Compelling thought partnerships

At TLO we want you to understand our foundational principles. We want you to be aware of the precepts we're using and the models we're acting on. We especially want you to be thoroughly familiar with the ways in which the developmental and transformational services we're offering you are based on these principles, precepts, and models.

In this thought paper, I describe the ideas and concepts that best characterize TLO's approach to Thought Partnering. I want you,  as a prospective Thought Partner, to understand what I consider essential for creating effective Thought Partnerships.

With individuals who are ready to step off into the challenging journeys that are personal and organizational transformation, I play three closely related roles -- Thought Leader, Thought Partner, and Organizational Transformational Coach. When asked, I also recommend Transformational Consultants who are experienced and skilled enough to enter an organization and work side-by-side with the it's internal change agents. When necessary, I use each of these four roles to help senior clients launch an integrated system-wide effort that transforms the organization's architecture, infrastructure, and dominant frames of reference regarding their own and their system's performance.

Here's a graphic that illustrates the four organization transformation roles I most often accept, alongside an organization's three primary transformation issues.


Appropriately sequencing and integrating these four roles with these three priority issues is, I believe, one of the keys to launching and successfully implementing a comprehensive, system-wide organization transformation effort that's both successful and sustainable.

What follows below then are the ideas and concepts that I believe best characterizes TLO's approach to Thought Partnering. In particular, I want to offer you three subjects for your consideration as fundamental Thought Partnering concepts and principles:


Threshold Concepts - Basic Principles - Key Expectation                

Threshold Concepts

To understand what Thought Partnering is, especially why and how it might interest you, consider these five key concepts: Balance, Mutuality, Journey, Complexity, and Transformation. 


Balance, in personal, interpersonal, and social terms, is an issue of singular importance to Thought Partnering. The basic purpose of every effective Thought Partnership is to enhance the partners' sense of balance in their lives -- especially their experience of harmony, equilibrium, agency, accomplishment, and self-realization. These are Thought Partnering's essential touchstones, and for balance, each is key.


By design, Thought Partnering must become a mutual relationship focused on creating jointly held, commonsense understandings of what each partner perceives as the nagging issues and budding opportunities in their lives. When its most effective, Thought Partnering is a long-term series of exploratory dialogues and self-directed learning experiments between individuals who have explicitly agreed to do three things: Question their sense of truth and reality; identify and explore the family-of-origin presuppositions, beliefs, and values they're still attached to; and focus their attention on co-creating new perceptions, new modes of thinking and feeling, and new ways of interacting with their worlds. Thought Partnering is about resolving difficult work and life problems; it's also about audaciously realizing big dreams. 


Existentially speaking, the idea of a journey through life is a universal, cross-cultural experience. This concept is rooted in everyone's life experience, in particular through our awareness of time, progress, and possibilities. Every well-known approach to human development has a sense of journey embedded in it, primarily through our sense of beginnings, middles, and endings. By design then, an effective Thought Partnership has to pay real attention to issues like life's obstacles, setbacks, rewards and triumphs -- the basic touchstones of a real world journey.


In today’s world, each of us encounters a variety of problems every day -- some simple, some not, but always troublesome. These experiences are not unfamiliar. However, for Thought Partners, it isn't enough to simply acknowledge this reality. Instead, Thought Partners need to acknowledge to themselves and each other that today, in the 21st Century, at least three types of problems -- simple, complicated, and complex -- need serious attention:  

  • A simple problem is well defined, created by known constraints and short-cycle, cause-and-effect dynamics. Simple problems are always solvable through the use of fully proven "best practice" answers.
  • A complicated problem is only vaguely defined, created by "nested" constraints and obscure, long-cycle, cause-and-effect dynamics. Complicated problems are manageable through the use of "good practice" answers.
  • A complex problem is poorly defined, characterized by a large number of nested constraints and non-linear, cause-and-effect dynamics that no one truly understands. Complex problems are neither solvable nor manageable: There are no known best- or good-practice answers available; safe-to-fail learning experiments are the "moving forward" option of choice.

Thought Partnering, almost without exception, is always concerned with the complex problems you believe you're facing. This is why TLO's Thought Partnerships are all about active, real-time, mutual intersubjective meaning-making.


Today, more so than at any other point in modern history, there's no avoiding complex challenges, unexpected setbacks and losses, and occasionally even a major trauma. This is why a key issue for all Thought Partnerships is personal transformations of all sorts -- involving both regressive and progressive changes in status, fortune, and fate. Any transformation can be voluntary, intentional, a total shock, or a long-awaited denouement. No matter; in whichever form it comes, personal and interpersonal transformations are an essential part of an effective Thought Partnering effort. 

Basic Principles

Four basic principles describe the personal and interpersonal dynamics associated with TLO's Thought Partnerships:

  1. You set the agenda.
    You’ll decide which complex issues we address each time we talk, and over the course of our work together.
  2. We set the tone.
    I’ll raise promising issues, ask challenging questions, provide encouragement and support, and help us keep our hopes and fears in check. Frame setting for me, agenda setting for you.
  3. You and we create the answers.
    Our Thought Partnership won't involve mentoring, coaching, therapy, or expert problem solving. We won't be searching for pre-cast or pre-existing "expert answers." Rather, we’ll be exploring complex issues together, doing our best, step by step, to understand the challenges and create the new modes of thinking and acting that will produce better results for each of us.
  4. We are equal partners.
    In our Thought Partnership, neither of us will be the authority figure, neither of us the subordinate. We’ll be working together as equal partners in mutually beneficial exploratory processes. We'll share responsibility for success. If we ever feel we’re not acting as equal partners, we’ll say so.

Key Expectations

In our Thought Partnership, four mutual expectations are explicitly active:

  1. We address the tough questions.
    We both concentrate on asking and answering clear, direct, often pointed personal questions. We find and use communication styles that are comfortable for both of us, but neither of us worries too much about being polite. By doing what’s necessary to make sure we each feel heard and understood, we make sure mutual respect and acknowledgement comprise our relational touchstones.
  2. We’re introspective.
    Thought Partnering sessions aren’t like other conversations, even those between loving couples or really good friends. Instead, during our Thought Partnering work, we often pause in explicit, serious, and concerted ways to allow time for one or both of us to reflect, gather our thoughts, or voice an as-yet-unspoken concern. We both take notes as we go, to avoid the distraction of silently trying to remember thoughts we want to inject or questions we need to raise.
  3. We disclose our toughest truths.
    At all times, vulnerability and honest disclosure are pivotal opportunities that need to be recognized and addressed effectively. 
  4. We experiment.
    Thought partnering isn’t about simple stuff. We are coming together to deal with the complex problems that trouble each of us, in ways that help us co-create new ways of thinking and behaving. For this reason, careful, well-designed, on-going behavioral experimentation is the heart of what we do together.

Bottom line: TLO's Thought Partnering is about conversations. The kinds of essential, soul-searching dialogues that help you, our Thought Partner, create a road map for the learning journey you're currently on or need to launch. You may be struggling with a career, relationship, or life transition, or you may instead be confronting some sort of deep-seated "mismatch" between the meaning-making capabilities your current family-of-origin worldview provided you and the disruptive, belief-shredding complexity you're just now encountering in your outside world. Whichever the issue, our work together always begins with the kinds of conversations described above.