Talking with each other, and noticing, and listening

Theodore Taptiklis thinks deeply about organizations. I encountered Taptiklis when we were reaching out to people around the world recruiting the beta testers for Collaborating Minds. Although Taptiklis chose not to join our efforts, I had a long and enjoyable conversation with him. He recommended a book* that compared the experience of his home country New Zealand with mine, the United States, both settler nations but with very different trajectories. I read it and learned.
Unmanaging coverI just finished reading Taptiklis’ own book, Unmanaging. (I’ve read it once, it will take more than once to fully absorb it). In it, he recounts his intellectual journey from McKinsey consultant (a few years prior to yours truly’s entrance into that firm) to corporate executive to inquirer who has sought thinkers with insights about how people actually live and work together. He is greatly interested in what actually goes on when people talk with each other and the opportunities for “being struck” by a new insight somehow collectively generated by a conversation.

Taptilklis seems to me to be talking about something that was central to the conception of Collaborating Minds. We believed that if we brought people together with only the vaguest sense of a common purpose, then they would show up as “whole people” rather than as narrow experts defining themselves for themselves and each other based on the task. The conversation would go where going made sense, with only the lightest guidance to provide structure. We may have missed the right balance – which we can try in the future to redress — but I still believe the idea is fundamentally sound.

Taptiklis focuses on the “living present,” where people are engaged with each other. He argues that if we can drop our preconceived notions about the categories we must use and the roles we play, and instead acknowledge that we bring our whole selves to that encounter with each other, we will find that our interactions build in complex non-linear ways that can open new doors for us. To go down this path, we must learn to “notice,” which is to pay attention to the small details of what others are doing and how they are saying what they are saying. We can then be “responsively aware”, adjusting our reaction in light of our very intense focus on the thoughts and feelings and intentions of others.

Taptiklis contrasts what happens in this mode with systems thinking (as described by Peter Senge). Taptiklis now views systems thinking as deeply flawed, because it presumes that the patterns that happened before will be the ones that happen again, that people are in that sense “slaves” to the what the system requires, but at the same time people can get “outside the system” to redesign it. He sees a paradox between people being trapped and people being able to shape the system in some direction. Rather, Taptiklis would have us think about “what is going on right now” and on the power of conversation and insight to shift what is happening.

The other connection that Taptiklis reminded me of is to Christopher Alexander, an architect more or less kicked out of the architecture profession but someone of whom it was said “we’ll remember his name 500 years from now.” Alexander is interested in spaces that people like being in, that add to their sense of being alive. He believes that good architecture happens during the art of building, and that separating conception from execution is fatal . He is big on asking people what they want from a space, listening deeply to the answers, and then experimenting and adjusting with mockups and models until everything is just right. Not surprisingly, people feel incredibly at home in the spaces that have been constructed. Surprisingly, the cost is reasonable.

Taptiklis and Alexander are talking about a different mode of relating to each other than we typically see in business and organizational life. It is worth a try to figure out the conditions under which the emergence of this sort of relating becomes most likely.

* The book is Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States, by David Hackett Fischer

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