Monday, January 4, 2010

Conversations that Matter

Constructive conversations are the single most powerful way to engage people and make a difference for those you interact with. It is a pity that many people underestimate the power of the conversation. Everyone engages in conversations, but only a small percentage know how to create the right environment for "Conversations that Matter".
Effective conversations that matter follow a simple structure defined around understanding what you are trying to achieve and four fundamental focus areas: Outputs, Outcomes, Benefits and Beneficiaries.
For example, brainstorming, making a decision and authorising actions are all usually done through conversations, but in each of these cases, the focus of the conversation is different. This impacts on the type of information being exchanged and the people you need to involve. Certainly the outputs (tangibles such as documents, lists, decisions, communications) and outcomes (intangibles such as emotions, buy-in, creativity, identity and "enhanced performance") are very different. Brainstorming conversations that matter generate outputs such as lists and outcomes like creativity and potential (and perhaps even fun). A conversation that matters about succession planning and business continuity will generate outputs like a strategy, some decisions, agreed actions and hopefully some processes and pairing of mentors and mentees. However, the outcomes may be great (the strategy is good, the chemistry between the pairs positive and there is time to achieve the desired knowledge transfer) or bad (the strategy is impractical, matching poor, a lack of trust and sharing is ineffective). Too many projects that finish on time and on budget are a failure because we converse about the more easily measured tangible outputs rather than the far more difficult (and important) intangible outcomes. "We finished on time and on budget, but once the project team disappeared we had no idea how to operate the system effectively let alone optimise it". Very familiar words, regardless of what type of industry!
This is where conversations that matter generate their most significant impact. Managed well, the facilitator ensures everyone in each conversation understands the purpose of the conversation and what benefits will be delivered to which beneficiaries. Performance improvement results when the ultimate owners and users of the new idea, product or concept have been engaged in a series of conversations that matter at the appropriate moments throughout the initiative. This generates engagement, ensures understanding of how each interaction will impact their performance after it is finished and how the right knowledge is going to be transferred to them so they can take ownership. A good facilitator knows how to ensure each conversation is completed across each of the four focus areas so that everyone involved is fully aware of the impacts. When the leader creates the right environment for the conversations that matter to flow, it builds trust, effective relationships and greatly increases the likelyhood of achieving the desired outcomes. For more on Conversations that Matter refer to the book, Being a Successful Knowledge Leader or ask a Zoo Ambassador

By the way, metaphor is a great way to have fun with conversations that matter. Metaphor can be used to stimulate emergent ideas and get people thinking outside the box (if brainstorming or focus on consequences and risks if in a decision forum). All Organizational Zoos are happier places when people talk with each other with a positive purpose, rather than talk at each other with avengence.

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