Why Trump’s Talks with North Korea Failed

I f you are familiar with the dynamics of collaboration, it’s easy to understand why Trump’s talks with Kim Jong-un failed.

Successful, enduring collaborations emerge from conversations with an underlying structure and trajectory. We have been studying and experimenting with the dynamics of these complex conversations for over a decade at the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab.

For a collaboration to be successful, participants must continually ask and answer two questions: “Where are we going?” and “How will we get there?” Answering these questions is a continuous process. Why? Because of complex and dynamic environments. There are no unchanging answers.

In order to answer these two questions, prospective partners must obviously have conversations. But not just any conversation will do. Successful collaborations emerge productively when participants first frame their conversation toward a potential shared opportunity. This framing question draws the participants together and begins to align their interests and move them toward a successful collaboration.

So, for example, in the case of U.S.- North Korea talks, a good framing question might have been: What would it look like for the Korean people to share a peaceful, prosperous future?

Leading a successful collaboration involves learning the art of asking powerful questions.

With a solid framing question in place, the real work begins: Participants must organize a series of conversations both to determine a clear, shared outcome for their collaboration and to chart a path forward.

Conversations with a Hidden Structure

Based on our research and practice at Purdue, we have found that successful collaborations emerge from answering four questions: “What could we do to answer our framing question?” “Of all the things we could do, what should we do?” “What will we do now to move forward?” And, finally, “When will we get back together again to measure our progress and make adjustments?” Answering the first two questions provides participants with a clear, shared outcome. They agree on what success looks like. The second two questions set a path for how they will get there.

Let’s go through these questions to learn a bit more about the dynamics of conversations that lead to successful collaborations.

The first question is familiar to most of us. “What could we do?” invites us to explore the opportunities. We brainstorm. The conversation at this stage is expansive, divergent and energizing.

The next step, however, is not so familiar and often skipped. To be successful with their collaboration, participants must drive their conversation far deeper to understand how each other sees the future they want to create together. The participants must answer the question: “What should we do?” It requires making chores among potential opportunities. Answering this question also requires detailing a shared outcome, the hardest step in any collaboration. They need to describe in clear, measurable terms what the future will look like with a successful collaboration.

“For a successful collaboration, a lot of green tea will flow through your kidneys.”

Often times, this conversation seems tedious. Yet, the step is crucial for creating mutually beneficial outcomes. It is also here where cultural differences, how we see and behave in the world, play a critical part in gaining a mutual understanding. (When I first started my work in China, I got good advice from my Chinese colleague. “For a successful collaboration, a lot of green tea will flow through your kidneys.”)

The next two questions in a successful conversation are straightforward. “What will we do?” focuses on near term projects and action plans. The last question – – “When will we get back together again” – – underscores that the collaboration is a ongoing process of continuous conversation and adjustment.

What Went Wrong

When we define the structure of the conversation this way, we can quickly see why the talks failed this week. Trump and Kim Jong-un fell into the same trap that ensnared many US business executives during their initial forays into China in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They too quickly went from the question “What could we do?” – – answer: we could “denuclearize”– – to the question “What will we do?” – – answer: execute an agreement, of course.

Successful collaborations are not built with bumper stickers.

They skipped the most vital part of the conversation. They failed to define in specific and practical detail what denuclearization looks like for both participants.

In the 1990s, I negotiated a number of joint ventures in China. I became aware of the mistake that many Western business people make. They jump from the excitement of “What could we do?” to the step of “What will we do?” My Chinese colleagues would tell me of the risks of skipping this step. The parties will end up with a joint venture in which they may be sleeping in the same bed, but they will be dreaming different dreams.

That’s exactly what happened this week in Vietnam. The inability of both parties to really understand their shared outcome led to the collapse of the talks. The fact that neither party could define in concrete terms what “denuclearization” really means doomed the summit. Successful collaborations are not built with bumper stickers.

In my experience, 70% of the time in joint venture conversations needs to be focused on defining the outcome of the collaboration. If participants can come to a deep, shared understanding of where they are going, they can clearly articulate the mutual bene3fits of their collaboration. With this deeper understanding, they will be able to withstand the inevitable pressures that arise when circumstances change. If they skip over these steps, the collaboration collapses at the first sign of trouble.

Teaching the Skills of Complex Collaboration

We have embedded these lessons in Strategic Doing, a discipline now taught at Purdue and several other universities:

  • University of Oregon,
  • University of North Alabama,
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Mississippi State University
  • Colorado State University
  • Kansas State University
  • University of Puerto Rico
  • New Mexico State University.

At Purdue, we are introducing our students to these skills. Why? Because the future will turn on how well we design and guide complex collaborations across a wide range of wicked challenges. This summer we are launching an on-line undergraduate course and we are making it available to other universities.

Strategic Doing is rapidly becoming the open source operating system for complex collaborations, open innovation and ecosystems. You can learn more at the web site of the Strategic Doing Institute, the non-profit organization that guides the development of the discipline globally. You can also read more about Strategic Doing in our forthcoming book: Strategic Doing: Ten Skills for Agile Leadership (Wiley) due out May 7.


Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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