26 March 2014
Conversational Leadership at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe
We were gathered in the Westminster Business School as guests of Gurteen regular Keith Patrick. We had been there before and it was a good place to be.
It was billed as come at 6 for a 6:30 start. I took an unusual route, via Richmond and Willesden Junction, and still managed to arrive just a minute or two after 6. At first I thought that I had got the timings wrong as there were already twenty or so people there. I was not the only keen one then.
We kicked off at 6:30 as planned with David as our facilitator. He then broke two of his own conventions by not starting with a speed-networking session and then talking for longer than the recommended maximum. But these were conventions rather than rules and no serious harm was done.
David explained that he had been running his Knowledge Cafes for 12 years. He had started them as a response to the death-by-powerpoint style of conference sessions with the aim of making the dialogue between presenter and audience more conversational.
Conversations are the natural way to share knowledge and a lot of conversational tools are used within Knowledge Management, e.g. anecdote circles and after action reviews. In other formats we should change the agenda to allow time for reflection, conversation and question.
Conversational Leadership was the synthesis of all the lessons David had learnt from his many conversations about conversations. He defined this as, "Conversational Leadership is a style of working where everyone in an organization, especially managers, understand the transformative power of conversation and take a conversational approach to the way that they work and interact with people."
Conversations are necessary and are used widely but are not managed very well. For example, there is often too much talking at and not enough talking with.
David closed by putting this question to the group, How do we each bring conversations into our work?
We then followed the usual Knowledge Cafe of discussing the question in small groups (4 to 6 typically) in three rounds to cross-fertilise ideas and then coming together in one large circle for a final round-up of ideas.
What follows is my notes from the four sessions refined by some reflection since then.
I had an attempt to differentiate conversations from other dialogues a few years ago and I think that my musings on conversations then are still valid. What is needed now is to dig in to the central box to understand conversations better.
The term "conversation" covers a wide range of activities. Some have specific objectives (e.g. project review) while some are much looser (e.g. catch-up). Some are to exchange information while others are to build connections and networks. Some conversations are arranged (meetings etc.) but others are unplanned (meet at the coffee point).
There are times when conversations are not the answer. For example, the best way to get across simple information to a lot of people is via a presentation, or even the less personal email.
The conversational style suggests a dialogue between equals and so they are less likely to work in, say, a manager/employee relationship. Even if the manager wants to be open and conversational the employee is likely to be wary of being too open because of the possible consequences.
Conversations need a place. We enjoy conversations, we have them in the pub etc. for their own value. Physical conversations are still far more effective than electronic ones, which is why we still use them.
If a conversation has a clear objective then it needs some management to get there. These management tools include artefacts (e.g. agenda) and roles (e.g. chairman and recorder).
Managing participation to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to contribute and that nobody dominates or deflects the conversation is a separate matter and applies to all conversation types, though to varying extents. For example, in a project review the only topic should be the project and it is important to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to raise any issues whereas the subjects covered in a pub conversation are unpredictable and it does not matter if somebody chooses not to say very much.
Some of the things that I need to do to improve my work conversations are to go in to our Kings Place office once a week to find some colleagues to chat to and to identify a circle of people that I should keep in regular contact with.
There is a 2x2 matrix on conversations inside me trying to get out but I am not yet sure what the axes are. On the short-list are things like clarity of purpose and structure. In the middle I want to put some conversation types, such as meeting, speed-dating, workshop, gossip, catch-up, morning payers and wash-up. I think what I need to do is to identify all of the types of conversation there are and then tease out the differences between them.
This was another excellent Gurteen Knowledge Cafe. It confirmed that conversations are key and I am interested to see where David goes with his idea of Conversational Leadership to make more of them.