Can We Talk? How to Have the Conversations That Lead to Change

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When we talk to one another, we naturally avoid unpleasant topics. We talk about the weather. We talk about sports. Keeping the conversation in the comfort zone serves as a social lubricant, making our interactions smooth. In business, we like to think we are hard-nosed, honest and insightful when we talk about strategy and organizational issues. In reality, we also tend to stay in our comfort zones when talking to colleagues—we don't talk about the weather, but we also don't talk much about the unknown, the untried, the unimaginable.

This severely limits our range of actions and works against meaningful change. To innovate and move ahead of competitors, companies need to be able to talk about topics that are beyond everyone's comfort zone. Steve Jobs was famous for pushing people to “think different,” which helped the company stay ahead in innovation. But, according to a new book, when he first learned that his engineers wanted to build a phone, that conversation made him uncomfortable, and he had to be talked into it. Even Jobs had to be reminded that if you can’t talk about the new, the unknown, the scary ideas, you will never think outside the box.

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To unlock fresher thinking, we talk to clients about center and edge conversations. The center is the area where everybody knows what is going on. In the center, the conversation is safe and predictable—your current markets, your best customers, what the competition is up to. On the edge, the conversation goes into uncharted territory where old rules may no longer apply; the edge is risky. If the conversation stays in the center, your organization will achieve incremental change at best. Change makers and innovators, such as Steve Jobs, Frank Gehry and Richard Branson, spend their professional lives pushing the conversation to the edge.

We use the center/edge metaphor to give people the vocabulary to talk to one another about new and challenging ideas in a nonthreatening way. This can make a huge difference in transformations and change programs. Once groups and teams know what a center idea is and what an edge idea is and are comfortable talking about the difference, they can steer the conversation (and each other) toward edge topics. And then they can really delve into the challenges (and new opportunities) that their organizations face.

For example, showing people in a large industrial organization how to talk about the scary things on the edge helped unlock change that management thought would be impossible. The company was undergoing a radical transformation that would fundamentally transform how it competes, which required all sorts of adjustments to how employees worked and how jobs were structured. Management could not even communicate directly with the thousands of employees who were in the union; they could only work through union leaders. When it was suggested that union leaders should be invited to a workshop to talk about how to build support for the change program, managers advised against it and warned that it would never work. All their previous efforts to get the union to assist in the transformation had failed. The very idea had become a topic that managers didn’t even want to talk about.

Nevertheless, the union leaders were invited to a workshop and, along with management leaders, learned the ground rules for identifying center and edge ideas. They were taught to ask questions—including “Is that center thinking or edge thinking?” or “How close are we to the edge now, and how can we get closer?”—to politely nudge fellow participants toward important but uncomfortable topics, such as how to get workers to embrace new work routines.

An amazing thing happened: Within a half hour, you could not tell the union leaders from the management leaders. They were all participating and throwing out new ideas. In fact, the union leaders became quite adept at calling out management employees when they drifted back to safe-zone topics. At the end of the workshop, the union leaders pushed the group to agree to form a joint labor–management task force to develop ways to communicate the change to frontline workers. Management leaders were astounded and delighted.

Since the workshop, the collaboration has continued. Some of the groups that were formed that day have developed plans and are working together to execute them. Management and union leaders have jointly agreed to define and cascade the case for change throughout the organization. This would have been impossible without the workshop and the ability for management and union leaders to talk about edge topics.

Change is risky, and change makes people uncomfortable. But the discomfort itself is important. If you have a discussion about change that doesn’t push beyond somebody’s comfort zone, you probably aren’t talking about meaningful change. More than ever, companies need to be able to adapt quickly, embrace new methods and strategies, and move beyond today’s comfortable routines. Organizations that know how to have edge conversations have a huge advantage in this environment. Start talking.

Kevin Murphy is a partner with Bain & Company in the Washington, DC, office. He is a leader with Bain's North American Results Delivery and Digital practices.