could invent possible ways to solve a
problem or respond to an opportunity.
Some of the possibilities can become
action when they become requests or
offers in a CFA. A conversation for context frames the purpose and meaning
of a team or project so that conversations for possibilities and for action
can meaningfully follow.
If as team leader you leave either of
these out, you are likely to have coordination problems because your team
does not understand the purpose or cannot make sense of the proposed actions.
The conversation for action interprets
basic human coordination as a loop cycle of four commitments progressing
toward a mutually agreed goal. It creates a precise framework for observing
commitments and allowing the parties
to adjust should a conversation veer off
track. This conversation exists in the
commitment side of language rather
than the information side.
It is remarkable this simple linguistic structure for coordination is universal. It is observable in every language.
Professionals who master the skill
of completing their loops will reap
benefits including increased productivity because of reduction of wasted
steps, delivery of more value to customers, fewer coordination breakdowns with teams and clients, and
significantly improved reputation for
integrity and reliability.
Now that the collection of seminal
essays on these topics is available, you
have the opportunity to use them to
help you reflect on the breakdowns you
are experiencing with your customers,
clients, and teams. Maybe a lightning
bolt of insight will strike you, too.
1. Denning, P. educating a new engineer. Commun. ACM
35, 12 (Dec. 1992), 83–97.
2. flores, f. Conversations for Action and Other Collected
Essays. 2013; http://conversationsforaction.com.
3. weigand, h. two decades of the language action
perspective. Commun. ACM 49, 5 (may 2006), 44–46.
4. winograd, t. and flores, f. Understanding Computers
and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design.
Peter J. Denning ( email@example.com) is Distinguished
Professor of Computer Science and Director of the
Cebrowski Institute for information innovation at the
naval Postgraduate School in monterey, Ca, is editor
of aCm Ubiquity, and is a past president of aCm. the
author’s views expressed here are not necessarily those of
his employer or the u.S. federal government.
Copyright held by owner/author(s).
will review it to remind us of its precision. Then I will discuss an important
pitfall that arises paradoxically because the structure is so precise.
The CFA has a loop structure (see
Figure 1) that sequences four commitments between two parties Alice (A)
and Bob (B):
˲ Request or offer
˲ Promise or acceptance
˲ Declaration of completion, and
˲ Declaration of satisfaction
Alice is the “customer” and Bob is the
“performer” in their loop.
The purpose of the loop is to cause a
mutually agreed condition of satisfaction (COS) to become true. Alice proposes the condition with a request, and
she and Bob may change it in negotiations before Bob accepts the request.
Each segment of the loop represents
a state of the conversation, and transitions between them are marked by
observable “speech acts” of Alice and
Bob in their conversation. After Alice
declares satisfaction, the conversation
is complete—at that point, the COS is
fulfilled and the parties have no further
commitments to each other. To complete the loop, the parties must coordinate smoothly during its performance.
The CFA diagram and structure are
tools for observation. All the commitments, including the COS, are plainly
visible to the parties and to observers of
the conversation. Both parties become
accountable for their own commitments, and each can assist if necessary
to help the other person fulfill theirs.
Organizations set up recurrent
CFAs between people filling various
roles. We can draw maps like Figure
2 that show the organization as a network of commitments, in which subsidiary requests are linked to the segments of other requests that initiate
them. The network is activated every
time a customer initiates a request to
There are numerous ways to break a
loop. Sometimes one of the four commitments is missing. For example, Alice might have thought dropping a hint
was sufficient but Bob did not hear the
hint as a request; or Bob might insincerely make a promise but has no intention of carrying it out. Sometimes
the COS is ambiguous or understood
differently by the two parties. Sometimes one of the two parties is missing,
for example the customer is missing
when a producer generates a result no
one has asked for, or a producer is missing in an office where no one tends the
inbox. Sometimes one of the parties is
in an uncooperative or otherwise bad
mood. Sometimes one party does not
trust the other, perhaps because of a
poor track record. The number of ways
to break a loop is truly amazing. This is
why it takes a skill to automatically recognize the structure, spot any missing
elements, and take immediate corrective action. It is a way of observing and
reacting to how the parties are listening
to each other.
a Paradoxical Pitfall
A paradoxical pitfall arises because the
CFA’s precision invites mechanization.
The Winograd-Flores book (page 65)
unfolds the loop of Figure 1 into a nine-state machine diagram that includes
additional states corresponding to other possible moves—for example, the
four common responses to a request,
namely accept, decline, defer, and negotiate. The state machine was embedded within The Coordinator software
and was its tracking engine. The pitfall
is that many people do not distinguish
between the CFA as a machine and the
CFA as a tool for observing and tracking commitments. The machine can
detect speech acts, record state transitions, and measure the times spent in
each state. However, the machine cannot make commitments. Only the human participants can. It is a mistake to
equate the CFA with a machine.
The CFA was intended from the beginning as a guide for observing commitments and listening for concerns.
With this guide, a skilled team leader
could navigate around bad moods, distrust, and environmental distractions.
The skill of performing in a CFA this
way is not difficult to learn once you understand the structure and its purpose.
other conversation types
Conversations for action do not happen in isolation. They are almost always preceded by one or both of
˲ Conversations for possibilities
˲ Conversations for context.
A conversation for possibilities
identifies possible actions, without
committing to any one. It is done in a
mood of speculation. For example, we