A Conversation is the Smallest Unit of Change

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A Conversation is the Smallest Unit of Change

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

“After I used the term sympoiesis in a grasp for something other than the lures of autopoiesis, Katie King told me about M. Beth Dempster’s Master of Environmental Studies thesis written in 1998, in which she suggested the term sympoieisis for “collectively-produced systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change.””
-Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble

It’s not a stretch to say that people are complex. We are. We are staggeringly complex. Whitman’s idea of the “I” as a container of multitudes is apt, and each of those multitudes is shaped by interactions with others. We become ourselves as parts of sympoietic systems.

The only way we can make ourselves is through making each other. And we always have a choice in how we make others. Do we do it using generative, both/and, mutually thriving stories, thoughts, and language, or do we do it using narcissistic, better-than, zero-sum ideas? The choices we make for how we make others drives who “we” are.

All this might sound a bit abstract, but it’s really important. Think about all of the networks that you belong to, and all of the interactions that make up the culture of these networks. These interactions often fall into patterns, and then might even firm up into protocols.

We have these protocols in all of the groups of which we are members. This can be small groups of just two people – a partner, friend, child, parent, or co-worker. Or even a nemesis! This can be larger groups of people – a family, team, club, or group of friends. If we’re lucky, some of these groups will be crews that help us create new things, and that help us thrive. This can be even larger groups – a clan, congregation, movement, or state.

In all of these different types of groups, we have our protocols for interacting. This is culture. We can view these protocols as constraints, as things that act to control us. And the protocols that we have at the large group level influence how we interact as pairs. If we meet in public, there are protocols for how far apart we stand, which directions we face, whether or not and how we touch each other, what we’re expected to say. And all of these protocols are different for each of our groups. Sometimes subtly different, and sometimes shockingly so.

Even as simple a question as how far apart do we stand when we meet for the first time has very different answers in Stockholm, Manhattan, and Tokyo.

You might say that each of us is the sum total of all of the protocols that we know and can enact in all of the different contexts that we might find ourselves in.

But – and this is very important! – we aren’t just made by protocols. We make them. We make them all the time – creatively, joyfully, sneakily, fearfully. There’s constraint, but there’s also enablement.

And if we don’t like the way one of our larger systems (cultures) is working, the only way to change it is by changing the protocols that we use.

Here’s a practical example. When we were building the ON Program to increase research impact, the core tool was stakeholder interviews. We asked each research team to have in depth conversations with, ideally, at least 100 stakeholders – people that could use their science, one way or another.

This ended up changing a lot of protocols for the researchers, including:
• Who to talk with – added “stakeholders” to the more normal “other researchers.”
• Who talks to stakeholders – changed from “Business Development people” to “everyone on the research team.”
• What do we talk about – changed from “pitching our ideas” to “learning about the needs and desires of the stakeholders.”
• Where do our great ideas come from – added “stakeholders” to the more normal “our team” and “the research literature.”

These changes in protocols ended up changing the emergent outcomes of the research process/culture. One big change is in impact. The number of research-based spinouts from the hundreds of teams that have gone through the program is over ten times higher than what we would normally see from the same number of teams doing business as usual.

This also ended up re-making who the researchers are – they changed too. They are more widely and deeply engaged with their broader network of stakeholders. They feel they have more agency in driving impact from their work. In other words, their culture has changed. Consequently, their impact on the world has also changed.

That’s a business example, but the same things happen as we interact within all of our networks. And so – we’re made by protocols, and we make protocols. We’re made by ourselves, we’re made by others, and we’re made by making each other. It’s why we have the potential for surprising change.

*Note* this post has been influenced by lots of conversations I’ve been having recently with Nilofer Merchant, Jason Fox (and The Coterie), Kim Lam, Joe Lightfoot, Kate Morrison, and Richard Bartlett and Nati Lombardo’s work on Microsolidarity, among many others!

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