June 2007

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the November issue of perspectives!

This month's article has been prompted by a few situations I've come across over the past couple of weeks – each very specific and individual, but on reflecting about them they all reinforced to me how important this topic is in strategising and effecting change in organisations.

I hope you find it stimulating, and useful!

David Booth

Connecting for meaning

Have you ever taken part in a discussion when it becomes very obvious that other participants have different interpretations of the idea that's being conveyed? And perhaps it's not apparent to them – however clearly you can see this. Sometimes the meeting might end with apparent understanding and everyone goes away thinking they know exactly what's intended – although you still have your doubts: but perhaps it's just you that hasn't quite grasped the nub of the issue?

Scenario 2: There have been a number of conversations between various people about how to organise some work, such as developing strategy, or a planning process. Yet in subsequent individual conversations it becomes very clear that everyone has a different take on the situation, and all are busy progressing down separate paths albeit with the best of intentions. Cue eventual confusion and frustration.

Scenario 3: The message is clear, the action agreed – but the context of how this fits into the overall approach is missing, You are working with one piece of the jigsaw, but don't know how this fits with different pieces that others hold.

Maybe in all these examples there hasn't been the opportunity to ask, to question, for people to recognise that they don't have the same understanding, or to delve deeper to ensure common meaning. Perhaps in the desire to make progress there hasn't been the time created for the conversations to develop sufficient quality. Or the opportunity to realise that there are still questions unspoken.

I have written before about the value of ‘rich conversations' (perspectives, May 2008), which achieve common understanding at a meaningful level, to make sense of things. Such conversations need both time and space: to allow the stepping back and calmer breaths before people can begin to engage in developing real understanding with depth. And creating the right environment and tone for such conversations is vital – signalling the ‘pause', the ‘headroom' for deeper thinking, demonstrating that this is about listening, and wanting to understand others, and to develop joint meaning.

There is a subtle but vital difference to such ‘rich conversations': the purpose is not just to agree a solution, but to seek a way forward through developing a shared understanding with others.

And engagement is the key. Connecting with other people in a way that encourages them to respond with what they really think and feel. I often think that so much of what we communicate in a business environment fails to come to life in ways that stimulate others. I am as guilty as the next of writing reports and recommendations that might present the facts and arguments thoroughly and rationally within a formal meeting structure, but which struggle to engage and motivate the organisation and lead to concerted action (rather than action points!).

The aim is to connect, and stimulate. A phrase or diagram that manages to capture an idea and resonate with others is very powerful. There are several examples that have come out of strategising work I've helped organisations with that are still referred to frequently by those organisations several years later – they manage to express common understanding, to help people connect for meaning.

There is growing recognition of the power of telling a story to help bring an idea to life and help others relate to it. Stories paint effective word-pictures and engage people's feelings in ways that ‘flat' analysis cannot do. Some strategic plans ‘tell a story' – they express how people in the organisation see its situation, what's important to them, and how they see its future. And the story is one that can be told and discussed through the organisation, and modified and adapted over time to reflect what might have changed or developed.

The need for common understanding, creating the ‘white space' for richer conversations, bringing ideas to life – it might be difficult to find the time in the hectic pace and pressing demands on everyone, but there are times when it's more important to connect.

For further exploration...

  • Professor Lynda Gratton of London Business School expands on the importance of meaning in organisations and the pitfalls of mixed messages in her excellent book ‘Living Strategy: putting people at the heart of corporate purpose' (Pearson Education, 2000)

  • Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point and Blink fame, and recently in the UK talking about his latest book Outliers) uses real life examples to explain his thinking. These people stories serve to connect and engage with his readers or audience very quickly, and help them relate to the theories he is putting forward. Tom Peters adopts a similar approach – it helps make their respective ideas very accessible.

  • Understanding the various ways in which people think can help in working out how best to connect with them, how to build rapport. Dave Rawlings has written some useful articles about this (www.empatec.com). Dave and I worked together last year on our workshop programme “Why people resist change: how to make organisational change more effective”, and the discussions about rapport always stimulated a great deal of interest.(Whether the context is organisational change or strategising and organising, the importance of connecting for meaning remains vital.)


What do you think?

What are the most effective ways to create the ‘white space' for richer conversations?

Let me know of any examples from your own experience of where this has worked well - or when not doing this proved costly!