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Bill Fox: You’ve written the book Create New Futures: How Leaders Produce Breakthroughs and Transform the World Through Conversation. What prompted you to write the book?
Aviv Shahar: It’s probably a combination of three impulses. The first is the natural desire and need to share and transfer to others the work that I do and what enables me to produce the outcomes I help leaders and teams create. That sense of wanting to give back and offer the experience of my development journey. That’s the first impulse.
The second is the observation that a group of smart people, when they come around the table⏤will often produce collective stupidity instead of collective wisdom. I attempted in the book to help teams transcend the collective stupidity syndrome to produce instead collective wisdom through the techniques, processes, insights, and questions I describe. I find it to be disconcerting, depressing, and upsetting when brilliant people can only produce sub-optimal outcomes instead of the multiplication of their natural brilliance. That’s the second impulse.
The third is the game-changing realization insight that conversation is the currency of work. It’s also the currency of leadership. We lead and transform our environments and organizations we through conversation. That conversation is the core mechanism to enable and facilitate change, transformation and the evolution of an organization on the path to enable and to create a whole new future.
Bill: In your book you say…
Conversations are game-changers. Through conversations, we transform ourselves, those around us, and our environments. Ultimately conversations allow us to shape possibilities, choose the best future imaginable, and make it a reality.
Is there a story you can share that brought you to that understanding?
Aviv: First, let me say it is curious and validating that of everything in the book, you have chosen this one quote because if you said “What is the one takeaway I hope people will take from Creating New Futures then it would be exactly that. Conversations are that kind of a game-changer and through conversation, we can transform ourselves and the world around us. Thank you for sharing that.
The story or perhaps where this begins for me, the first defining moment was during the 1973 war in Israel. I was a 14-year-old in the Kibbutz where I was growing up. At the time, my father was serving as the Secretary General of the Kibbutz. Every evening he convened gatherings to facilitate conversation to help people process the shock, grief, anxiety, and fear because for a few days the survival of Israel was hanging in the balance. What I observed was that through dialogue, you could convert despair into hope, fear into encouragement and confidence, and pain could be transformed into bonded conviction in a better future.
I recognized, even if not fully consciously but over time, that this was the function and the job of a leader: to unleash possibilities. To help people discover how they can bring forward their best contributions. I realized that you did those things as a leader through conversation and through their development and through the facilitation of transformative inquiry. Little did I know back then that this would be defining and setting in motion the direction and work I will be doing many years later. Today that’s what I am doing with leadership teams.
People tell me that when they’re with me in the room, they’re able to listen to each other differently. Through those dialogues, they ask each other new questions, and these conversations enable and help them see challenges through a new lens to unleash innovative ideas. As a result, they are able to come together in days to reach agreements and decisions that otherwise would take three or six month or more likely never be reached.
As part of that process, I help teams identify the difference between displaced to efficacious conversations, which is something I explain and go into in Create New Futures. The point is to create effective and efficacious conversations,conversations that mobilize movement and action. Displaced conversations do not address a need. As a result, they become often complained based discussion. I offer that complaint is a misdirected energy of an unaddressed need.
Efficacious conversation is one that leads to requests andproposals, and ultimately to agreements on how to address a need. They enable us to unleash the movement and action we need. That’s the story I will offer on the defining genesis of conversation as the game changer that facilitates transformation.
Bill: That’s such an interesting story. It’s interesting how what I called out from your book was so meaningful to you. I feel compelled to share a real quick story about that time in history for me. I was aboard a nuclear submarine off the coast of Hawaii when that war broke out. Without warning, we came ashore in the middle of the night to load more food and unimaginable weapons. By sunrise, we were back at sea and had no idea where we were going. We (or at least most crew members) didn’t know what was going on, but it felt like the end of the world. That was an amazing moment when we started to think about what might be happening.
Aviv: Yeah, that’s riveting and moving to know.
Bill: You may have answered this already, but I’ll see if you have anything to add. What do you think makes your book different from other books on the topic about the future?
Aviv: The book is not formulaic. To be transparent, I rarely like business books that offer the four steps, the six steps, the seven steps, etc. you must completely embrace. I set out to write a different book, and my inspiration was that you’ll be able to open any page and find one idea, one practice that is relevant and that you can immediately apply to get results to improve your situation in whatever challenge you face.
Secondly, the book can be read in three ways. You can read the book as most people read books, which is from beginning to end. As I suggested, you can open the book anywhere you like to read a page then put the book down and go about your life and work with the idea you find in that page.
Thirdly, you can read the epilogue and get the deeper sense of what motivated me in the first place. Then read the book from the beginning with that awareness in mind. For these reasons and for also the stories and autobiographical vignettes, I consider the book to differ from the generic business book.
Bill: You’ve offered us a lot of good takeaways here already Aviv. Is there anything else you’d like to add to that list?
Aviv: The first is what I discussed, which is that conversations can be a game changer and that conversation itself is the currency of leadership. When people say, “Okay, so I get that, but what’s the difference once I’ve’internalized that idea?” I’d offer that there are three differences.
First, you will show up to work remembering that conversation is a two-way exchange. It’s a complete loop, so you will therefore work as hard as you can to not allow the conversation loop to be broken. Too many times in the workplace people think of communication as one-way traffic. We talked about unleashing the creativity in people. To do that, you need to facilitate the completion of the conversation loop. That’s number one.
Number two. Once you recognize that conversation is your currency as a leader, it empowers you to ask what is the conversation I must be in? You can step into work meetings and apply this very lens, which is to ask, are we in the right conversation? Or should we re-frame or restate this conversation? And if we are in the right conversation, are we approaching this conversation in the smartest most impactful way because suddenly there is a new measure.
Metrics and measures are very important in the workplace because they help us hold ourselves accountable for what matters to us. If conversation is the currency of work, what’s the metric that goes with that? The metric that goes with that is – have we been able to produce the outcomes that we intended to produce in this meeting? Suddenly, impact and effectiveness are measured through how true are we in the results we created to our initial intent? And have we led the conversation from point A to point B or Point Z in the most effective way such that we can now accelerate the action we want to see.
And thirdly why it matters to embrace conversation is the currency of work is that it leads you to the next realization, which is if we stay in the same-old conversation, we will by definition and by design end up where we already are. Creating a new future begins with creating a new conversation. The practical implication for leaders and for all employees is to ask ourselves, “What is the conversation we are in?” Are we in a reactive conversation that digs deeper and deeper in the problem? Or are we in a conversation that restates and recasts the challenges we are looking at and bring forward new ideas and wisdom to facilitate not only the resolution and the solution to the issues we are grappling today, but one that forwards the desired future state. I’d offer these additional layers of meaning to that initial take away.
Bill: Those are excellent additional points and what that brings up for me is that idea of the power of conversations has been around for a while. I can’t remember when I first encountered it, but I remember it didn’t really touch me. How could conversations be so powerful in the face of all the modern management methods that dominate the business press and conversations?
However, when I underwent these internal changes, things quieted down inside. The voice inside my head wasn’t so loud. It’s not worried about making the next point. There’s more space for you to hear the other person. Then when you really hear the other person, you learn something new. You learn to be in a real conversation. My sense is that most people look at conversations the way I did in the past. Do you have any ideas on how we can help people get that idea or experience it in a bigger way?
Aviv: It’s an excellent question. I typically would not be opening a workshop with a team with this insight as the first thing. How I come into this is by introducing people to the idea of entering the learning zone. The first idea that I often offer is based on the debrief practice that was drilled into me back when I was trained as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. The ethos of that organization was learning, learning, learning. But learning not just as a superficial construct, learning in the deepest way is what I’ve taken and made central to my work.
So then as you alluded to, conversation becomes a learning mechanism. I first lead people into a set of experiences where they engage with each other to debrief what’s working well and what are the opportunity areas. We then go through a series of conversations about the future they desire and aspire for in the company and with their organization. By choreographing these conversations for people, I first give them the experience before I turn around and say, “Do you realize we’ve been in a new kind of conversations and through these conversations you can create a new sense of agreement and alignment?
Rather than me teaching it to them, I create the experience because I do believe very much that with adults and with the insights that we bring to the table about adult learning, the do-learn is the way to go. Adult learning is one that’s accessed through experience and especially through experience that enables those adults to bring to the table their knowledge and the knowhow they have acquired previously. The most powerful learning for adults is by facilitating and choreographing those experiences for them. It then becomes natural to share with them the idea that conversation is the currency of leadership and how they can as leaders lead accelerated transformation with their teams.
Bill: Very nice thank you. Is there anything you would like to close with or bring up?
Aviv: I will circle back to the purpose inquiry. My feeling and impulse have always been that life is precious that this is not a dress rehearsal. We are living the one life we were given. That life is just too short and precious to not be engaged with conversations that promote meaning and innovation that facilitate for you and the people around you new possibilities and a better future. I would encourage anybody listening to our dialogue to do that and to find the opportunity to lead and facilitate these conversations in their lives today. That’s what I offer. That’s beautiful a day.
Bill: That’s beautiful. Thank you. Excellent closing.
Editor’s Note: Learn more from Aviv in our Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces interview at How to Elevate Yourself, Your Conversations & Your Future.
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