Economy Newbie shares information freely and in a way that allows others to collaborate. The power the surrounds them will not be command-and-control power, it will be the power that invites participation.

Then again, human nature being what it is, there will always be information hoarders. Old-School Corporate Climbers will always find their way. But if we intentionally build cultures that reward information sharing and collaboration, the organization, its mission, and humanity are the big winners.

Maybe there are some who prefer a command-and-control culture of being told what to do at every turn, but there will be fewer and fewer every year.


Dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,270 other followers

%d bloggers like this: