The Power of the Unconversation

Courtesy of DevConf 2017 (

On the 9th of March 2017 twelve enthusiastic Foundery members attended DevConf 2017, South Africa’s biggest community driven software development conference: an event that promised learning, inspiration and networking.

With a multi-tracked event such as this one there is usually something for everyone, and yet if you speak to serial conference attendees (guilty as charged), the talks aren’t the greatest reason to attend.

People like me go to conferences in part for the scheduled content, but mostly for the unscheduled conversations in the passage en route to a talk or around a cocktail table during a break. The “unconversations”, I’m calling them. It’s the conference equivalent of another well-known creative outlet: “water cooler conversations”.

I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a conference butterfly – actively seeking out these “unconversations” so that I can join them. I especially take note as crowds disappear into conference rooms. I’m drawn to the groups of people who stay behind wherever they might have gathered. That’s where I’m almost guaranteed to participate in really interesting discussions and learn something new. When I attend conferences, it’s this organic and informal style of collaborative enquiry I look forward to the most.

Courtesy of DevConf 2017 (

Ironically it was one of the DevConf talks that helped me understand why these “unconversations” tend to work so well as creative spaces. In his talk on Mob Programming, Mark Pearl mentioned a study conducted by the American Psychological Association which established that groups of 3-5 people perform better on complex problem solving than the smartest person in the group could perform on their own. See “references” for more information.

Loosely translated, a group of people has a better shot of solving a complex problem together than if they tried to solve it independently.

As a Mob Programming enthusiast myself, this makes complete sense to me. What’s interesting is that this research is not new, yet many organisations still discourage “expensive” group-work and continue to reward individual performance, and I can see why. For people with similar upbringings and educational backgrounds to mine, this is the comfort zone. We default to working alone and feel a sense of accomplishment when we achieve success individually. As children we were told to solve problems and find answers on our own. Receiving help was a sign of weakness, and copying was forbidden.

In contrast, the disruptive organisations of the last few decades encourage the complete opposite. These organisations recognise the value of problem-solving with groups of people who have varying, and even conflicting, perspectives. There’s no time for old-school mindsets that favour individual efforts over collaboration. We need to cheat where it’s appropriate by knowing who can help us and what existing ideas we can leverage.

I don’t mean to trivialise it. There’s a bit more involved than just creating opportunities for people to solve problems in groups. According to the book “Collective Genius”, innovative companies such as Google have developed three important organisational capabilities: creative abrasion (idea generation by encouraging conflict and high quality feedback), creative agility (hypothesizing, experimenting, learning and adapting) and creative resolution (deciding on a solution after taking new knowledge into account) all supported by a unique style of leadership. The case studies are incredibly motivating.

Since joining the Foundery I’m discovering that we are practicing these things every day, and the amazing ideas and products born from our “collective genius” serve as confirmation that we’re on the right track. Is it always easy? No, absolutely not. It’s requires a great deal of mindfulness.

When I’m reflective I notice that the greatest ideas and most creative solutions I’ve brought to life were conceived with input from others. Many of the dots I connected for the first time happened during completely unlikely meetings of minds, and some through passionate differences of opinion. In an environment that calls for constant collaboration, it’s wonderfully refreshing to find that the “unconversations” I enjoy so much are happening all around me, every day.

And so long as I’m participating, I am always reminded that together we are more capable of solving really complex problems than the smartest one among us, and I’m becoming more and more OK with that.



By Candice Mesk



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