How do I have fascinating conversations? | The anti-patterns

How good are you at conversations? I think I’m in the “OK, but not great” group of people. I know people who are brilliant at turning even the most mundane encounter into a fascinating interaction, I also know people who struggle with conversing and some who are conversation murderers.

I can have fascinating conversations, but I’m not great at it. I can also find myself in the conversation wilderness wondering where the best route out is.

Conversations are a skill which I believe can be developed and improved. I’m expecting this post to be the first of a series, I’ve not planned the series out (which is unusual) but I know that I have more to say than this single post, at least. Hopefully, we’ll learn some new skills along the journey.

The Fascinating conversation Anti-Patterns

Before we understand how we have fascinating conversations, let’s start with the opposite, the characteristics of terrible conversations. As I’ve been thinking about conversations in recent weeks and months I’ve come across a number of anti-patterns that interrupt an interaction and leave it flapping around with nowhere to go, I’m sure that there are plenty more and each of these is just a caricature, but sometimes those caricatures teach us something.

The Soakers

You are placed next to someone at a dinner who you don’t really know and you think that it might be fun to get to know them. You turn and say “Hi” or something equivalent.

They say “Hi” back and all appears to be good. They haven’t snarled at you which is always a bonus and they aren’t so shy that they can’t enter a conversation.

Having made the initial advance it’s time to get started and you reach for one of your semi-interesting opening questions: “What do you do?” or even “How long have you know {name of host}?” perhaps “Do you have family?” may be appropriate.

Whichever question you choose will be answered, but the answer will give little away. The respondee may talk for several minutes, but somehow what they say gives you no footing for a follow-on question about their answer.

You wait a second to see if they want to ask you a question, but that doesn’t appear to occur to them.

Your left with few options and decide to pick another question from the list while still hoping to gain an insight that opens up an avenue of insightful conversation.

Again it is answered, but still little is revealed.

You wait a few more seconds to see if they will ask you a question, again nothing. Your inner voice wonders why they don’t want to ask you a question.

The list of semi-interesting opening questions is starting to look a bit depleted, but you persevere.

Another answer, still no opening.

Still no question in response. Your inner-voice wants to shout at them “ASK ME A QUESTION!” but you are far too polite for that.

You return to your list of questions and decide that the next one on the list is just too boring to ask.

The conversations dies from lack of interest and you look around the rest of the table for someone, anyone, to talk to.

The Smart Bomber

You are stood with a group of people you know reasonably well and the conversation is OK, but not quite fascinating. You’re enjoying the interaction and everyone is contributing.

Then someone joins the conversation.

Within seconds they have contributed to the conversation.

The conversation is now dead.


The flow of the conversation was stopped by the contribution of the newest member of the group.

Everyone looks at each other desperately seeking a way of restarting the movement of words but time is running out fast. The conversational heartbeat is flat-lining. Quick, someone, do something, but no rescue is coming and everyone stands there in a silence that gets ever more uncomfortable.

Eventually the silence becomes too painful and the group disperses or breaks own into factions that each start their own, new, flow.

What did the newcomer say? There’s no simple way to define what was wrong with their contribution other than to characterise it as smart. Like many English words smart has a positive and a negative meaning – I’m using the negative meaning in this context. I’m talking here about statements for which there is no reply other than to say “Pardon? (You Muppet)” Politeness precludes anyone from saying this, politeness also stops us ignoring the comment and returning to the state we were in a few seconds earlier.

Notice that I describe these contributions as statements, because they are very rarely questions.

The smarts bomb has exploded and we are all left picking up the pieces.

The Agenda Enforcer

You join a teleconference early and discover that a number of your colleagues are also on the call early and so you say “Hi” and ask a question “How is everyone today?”

One of your colleagues chooses to respond with an insight into some planned special events in their office where things are going particularly well, they’ve been working on this for weeks and are quite excited about the outcome. Another colleague comments in a similar way and asks others in the group about their experiences. Other excited responses follow.

This is when the Agenda Enforcer enters the conversations and says “Today we are going to go around the call and I want each of you to report on how you are getting on with the planned special events? Who wants to start?”

This agenda item is exactly the conversation that you have just been having but no no-one wants to start. No-one wants to give a report, you were happy to have a conversation, but the conversation has left the call.

In your mind you are wondering why the Agenda Enforcer didn’t just let the conversation carry on flowing while also bubbling with anger for the interaction that was needlessly lost. Why did they feel the need to be in control?

The Distracted Distractor

You are sat in a one-to-one conversation in a coffee shop and have found great seats next to the window. Outside is a busy high-street and it feels like most of the rest of the world is going past the plate-glass facade.

The conversation is going well, you’ve caught up on some things and moved a little beyond the semi-interesting opening questions that such occasions demand. You are in the process of asking the person opposite you another question when they look out of the window and say “Have you seen that?”

You look out of the window to see a car driving illegally down the middle of the pedestrianised area. Your companion comments about the daftness of the person who has got themselves in such a mess.

After a few more choice words they ask “Where were we?”

You restate your question and they reply, but part way through their reply they again point out of the window “Look at that, they’re coming back the other way now!”

Again they ask “Where were we?” and you remind them.

A little further through their answer their phone rings, they take it out of their pocket and answer it. After a short conversation they end the phone call but continue to interact with the apps on their phone. You sit waiting, patiently, waiting, in silence, waiting.

Eventually they look up and say “Where were we again?” At this you stare intently at their phone. You flick a switch in your pocket and laser beams blast from your eyes instantly turning the phone into ash. Or, you reach over, take the phone from their hands and drop it into their drink. Or, something like that, or perhaps that’s just me.

A conversation is a flow of ideas and information, without the flow there is no conversation. In general the flow only goes in one direction, forwards. Stop-start is uncomfortable and going backwards is painful.

The Non-Stop Talker

Do I need to describe this person? You know who they are straight away. I suspect that you can picture them without prompting, if you can’t then perhaps this person is you.

They are the person who only needs one question to set them out on a track that gets ever more detailed in its telling, ever more irrelevant in its recounting.

They are the person who is convinced that you care whether it was last Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday, or no it was Monday.

They know that you know how important time is and whether it happened at 11:05, or 10:45, or no it must have been about 11:15 because it was after the bus had left for town, you know the one, the one that is supposed to leave as 10:58, but always leaves at 11:08.

They know that it’s important that the item cost £11.98, or was it £11.95.

In short, they are verbally hyperactive and you only EVER ask them one question. You simply don’t have enough time to ask them more than one.

The Guessing Finishers

You are sat across the table from a work colleague. You are in a conversation and colleague asks you a question.

You steadily formulate an answer to the question because it’s a wonderful open question that requires an open answer.

Part way through your response you breath and pause a little. In that moment your colleague decides that you need help with your answer and start guessing.

Their first guess is utterly wrong and has you wondering whether they’ve been in the same conversation. You answer with a simple “No”. Their second guess is even more random and your “No” has become a bolder “No”. Why would they think that you would mean that? The third answer doesn’t even make sense and your “No” has become “NO”.

You are now stuck into the loop that uses all of your cognitive energy to answer their guesses and there is little remaining energy to find and give the answer that you were looking for in the first place.

The two of you eventually, somehow, find the missing word without you having to stand up and shout out “NO!!!” There is sweat beading on your neck from the stress.

Your corespondent then asks you another question and your anxiety levels hit max. You pause, trying to construct a whole answer so that you avoid the guessing game, but your stress levels make this almost impossible to achieve.

A wonderful, fascinating, flowing conversation has been replaced by an internal war with stress. The flow has left and the conversation will soon die for lack of freedom.

Learning from the Anti-Patterns

Recognise any of these? Perhaps you are some of these? I suspect that each of us has done each of these things at some point in our life, the wise thing to do would be to learn from these mistakes.

I’m planning to look into the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations as a way of improving my own interactions.

Header Image: This picture was taken on a recent climb up Crinkle Crags in the March snow. The snow was fresh from overnight showers completely covering any visibility of paths – interesting

The Future Looks Very Bright at #ChorleyHack

We have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) skills problem in the UK. Estimates vary on the impact, but it’s significant:

UK STEM businesses have warned of a growing skills shortage as they struggle to recruit qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.
According to new findings from STEM Learning, the largest provider of STEM education and careers support in the UK, the shortage is costing businesses £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs.
The STEM Skills Indicator1 reveals that nine in 10 (89%) STEM businesses have found it difficult to hire staff with the required skills in the last 12 months, leading to a current shortfall of over 173,000 workers – an average of 10 unfilled roles per business.

Skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn

This shortfall is particularly acute for women entering STEM careers where less than 20% of the workforce are women.

The number of graduates is a result of many years of education and the earlier that we can get young people interested in STEM the better that the results will be. We can’t expect schools to be the sole instigators of that change either, as an industry we need to step up and help to provide life change STEM opportunities to children and young people. That’s one of the reasons why I was delighted to be a mentor as #ChorleyHack which was organised by the town council in the area where my office is.

What a fabulous day with 25 teams of four children from 14 local schools coming together in the local town hall to spend a day coding together. The task was “create a game or animation that educates other young people about cyber bullying, online safety and social media safety.”

The levels of preparation and enthusiasm were an inspiration, the room was buzzing. The children and young people were so focused on the task that many of them returned early from their lunch to get their code as far along as possible, even though the task was not to get their code finished. The sophistication of their work was amazing with a significant depth of understanding of the challenge subject area. As mentors the conversations where inspiring, I particularly enjoyed an extended chat with one of the children who was very excited to explain to me how Scratch worked and about another project he was writing in Python.

Observe anything about the make up of the winning teams from the tweets below:

That’s right, a significant proportion of girls, something that was evident across the day, no 20% here. #ChorleyHack was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that girls can indeed code and another nail in the coffin of the lie that IT is just for boys.

Thanks go to each of the teams leaders, mostly teachers, who had clearly invested a huge amount of time in getting the children and young people prepared for the event.

A particular thanks goes to Simon Charnock, Digital Transformation Officer, Chorley Council who did a fabulous job of facilitating the whole event.

If we can see this level of enthusiasm and passion continuing through the education system then we should be looking forward to a very bright future.

Office Speak: “Paradigm Shift”

Sometimes you think you know what something means, and then you look into it and you are no longer sure. You hear someone say something in a context and you are convinced of the meaning, but perhaps the meaning has been defined by the context.

Today’s Office Speak is a favourite term of a mythical group of people known as the Agents of Change (we’ll get to that one another day). These Agents roam the earth calling people to see beyond their day-to-day way of thinking and to make a Paradigm Shift.

a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model.
“society’s paradigm of the ‘ideal woman’”

We were gifted the term Paradigm Shift by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) who was talking about changes in the basic fundamentals of scientific discipline driving a scientific revolution:

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.


Our own world views have been impacted by these scientific revolutions. There was a time when people didn’t know that germs existed, imagine the change that they went through once it was understood. It’s not that long ago that DNA was discovered and we are all in the middle of the science revolution that this is enabling. That’s the level of a Paradigm Shift as described by Kuhn – a complete change of worldview.

You may have seen this diagram before, it was used by Kuhn to illustrate that a different perspective can change the meaning:


I’m going to assume that you can all see the two different creatures being shown here?

Let’s return to those Change Agents that patrol the typical office environment requesting a Paradigm Shift here and another one over there. What are they really calling for? Are they calling for a scientific revolution in our day-to-day office existence? Or, as I suspect, are they asking us to squint a bit and look at something in a slightly different way. This tendency to overstate is quite common in Office Speak.

Rather than saying:

“We need a paradigm shift here.”

Perhaps it would be better to say:

“Is there a different way of thinking about this?”

Or even:

“Perhaps we need to look at this a different way.”

It may be that I’m just being a bit too British about this, but it sometimes feel like we call all change a Paradigm Shift when all we’ve really done is moved from one desk to another, or changed from one colour scheme to another. These don’t quite compare to Einsteinian General Relativity do they? Perhaps the Agents of change or rewarded for the number of times that they use it? Or Perhaps it’s just become a lazy way of saying “we need to change what we are doing”?

Header Image: This is the view from Eagle Crag down Borrowdale an a cold but beautiful day in 2019.

Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.

“Requirements simply don’t exist…

“Requirements simply don’t exist. A requirement, by definition, is something required: the basis for a contract, a way of managing an external service provider, part of a deal where a buyer promises money and a contractor promises to deliver something well-defined. But within an enterprise, what does it mean for something to be “required”? A requirement purports to express a necessity, but where could this necessity come from? In a publicly held company, maximizing shareholder value might be a necessity, but how could a particular feature of an application be necessary when there might be many other ways of maximizing shareholder value?”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Header Image: A spring sunrise taken on one of my pre-work walks. This was one of those cold and crisp days when sunrise often seems so vibrant.

How long do we need to keep transposing for?

I’m currently sat in one of those cafes that are now ubiquitous across the UK – the burgundy one, not the green one.

Next to me the conversation is of exam results and their meaning.

In England we have had a transition, in recent years, from a system in which the classification was given in letters to one that is given in numbers.

The letter system went from A* to G with A* being the best and F the poorest, a C and above being regarded as a pass.

The new numbers system goes from 9 to 1 with 1 being a low score and 9 being the best score. A 4 is now a Standard Pass and 5 is a Strong Pass.

This is where the conversation comes in, because the teenager on the table says: “Well I don’t need to worry about passing because I already have a 4 even before I’ve sat my exams.”

The adults accompanying him both look at each other puzzled: “What’s a 4?”

I’m pretty sure that one of these adults is the teenagers parent, and yet they are still confused by a system that has been being rolled out for a couple of years.

And so commenced the transpose from one system to another.

“So is a 4 like a C?”

“Sort of, it’s a pass.”

“What grade are you aiming for?”

“I’m hoping for an 8 or 9?”

“But you’ve already got a 4?”

“An 8 is better than a 4”

“So is an 8 like an A and a 9 like an A*”

“Sort of”

This is the point at which the teenager gives in and chooses to keep it simple for the parent, who’s clearly still confused. The reality is that there is no direct correlation – see the chart in this link for more information.

The adults’ frame of reference is one scale, the teenager’s is a different scale. The only way the adults can understand is by transposing, the teenager can’t transpose because they only know the new system.

We do all sorts of transposing in life, to get from one frame of reference to another. Somewhere along the line we sometime switch from one to another and sometimes we don’t. And so I wonder, how long does it take for us to switch? What are the reasons for us sticking with an old, out of date frame of reference? What are the things that help us switch to a new one?

Because it’s Friday: “Becoming” by Jan van IJken

This is a truly amazing time-lapse film, with amazing detail.

Watch as, over 6 minutes, a single cell zygote transforms into a complete hatched larva of an alpine newt. I remember being fascinated by cell division as a child in biology classes, but always struggled to comprehend how that became a living organism, that’s precisely what this film shows.

There are a few more details about the film here, but it’s definitely one to sit back and watch: