I once knew a consultant who was hired by a major corporation at the senior level. Within days of his arrival, his diary was filled with appointments and meetings that he knew nothing about and over which he had no control. He wanted nothing more than to attend to this mandate, but instead he found his days filled up by pointless meetings that had little to do with the bigger strategic picture.
If you’re anything like this executive, you’d probably be glad to skip most of the meetings you’re called to. They soak up too much of your time. They are too formal and filled with data-focused PowerPoint presentations. (In one corporation I know of, the average presentation for strategy sessions in a single business unit is over 400 slides long.) And nobody addresses the real issues; they nit-pick and criticize instead. The net effect: everyone’s imagination is suffocated, and they lose sight of the big picture. When that happens, organisations run the risk of failure.
The best way to energise thinking is to hold conversations rather than meetings. In our personal lives, we are used to talking openly with one another, but most organisations have failed to capitalize on the power of conversation in a business setting. So how does a conversation differ from a meeting?
A conversation is informal. As the great German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said, you only have a conversation when you don’t know the outcome at the beginning. Think about a conversation you have with a friend over a cup of coffee. It flows from one topic to another; ideas spark spontaneously. A conversation is alive and interesting, and sometimes even a little dangerous.
A conversation is a creative process. A conversation is not about walking through an agenda. It is a journey that takes people through the full range of thinking, not just a problem at hand. In a conversation, people explore issues, invent solutions, and find ways forward through messy circumstances. (The broad scope of a conversation differentiates it from “brainstorming,” which only focuses on generating solutions. Brainstorming can’t help you address wicked problems like a military engagement in Afghanistan or a messy merger.)
A conversation is democratic. In a conversation, no single person holds forth while everyone else nods sleepily. Instead, the dialogue bounces around the room as participants design a new idea together.
Obviously, if you are the kind of manager who likes to control the agenda and who dislikes surprises, the prospect of an informal conversation is a little scary. So I propose an experiment. Next time you want to gather your team to talk about a potential new product or service, try the following. You don’t have to commit to doing it all the time; just try it once or twice to see what happens. The point is to try to activate the creative, right-brain intelligence in people. Ready?
Invite new people to join in. It’s important to tap the creativity and diversity of people in your organisation. Invite 10 to 15 people from across the organisational spectrum, and from the bottom of the hierarchy – particularly bright younger people. Replace the agenda with questions. Leave behind those notes and PowerPoint slides, and wear jeans instead of business clothes. Come ready to discuss questions that don’t have easy, right/wrong, yes/no answers, and that ask for positive rather than negative or critical responses. Play around with the room. Instead of seating everyone around a conference table, ask people to work in clusters. Also, try setting up a bazaar. Put representative objects, maps or graphics on various tables or on the walls and ask people to walk around and react to them. Capture the conversation on a white board. As people come up with ideas, link them using spider diagramming or clustering, or mind mapping. (For ideas about how to do this, see Gabrielle Rico’s Writing the Natural Way.)
Of course, I am not arguing that an organisation should throw out all of its agenda-driven process meetings and replace them with conversations. But by holding more conversations and fewer meetings, you will find that people begin to solve your company’s wickedest problems faster, and in a richer way. And instead of complaining about being bored to death, people will talk about how much fun they’ve had.
Have you held a conversation in your company? How did it differ from a meeting?