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

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.

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.

Derek Ross

Derek Ross died recently. He was 47 and to him I owe a lot. It was Derek who hired Banner McBride and became one of our largest clients many years ago when he was at Airbus. He shared openly and honestly his views as a friend and a client, and I valued hugely his candour and wit.

He stayed true to his journalistic origins – he knew how to cut to the chase and he did not tolerate waffle and management speak.

12 years ago when I left WPP to set up on my own I can still remember Derek phoning me about one month later and thereby ending that gnawing anxiety about where the first work would come from.

We stayed in touch over the years as his career progressed to GE, then Vodafone and eventually his own business. His death has come as a shock and I will miss him.

He always used to say to me to focus on what was important and yet again he has sent me that message.

My sincere condolences to his family and friends and colleagues; we will all miss him.

Mike Pounsford

Engage for Success

I went to the launch of Round 2 of Engage for Success – feedback from the task forces – at Queen Elizabeth Conference Hall yesterday.

Check out – resources, tools, contacts, videos, etc. – all about increasing employee engagement.  David MacLeod and Nita Clarke have achieved something special.

In particular, I recommend ‘Nailing the Evidence’ – the most comprehensive attempt to link the hard and the soft metrics; suggesting the soft is not so soft with all the impact it seems to have on service, productivity, innovation, turnover, absenteeism and profit.

Mike Pounsford

The Biggest Conversation?

I was in Hanover today testing the appetite in Germany for The Big Conversation approach.  We were slightly worried because some members of the client’s leadership team had expressed concern about whether the approach would ‘land’ here.

We had groups involved in testing work in progress on the current visual – a Big Picture of the Group’s strategy.  So we talked them through the concept, the draft visual and they gave us 1 1/2 hours of feedback.

Reactions?  They loved it!  They thought it a great way of bringing strategy to life and involving teams in thinking about its implications for them.

By coincidence I ended up sitting next to one of the clients leadership team on the flight home.  I told him the reaction and he was not surprised.  He had shown some colleagues in Germany the UK version of the story and they had loved it too.  So, rest assured – the Big Picture/Big Conversation approach does travel and works in cultures where some may fear more traditional business attitudes may prevail.

Mike Pounsford

Managing Change

We have done work extensively in the public sector over the last few years although I do not think we will be doing much over the next two.

One of the biggest challenges will be asking managers whose jobs are at risk to lead teams who also face uncertainty, all in a climate where clear cut decisions about stay or go will be made more difficult in many organisations because the public sector finds redundancy deals prohibitively expensive.

It is going to be painful, slow and messy.  We have learned a few lessons with our clients about managing this kind of process over the last few years.  10 tips that may be helpful are:

  1. People need to understand that they have to take control over their lives.  No one will rescue them.  They need help in putting plans together that increase their sense of control
  2. Support people by helping them through key career decisions, revitalising their CVs and interviewing skills (use outplacement specialists not managers)
  3. Build networks so people can help each other
  4. Equip managers with simple models to help them understand how people (themselves included) go through change
  5. Collect numerous stories about practical things other teams do to manage change from job hunting through to marking endings to cutting red tape and developing each other’s skills
  6. Create opportunities to vent about how they are feeling
  7. Create video diaries from colleagues who have been through difficult change explaining the lessons they think they learned looking back, and what they would do differently
  8. Increase leadership visibility but be sensible about it; don’t overdo it but don’t duck the difficult questions – be seen to take them on even if the answers are not there
  9. Explain how the process works and be prepared to explore it in detail – do not be unprepared for these questions
  10. Keep reminding people of the reasons for the changes

Mike Pounsford