Happy business colleagues lying together on white backgroundIn nearly every sector you’ll find two organizations that started at about the same time, with about the same resources. One of them is prospering while the other is languishing. Or, one remains in business while the other has gone out of business. While there may be lots of specific reasons why this is the case, at the end of the day they all come down to this—the successful organization out-thought its competitor.

Thinking is the ultimate core competency. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that thinking together is the ultimate core competency, for an organization’s performance is the result of the thoughts and actions of all of its employees. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of innovation. Contrary to the “lone genius” myth, research reveals that significant innovations are nearly always the result of groups of people thinking in concert. That’s because groups are able to think of ideas that none of their members previously possessed or could have come to on their own. In other words, a group of people is able to generate ideas that none of its members could think of alone.

So, how do groups go about thinking together? They engage in conversation. Like most activities, conversation is something that can be done well or badly. In this post we’ll look at one of the things you and your colleagues can do to improve your ability to think together, which is to understand the difference between two kinds of conversation—advocacy and inquiry.

Advocacy is the practice of debate. With this approach, a person adopts a position and advocates it to the exclusion of all others. Advocacy is the predominant form of conversation in American culture. Nearly everywhere you look—on the editorial page of the newspaper, in the boardroom, on TV talk shows, and at the dining room table—you find people zealously clinging to their version of the world. It reminds me of the pro-gun bumper sticker that reads, “The only way you’ll take my gun [belief] away from me is to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

Inquiry is the practice of listening and understanding. Rather than maintaining a death grip on their position, each group member works to understand the positions of the other members. To understand does not necessarily mean to agree. It simply means suspending judgment and listening without resistance to another’s point of view. Few of us really make the effort to listen deeply. As someone once put it, “People don’t listen, they reload.”

In his book Learning to Read the Signs: Reclaiming Pragmatism in Business, advertising executive Byron Nahser tells of a time when he was forced to engage in inquiry. Nahser attended a conference at the University of Chicago led by the psychiatrist and best-selling author M. Scott Peck. The attendees were divided into small groups and each group was given a problem to solve. They were required to use the following ground rules: 1) When a person has the floor, you cannot interrupt or correct him or her, 2) If you want to challenge a person, you can only say, “I hear you saying . . . .”, and 3) You can respond only when the other person is satisfied that you heard and understood what he or she had to say.

Nahser’s first impulse was to bolt for the door, but, he says, “I stayed put, wondering if Milton Friedman would suddenly appear to stop all this nonsense.” Over the course of three days, Nahser reports, the group went through four stages. First was the strained conviviality and role-playing of a pseudo-community, which, he comments, “. . . [was] familiar to those of us in business, since American corporations operate at the pseudo-community level . . . .” The next stage was chaos, as conflicting positions emerged and subgroups formed to defend them. The third stage was emptying. The participants began to empty themselves of old beliefs and started listening to one another. Finally, there was the stage of real community. The group became a community of inquiry in which, Nahser explains, “Each person add[ed] ideas, insights, or ‘a piece of the truth,’ building toward a clearer picture of reality from which flow[ed] the decision and action.” 

The best conversations are a mix of advocacy and inquiry. I’ll have more to say about the protocol for balancing them in future posts. Right now, I want to paint a bigger picture–one that puts conversation in a broader context and outlines a vision of what an organization could be if only its leaders had the insight and will to do it.

Let’s first look at the context. Balancing advocacy and inquiry is only one aspect of improving conversation. There are other skills to learn on the road to mastering the art of talking and thinking together. And conversation is only one aspect of the larger topic called “collaboration,” where there are even more things to learn and master, such as meeting and multi-meeting design, collaboration technology, and methods for overcoming the barriers to inter-personal and inter-organizational collaboration.

Next, imagine what could be. Imagine an organization that took collaboration seriously, an organization in which everyone was so adept at conversing and collaborating that they were able to raise the organization’s collective IQ to genius levels. Think of the incredible potential. Imagine the ideas and innovations that an organization like that could produce.

Now imagine that the organization is your competitor.