Webs of human conversations

“An organisation’s results are determined through webs of human commitments, born in webs of human conversations.” – Fernando Flores

I love this quote because it says to me that the kinds of organisations we create and the way they perform are based on the conversations we have at work.  During these conversations we debate issues, agree courses of action, make promises, commitments, agree to deadlines and so on.

Leaders can shape the conversations by talking about what’s going on around the business and what’s coming up. To gain commitment they need to lead conversations that share opportunities and issues and invite people to contribute to the responses.

But one leader or one leadership team cannot do this with everyone.  We need to find ways to create these conversations throughout the business.  So every manager is able to converse about opportunities and issues relevant to the team, and link these conversations with company-wide issues and initiatives across department silos.

Organisations that foster a conversation culture can expect a more engaged workforce that has the confidence to highlight concerns and opportunities. People understand and respond to conversation in a way they don’t to balanced scorecards and performance targets.

This is because conversations reflect our reality; real life isn’t about a formal sit-down, PowerPoint presentations and metrics analysis. Real life and real work is about the promises we tacitly make in conversation, and the decisions we explicitly commit to. Promises are made through conversation – it’s as simple, and as powerful, as that.

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Forget what you learned at school – try creative conversations

We are taught at school to think logically, in linear steps; if A then B.  We are encouraged to look for problems, to conduct ‘root-cause analysis’ of failings and problems.  To analyse and learn from past patterns and to provide clear explanations of what went wrong, and then to suggest the steps required to fix the problem and mitigate against similar issues in future.

But sometimes this does not work, and it’s boring.

It does not work because today’s problems are becoming increasingly complex, confusing and unexpected. Sometimes we need to create solutions for problems that are ill-defined. Sometimes, if we want to make leaps in our industry, we need to innovate to create progress.

Innovation might start with a problem, but may well start with an insight, the identification of an opportunity.

Open conversations can help develop these opportunities. Good questions, and even ‘stupid’ questions can lead people to a deeper understanding of issues, and better resolutions.

Leaders don’t have to know all the details to ask open questions:

  • “What would happen if we made it to work as badly as it possibly could?”
  • “How would you tackle this if it wasn’t time sensitive?”
  • “If we could start all over again, what would you build instead?”

Leading good conversations means asking more of people by asking the questions that can help create new ways of thinking. To focus on issues, try variants of the following:

  • “What do you imagine our Operating Executive thinks is the most valuable skill you have?”
    • “How would the engineering team approach this?”
    • “Before we faced this challenge, what was different about our company / your team?”
    • “If we were really successful, what would we see going on around here?”

To search for and test solutions:

  • “What do you imagine your colleagues need to hear to believe in this solution?”
  • “If we explained this new way forward to team leaders across the company, what might they latch on to as a concern?”
  • “What one piece of advice would you give to make sure this happens the way we’ve envisaged?”

Mike Pounsford

Don’t be a clever clogs

Sometimes we think we need the answers to any and all questions that people throw at us. Leaders may consider it their responsibility to have all the answersBut our own experience shows that such broad expertise isn’t always necessary or desirable.

Those who challenge us to learn, to achieve more, are often the most engaging people. We remember the schoolteachers who pushed, the coach who encouraged and the mentor who expected the most from us.

Discovering and creating solutions for ourselves is more fun, more creative and more engaging because the challenge respects our own abilities. Our thoughts are noted as important; the trust implicit in the challenge makes us feel valued.

A leader who sets goals and targets but recognises that the way to get there needs shaping by the team is more likely to draw out the commitment and effort required to reach those goals.  He or she will inspire the tenacity and loyalty necessary to deliver great results.

The rediscovered art of conversation

Knowing when to instruct and when to initiate discussion needs experience. Co-creating answers with the right teams and communities often generates better quality solutions that the teams can then execute.  This means that they feel ownership for their work so not only is the solution better but so is the speed and quality of implementation.

So leaders need to explain goals, high-level strategy, and the reasoning behind decisions.  But involving employees to discuss the right approach will create better engagement, and prompt congruent behaviours.

This boundary between setting the strategy and the execution of process is important and difficult to manage.  It is compounded by the fact that sometimes leaders are chosen because of their ability to deliver.  In other words the behavior rewarded by promotion may not be the behavior necessary to deliver in the new leadership role.

Ideas can come from anyone at any level of experience; frontline staff may know exactly what’s wrong with current ways of working. Leaders need to be open to hearing new ideas, and complaints and making sure that people feel heard.  Quite obviously, conversations and requests for input need to be authentic. There is nothing worse than being asked to contribute only to experience hollow gratitude and no genuine consideration.

So don’t be a clever clogs – you are smarter if you know the right questions to ask and how to listen to the answers.

Leading Conversation in turbulent times

Those charged with employee engagement and internal communication might readily agree that communication is the lifeblood of a company, but senior managers are more concerned with strategy, performance and results.

Strategic intentions are no longer annually reviewed plans, but flexible approaches to turbulent markets and rapidly changing growth areas. Strategy needs to shape the direction of the company, and respond to changing requirements. A challenge for leaders is communicating the developing strategy in a way that’s meaningful to the diverse groups of people that make up the company.

What this means is that strategy needs translating on the ground in teams and workgroups.  The Communications team can help not with campaigns but by creating the opportunities for leaders and managers to make more use of the most basic unit of business collaboration – the conversation.

I was struck by this in the Harvard Business Review recently:

“In company after company, the patterns and processes by which people communicate with each other are unmistakably in flux. The old ‘corporate communication’ is giving way to a model that we call ‘organizational conversation’. That shift is, for many people, a disorienting process. But it also offers a great leadership opportunity.”

                            – Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind, Harvard Business Review.

This shift to richer, more direct communication isn’t about technology, although many companies are finding benefits by shaping internal communities using digital workplace tools. Rather, it’s about directors demonstrating that they appreciate the value of those who execute the strategy and create success on a daily basis. This demonstration requires two-way dialogue; what we usually call a conversation.

Conversations may be about leaders having an open door policy, but it’s not always about two individuals talking to each other. Conversational leadership is about the Big Conversation – “How does what we do help deliver on the strategy; and if it does not what are we going to do about it?”

The right channels and settings can help leaders talk directly with communities, and have those internal communities respond. Leaders need narratives that communicate the purpose and reason for the strategy, and strategic changes. It’s the local dialogue that creates understanding; it’s not top-down anymore, it is co-created at the coalface.

Narratives (stories that make sense) can be passed on by people at every level within the company, and spark the conversations that lead to understanding. People need to be involved to understand the story, and embed the strategy in a way that’s meaningful to their role.

Via the intranet, in person, around the table, on the all-hands call, at the town hall – conversations and a narrative based approach to explanations will help cement strategies in people’s day-to-day behaviours, not just in the board room.