Dear Reader,

Welcome to the May issue of perspectives!

Last month's topic, ‘The art of the complex' stimulated so much interest that I'm going to continue to develop the theme of what happens in practice in organisations (as opposed to the theory!).

When people talk about strategising, often the mages conjured up are of workshops, awaydays and high-powered meetings. And change occurs through structured projects and change management initiatives.

But is this really how things happen in organisations?

David Booth

Rich conversations

Meetings come in all shapes and sizes. They are (stereo)typically the defining mode of organisational life, much criticised for their ineffectiveness and a distraction from ‘getting the work done' and ‘tackling the real issues'.

Yet we can't - or don't - avoid them. There seems no alternative mechanism - so we plan them carefully, structure agendas and inputs, think about the outputs to be achieved (though not always!), select venues and layouts… in fact, so much effort goes into making meetings happen that, despite the moans, there must be some value in them somehow.

But also it's apparent that things happen outside formal meetings. Often it's at the coffee breaks where some of the most useful discussions occur – and chance corridor conversations can be very influential (how often do we hear statements like, “I was talking to X the other day, and she said that….”?). Of course, 1-to-1 meetings are often the most crucial in affecting what an individual does.

The reality is that many decisions are made outside formal meetings and processes. Momentum is built up through a series of conversations, influencing thinking and prompting other conversations. Maybe gathering relevant people together is a structured discussion is part of the process – but it's the effectiveness of the conversations that determines how people feel about what's happening.

How many times have we all experienced workshops where the breakout groups have ‘run out of time', and discussions that were just getting interesting have had to be curtailed? Leaving the feeling that more could have been achieved had more time been allowed for discussion? And how often have people commented that they found this the most stimulating part of the day – despite all the important presentations that preceded this (and which unfortunately overran!)?

There is another way to look at this. Perhaps we should start to think in terms of conversations as the fundamental instrument of organisational life. And if the purpose of conversations is perceived as developing meaning, making sense of things, connecting with and understanding others, this opens up a very different perspective.

What matters then becomes the quality of the conversations. And meetings are merely just one means of organising an environment where conversations can occur. There's value in the coffee breaks too!

The challenge is to create the opportunity for rich conversations to happen.

And this is how strategy emerges. Strategising is about developing shared meaning – about what's happening in and around the organisation, about how it sees its future. It's therefore about having deep conversations – individually, in groups, within or without any formal process or meetings.

And it's how change happens in organisations too – through people talking, making sense of what's different, working out how to adjust, reframing and reorganising what they do and how they work.

If we change our focus to stimulating the conversations that will help people (including ourselves) to come to a common understanding about what needs to happen, the way in which we work and interact in organisations takes a different perspective.

And sometimes this involves starting conversations with no idea how they will turn out - the discussion ebbs and flows, and meanders or jumps about, until views start to form amongst the gathering, a collective conclusion that sets the direction forward. There's a belief that things will be worked out, a trust in the abilities of those participating and an appreciation of the value of their contribution. A radically different approach to the structured, hierarchical ‘command and control' style that pervaded many organisations historically.

Arguably, managing is about creating conversations, leading about creating meaning.

For further exploration...

Patricia Shaw in ‘Changing conversations in organizations' (Routledge, 2002) uses reflective narrative of her own experiences describe how organisational change happens through conversations. She draws on some of the ideas of complexity theory, and compares this approach to traditional models of large-scale organisational change. It's a very accessible read – and not too long – well recommended!

Various approaches have developed to help create environments to encourage different types of conversation to the traditional structured business meeting. These have grand names such as ‘Future Search Conferences', ‘Open Space' and ‘Café Society':

'Café Society', for example, involves people discussing an issue around tables in small groups, then moving on to join other tables where they join in and so develop the conversation and ideas further.

Open Space' helps bring together a diverse group from the whole organisational ‘system' to deal with pressing complex issues that are concerning people, with an approach based on ‘whoever comes is the right people, whenever it starts is the right time, whatever happens is the only thing that could have, and when it's over, it's over'. If you are not contributing or learning in a group, you move somewhere where you can.

Interesting ideas – but essentially they are just different ways of getting people together to talk with and for meaning!


What do you think?

How does this fit with your own experience? Are meetings and processes encouraging or hindering quality conversations?

All opinions welcome - let's talk!