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Are you caught in a curly situation?

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

Have you ever found yourself facing a curly situation and feeling a little unsure as to what to do about it?

I reckon this is something most of us experience from time to time. It happens to me a lot.

In this edition of Curly, Calm and Curious I thought I’d talk a bit about curly situations and why we need to approach them differently.

A curly situation is one in which the majority of elements are new to us.

For example, new context, new challenge, new information, new skills needed etc. The more ‘new elements’ a situation has, the curlier it becomes. And, the less we can rely on what we know, the skills we have or the experiences we’ve accumulated to get us through.

A curly situation is also one in which the different elements seem ‘tangled’ together and it’s hard to distinguish where one issue ends and another one starts.

The Crisp-Curly Continuum

Curly situations need curly conversations.

As I explained in a previous video, problem-solving conversations tend to fall somewhere on a continuum.

At one end, we have Crisp Conversations.

These ‘A to B’ conversations are about the everyday challenges that need to be addressed in order to keep your business or organisation delivering products and services to its customers.

Crisp Conversations draw heavily on the knowledge and experience we already have. While they can still be challenging, the content for these conversations lives squarely in our comfort zone.

Because we draw on what we know and what we’ve done before, Crisp Conversations feel comfortable and straight forward. Consequently, they enable us to assess the situation relatively quickly and work out what to do.

At the other end of the continuum are Curly Conversations.

As their name suggests, Curly Conversations are less straight forward and more ‘round about’ than their crisp counterparts.

Curly Conversations require us to learn, generate new insights and explore what we know, from different perspectives. The answers that we need don’t exist in our heads, although we’d really like them to.

Curly Conversations challenge us to reach beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone so we can address the unique situation we’re facing.

Working out where we are on the continuum

Where a conversation falls on the Crisp-Curly Continuum is usually determined by the familiarity of a given situation and the nature of the environment.

For example, the more dynamic your environment and the less familiar the situation is for the people involved, more likely your conversation will need to be at the Curly end of the continuum. Conversely, if your environment is more static and the situation is quite familiar to the people involved, then the required conversation will lie at the Crisp-end of the continuum.

Why we get in a tangle

Many leaders I work with are pretty good at working out where their situation fits the Curly-Crisp Continuum.

Things get tricky, however, because these two types of conversations are fundamentally different to each other. They involve different mental muscles and require us to completely shift the way we think, the questions we ask and the problem-solving approach that we take.

This is where we often become stuck.

Even those we know we need to have a Curly Conversation with our team but we don’t have time or the brain-space to think it through and design it. And, because (by their very nature) Curly Conversations take our us beyond our comfort zones. Many of us are understandably reluctant to venture into the unknown, without a guide rope to return home.

This makes the easier, faster, more familiar Crisp Conversations more attractive and so we gravitate towards them. And, these kinds of conversations become particularly attractive when we’re under time pressure or the curly situation is critically important.

This mismatch has consequences.

When a Crisp conversation approach is used to address a Curly Situation, teams tend to start the conversation in the wrong place, from the wrong perspective. Consequently, they limit their options and end up in a Spiral of Compromise, hurtling towards a potentially a bigger problem at the other end.

When Curly Conversations are used to address Curly situations, teams start with an open mindset. Their relationship with the issue is more curious than adversarial and teams are able to detach and see it from multiple perspectives.

These conversations generate more possibilities and have a higher likelihood of identifying the best solution. This kind of conversation moves the issue forward and makes it another coil on the Spring of Success.

So, let’s bring this conversation back to you.

  • When you think about your environment, do you experience more Crisp situations or more Curly ones?

  • Is the proportion changing? If so, which way is it moving on the Crisp-Curly Continuum?

  • To what extent are you and your team having Curly Conversations when they are needed?

  • What factors might be influencing this?

Getting started

The first step to having more Curly Conversations is being able to work out when one is required, versus when a faster, Crisp Conversation will do. The above diagram can help you with this.

  • Assess the environment. Is there a lot going on and a lot of change?

  • Is the situation in which you find yourself familiar or unfamiliar (to both you and your team)?

If you’re situation is at the top of the continuum, then a Curly Conversation is what you need.

And, if you could use some support in this area, I highly recommend checking out my Curly Conversations Kits.


If you’re a leader in Australia or New Zealand you can test-drive the kit below by signing-up for the free pilot program here.

This brand new tool is for leaders whose teams are facing Curly Situations but don’t

have time (or the appetite) to design the conversation needed to achieve success. These kits, along with the online support, provide the guide-rope leaders need to confidently take their team’s conversations into the unknown.


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