Conversations at the Organisation Development Conference

I have just come back from the inaugural ODN Europe conference at which about 150 Organisation Development professionals from around Europe met at Prospero House in London for two days of learning and networking.  A huge “well done” to Kate Cowie and her colleagues for pulling this off.  It was a great two days.  I learned lots from people like Steve Chapman, Paul Taylor and Sarah Lewis and it was good to catch up with old friends from the NTL Institute.

I wanted to share two particular stand out memories.  One was Mee-Yan Cheung Judges key note presentation on day one.  She asked us to reflect on why we had got to where we have in our careers, what had driven us to this point and the future we wanted to create for ourselves.  As always with Mee-Yan she showed such passion and courage with her stories of taking on the establishment in her responses to those questions that she brought the enquiry to life.  Good questions to reflect on.

The second was Patricia Shaw who talked for an hour about the difference between real organisations and the models we create to try to explain and shape them.  She used the analogy of cut and artificial flowers and how in an instant we can tell the difference between the thing that once had life and that which never did.  Our models are like the artificial flower lacking the spirit or essence that makes real conversation and interaction with each other the special thing it is.  So in trying to stimulate Big Conversations we have to seek the precious dialogue we want to create and avoid manufacturing a spurious and cheap imitation of the magic that real living conversations can bring into people’s lives at work.

Now as I write about this I am struck at how hard it is to capture the magic of the conversations we had at our tables prompted by both these wonderful speakers.

Mike Pounsford


Control vs. leadership

Have you noticed how many people are talking about the importance of conversation in organisations today?

It came up again at a recent IABC event.  Kevin Murray, who wrote ‘The Language of Leaders’, talked about the need for leaders to inspire not through speeches and “podium moments” but through intimate conversations.

I think that given the pace of change, uncertainty, complexity and the transparency that all organisations face today, we have to start using ongoing conversations as ways of engaging people.

We need tools like Big Pictures, strategy maps, learning maps, online discussion forums, facilitated events and conferences.  And we need to develop conversational leadership within organisations.

So what does that look like? I think it means leaders and managers who have clarity around vision and who get up on a regular basis and walk the office or blog (internally) frequently –  making it a point to talk about current events in the context of the broader strategy.

It could be regular team sessions or meetings at which the team leader reminds people of the key strategy drivers and how the team supports them.  It might be ‘Listen In’ sessions where leaders and front-line people are invited and encouraged to talk about the business from their perspectives.  Good conversations need empathy and open minds; it could involve training managers to welcome divergent views and help their teams to come to a convergent perspective.  It also means knowing when to consult (“we have a problem without an obvious solution…”) and when not to (“we have a crisis and you need to act in this way – fast!”).

Conversational leadership means recognizing the value of conversation as an engagement approach, which means that we have to sacrifice some control in order to lead more effectively.

Mike Pounsford