Big Conversation

A Big Conversation is designed to help bring strategy to life by involving everybody in discussions about what the strategy means for me. The success of the process depends upon the quality of the conversations people have. Visuals are used to prompt these but it is the conversation that matters.

This puts a big emphasis on the role of conversation leaders – usually line managers often supported by HR and Communication business partners. In order to “break the ice” during development sessions we often ask people to discuss what a good conversation looks like; some can use words, others only pictures – see the results below:

The exercise demonstrates to people how the visual is more memorable, emotive and triggers more involvement and engagement within the group.

We also talk about “bad conversations” and the impact they have. Individual stories differ but common themes are how demotivating, manipulative, disempowering, devaluing and intimidating these can feel – hardly the basis for effective engagement!

So while conversations can be a much more effective way to build awareness and understanding of business strategy than PowerPoint presentations, video or other one-way approaches, there are risks. Conversations enable people to get involved in discussing the pros and cons of different approaches, to think through the relevance of strategy to them and to build a stronger line of sight between their jobs and the “bigger picture.” But they backfire if they are poorly managed.

So what makes a good conversation? According to participants in our client project it needs to:

  • Be authentic, open to all and honest – the difference between a Big Conversation and a strategy presentation is that people get to interrogate the strategy up close because the conversation focuses on what this means to me, my team, my customers etc. People will have different views that need to be aired and heard. It is the process of the challenges and the discussion that helps bring the strategy to life. Participants need to be present and speak their minds
  • Involve listening – good conversations are two-way not only because people air different views but also because they build on each other’s ideas. Good conversations are not debates (e.g. adversarial House of Commons type exchanges), they are discussions in which people listen, maybe disagree, but also aim to build on each others ideas
  • Share common goals – in order to build on each others ideas people need to share goals. They may disagree about how to achieve them but a Big Picture helps provide context including common aims and objectives and, often, a shared vision
  • Be efficient – people need to get to the point! This means the conversation needs a clear focus and outcomes (e.g. the purpose of this conversation is to think about customer relationships and if the strategy suggests these need to change)
  • Have energy and be fun – good conversations involve a lighter touch, laughter and insights; people learn from each other and have some fun in the process.

Steve Chapman and I will be exploring more about what makes a good conversation at the CIPR’s 12th Annual Internal Communication Conference that takes place on 25th September 2013 at the Kia Oval in South London. There is a surge in interest in the use of narrative, storytelling and visual tools to help communicate strategy. When done well, the results can be exceptional, with large increases in awareness, understanding and engagement. But if done poorly, people can feel patronised and manipulated and the whole process can be counter-productive. This workshop will be a highly interactive experience that illustrates the difference between trying to impose a narrative on people and creating the environment that helps them discover it for themselves.


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