It's not going well. On this particular day, the young director and actors Robert Redford is working with at his Sundance Institute are frustrated. They just can't seem to nail the scene they've been working on.

Redford is determined to find a way to have the team discover a solution for themselves. He could easily jump in and suggest one, but instead, Redford begins asking probing questions, encouraging the director and actors to think about the scene differently. He asks, "What are you feeling here? What is this about?"

When the questions still don't get things moving along, Redford presses on with one more question, "What would happen if we took it this way?" Gathering the young team around a living room couch on the set, he sits silently for a few moments. Then he encourages, "you're gonna get this -- it is going to happen; you will break through."

Soon Redford starts a dialogue, throwing out some ideas about the real action and the unseen dynamics of the script. Without suggesting the solution, Redford helps stimulate and unlock the actors' and director's ideas in search of new solutions. A conversation begins. The actors interact more freely with one another, and the group begins to move visibly from isolated, disjointed individuals to a collective swing. Like a well-timed crew team at full power, their collective movement seems to lift the boat out of the water as it knifes effortlessly across the surface.

The next take is dramatic. The young director and the actors get almost giddy as they now see the fuller possibilities of their work together. Redford enjoys the breakthrough moment.

Moving Words

The quality Redford brought to that scene is the ingredient missing in so many organizations today. It is the ability to make a conversation move, to broaden the scope and energy of a group, to ask questions without already knowing the answers.

Conversation is the most important tool we have for managing ideas and galvanizing the resources necessary to turn them into action. Yet most business environments find conversation unnecessary and ultimately disruptive. They ask employees to solve problems with rote efficiency, to do the same thing over and over.

Real conversation, the kind Redford employs in his interactions, assumes a million points of revision, of changing our tones, our words, our ideas, our minds -- it assumes changing our assumptions as well. When we converse, we agree to the possibility of change. It asks "What if?" "Could it be?" "Why not?" "What else?" -- and it means it.

Trading Places

During another particularly challenging scene, Redford engaged the filmmaker and actors in a bit of role-playing to help move the work along. "The filmmaker and the actors were totally stymied, totally at locked horns, and therefore, they were doing the only thing they could, taking it out on each other," recalls Redford. So he changed the conversation up.

"We switched roles, the actors and the director, knowing that in some way it would be a disaster, but in others, something good might come of it, which it did." From looking at the issue from each others' perspectives, the filmmaker and actors were able to find a solution. "There were different interpretations," says Redford. "There was a freedom that took place with just that little move, which was problem solving."

Not being afraid of creating myriad possibilities is what most business owners can take away from Redford's approach. Encouraging employees to discover their own solutions through thoughtful conversation can open a business to unseen opportunities.

"When somebody comes through and they're attempting something that's very personal and you know it's reaching something different, a new approach, a new attitude, a different point of view about something or a totally brand new one, you want so badly to help them see it through," says Redford. "You know the world is going to be better for it. It's going to be better because diversity and options will be kept alive."

This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Jane Stephens, English Department Chair at High Point University.

Stephen H. Zades ( is the founder of Odyssey Network, a strategy and brand consulting company in Winston-Salem, N.C. This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Jane Stephens, English Department chair at High Point University. Their book, Mad Dogs, Dreamers and Sages: Growth Through Discovering Imaginative Intelligence, is available at