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April 15, 2020

Conversations: Humanity’s Secret Weapon

By Douglas Squirrel ,Jeffrey Fredrick
Adapted from the upcoming Agile Conversations book by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick.

Our Special Power

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores what has allowed humans to become the dominant species on the planet. His answer is that we have a special kind of communication, unique among animals.

Many animals can communicate the idea “Run away from the lion!” through barks, chirps, or movement. Building on top of that, the development of human and animal communication seems to have been driven by the need to share information about others of the same species—the need to gossip. Gossiping allowed us, as social animals, to understand each other and have established reputations; and this, in turn, allowed us to collaborate in larger groups and to develop more sophisticated collaboration.

In fact, understanding other humans, developing a “theory of mind,” is so important that philosopher Daniel Dennett, in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, makes the case that our own consciousness arose as a byproduct of understanding the minds of others. Though our ability to gossip surpasses that of other species, Harari says that what is really unique about human language is our ability to discuss nonexistent things. With this special power, we are able to create and believe shared fictions.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]…a shared belief in continuous improvement can allow us to create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture.[/perfectpullquote]

These fictions allow us to collaborate at tremendous scales and across groups of people who have never met. In this way, a community’s belief in a crocodile-headed god can create flood control works on the Nile, as described by Harari in another of his books, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. And a shared belief in continuous improvement can allow us to create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture rather than a power-oriented or rule-oriented culture, as described in Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim.

Why Our Power Is Flawed

Conversation makes collaboration possible but not inevitable. We don’t live in a world of universal acceptance, peace, and understanding. Earnest and well-intentioned people can disagree, and even come to view another person as an enemy, as “the other.” Along with our amazing powers of conversation, we also come equipped with pre-existing, built-in flaws—our so-called cognitive biases. These are biases that seem to be built into the functioning of our brains. And these cognitive biases inhibit the sort of collaboration our language makes possible.

Our cognitive biases pose a threat to any adoption of Agile, Lean, or DevOps methods because they can seriously damage collaboration, relationships, and team productivity. Transparency and curiosity are woven into the fabric of people-centric practices, but these are undermined by a host of cognitive biases.

An example is the false-consensus effect, where we believe our own views to be commonly held. This bias makes us less likely to either share our reasoning or to ask about the reasoning of others. What’s the point when we believe we already agree?

Naïve realism, the belief that we see reality as it is, without bias, is yet more corrosive to team dynamics in that we see any disagreement as a sign that the other party is uninformed, irrational, lazy, biased, or perhaps all of those! Under the influence of these and other cognitive biases, Agile, Lean, and DevOps practices can fail to deliver the promised benefits.

Learning from Conversations: Conversations as an Investigative Tool

Social scientist Chris Argyris studied organizational behavior, particularly in businesses, in a long and illustrious academic career at the business schools of Yale and Harvard. His areas of research included individual and organizational learning, and effective interventions that “promote learning at the level of norms and values.”

The humble conversation was the central tool Argyris used for investigating group effectiveness and for improving organizational performance. What Argyris found was that conversations, together with the unexpressed thoughts of the participants in those conversations, revealed everything he needed to know about the “theories of action” of the people and organizations he studied.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]…there is often a gap between what we say we would do in a situation (espoused theory) and what we actually do (theory-in-use).[/perfectpullquote]

Argyris and collaborator Donald Schön use the term “theory of action” to describe the logic—the “master program”—behind our actions. According to Argyris and Schön, we all have outcomes we want to achieve, and we use our theory of action to choose which steps to take. If my theory of action has a focus on learning, then I will take actions that generate information, like sharing everything I know that is relevant to the situation and asking others about what they know. If my theory of action is centered on getting my own way, then I will only share information that supports my position, and I won’t ask questions to which I don’t know the answer.

In general we don’t explicitly think about our theories of action; however, as with the two examples we just provided, we can understand them after the fact by examining our choice of action. One of the findings of Argyris and Schön is that there is often a gap between what we say we would do in a situation (espoused theory) and what we actually do (theory-in-use).

Defensive versus Productive Reasoning: What We Do and What We Say We Do

Before reading on, consider this question: If you had an important choice to make as a group, how would you recommend the group go about making the decision?

When we ask this question of our audiences, we get remarkably consistent answers. The typical response is something like, “I’d have everyone share all the information they have, explain their ideas and reasoning, and then see if we can agree on the best way to proceed.”

If your answer sounded like this, congratulations! You have espoused what Argyris and his colleagues call the Model II Theory of Action, or “productive reasoning.” You claim to value transparency, sharing your reasoning and information. You also claim to value curiosity, hearing everyone’s thoughts to learn their reasoning and what information they have that you don’t. Finally, you claim to value collaboration and jointly designing how to proceed. While you might have used different words, these are commonly understood and accepted practices to increase learning and make better decisions. In fact, you likely do behave this way in nonthreatening situations, where nothing important is at stake.

Unfortunately, if you are like the more than 10,000 people that Argyris studied across all ages and cultures (and those we’ve met!), your behavior won’t match your words when the topic is something important—like introducing a company strategy or leading a cultural transformation.

Argyris and colleagues found that although almost everyone claims to adopt the approaches and behaviors of productive reasoning, things change when the situation is potentially threatening or embarrassing. In those cases, what people actually do closely matches a very different theory-in-use that Argyris terms the Model I Theory of Action, or “defensive reasoning.”

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What we should be seeking from our diversity is productive conflict…[/perfectpullquote]

When using a defensive reasoning mind-set, people act to remove the threat or potential embarrassment. To do so, they tend to act unilaterally and without sharing their reasoning, they think in terms of winning and losing, they avoid expressing negative feelings, and they attempt to be seen as acting rationally.

This gap between our espoused theory and our theory-in-use gets at the heart of a paradox of team productivity. In theory, we value diverse teams because we understand that diversity can be a strength. A diversity of experiences, a diversity of knowledge, and even a diversity of modes of thought—in theory, these all make a team stronger, because every new element gives the team more information and more ideas, and therefore, more options to make better choices.

What we should be seeking from our diversity is productive conflict, through which we harness our differences to create new ideas and better options. In practice, we tend to see differences of opinion as threatening and potentially embarrassing, so we react defensively. Our defensive reasoning leads us to suppress the diversity we claimed to value and to avoid the productive exchange of ideas that we claimed to seek!

What does this defensive reasoning look like in practice? We will illustrate many flavors of defensive reasoning with examples throughout the Agile Conversations, but to paraphrase Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, each productive conversation is alike, and each defensive conversation is defensive in its own way. That said, there are common elements; and defensive reasoning in conversations will tend to feature hidden motives, undiscussable issues, and reacting to, rather than relating to, what is said—all characteristics that inhibit learning and corrode relationships.

Transforming Conversations

So, why do people choose counterproductive, defensive behaviors rather than the behaviors we all agree would produce better results? The answer is that we don’t consciously choose. In everyday activities, this gap between the theories we espouse and the theories we use is invisible to us.

We effortlessly produce the defensive behavior through years of practice—so effortlessly, in fact, that we aren’t aware of what we are doing, no matter how counterproductive it is for us or how much it contradicts our espoused theory of productive reasoning. Even worse, we are so unaware of our defensive reasoning that we will deny we are acting defensively if someone else tries to bring it to our attention.

The good news is that Argyris found that reflecting on conversations allowed participants to become aware of and then change their behavior. Through regular effort and practice, you can learn the behaviors of transparency and curiosity that will promote joint design and learning; the sharing of knowledge across organizational boundaries; and the sharing of and resolution of difficult, previously taboo issues. The bad news is that this takes substantial effort, and worse, this effort involves difficult emotional work.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Through regular effort and practice, you can learn the behaviors of transparency and curiosity that will promote joint design and learning…[/perfectpullquote]

The difficulty comes because it requires recognizing that your behaviors are contributing to the problem. Are you willing to consider that you might be contributing to unproductive meetings and defensive relationships? This is not a price everyone is willing to pay. Finally, even if you are willing to be humble and put in the effort, developing these new skills takes time. Argyris and colleagues describe overcoming our routine behaviors as taking about as much practice “as to play a not-so-decent game of tennis.” If this seems daunting, it may help to remember that you get the opportunity to practice every day as you work to solve real problems in your organization. We can give you the skills to practice if you have the drive to improve.

In Agile Conversations, we will show you how to practice productive reasoning by learning from the conversations you are having today. In addition to providing the core technique for learning from conversations (the Four Rs), we will provide examples for you to practice your analysis. Through Agile Conversations, you’ll be using this same Four Rs approach again and again to learn the specifics of the Trust, Fear, Why, Commitment, and Accountability Conversations. These five conversations address the common pitfalls that prevent us from using the productive reasoning we espouse.

These pitfalls are:

  1. We won’t be transparent and curious when we lack Trust.
  2. We will, consciously or not, act defensively when we have unspoken Fear.
  3. We will be unable to generate productive conflict when we lack a shared Why.
  4. We will avoid definite Commitments as long as the situation feels threatening or embarrassing.
  5. We will fail to learn from our experiences if we are unwilling to be Accountable.

It is only after we have overcome each of these challenges that we can really have the productive learning conversations required for a high-performing organization.


To learn more, read Agile Conversations: Change Your Conversations, Change Your Culture by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick (available from all major retailers May 12, 2020).

- About The Authors
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Douglas Squirrel

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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Jeffrey Fredrick

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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