Innovation through Conversation

For the ConnectingHR Unconference last week (though it seems ages away!), I led a discussion which I called “Innovation through Conversation”. I had prepared a mindmap, since I reckoned a little bit of preparation made sense (mindmaps are my favourite way of preparing for something like this – indeed, I prepared a couple of other topics, too, which will probably find their way into blogs because they were about things I think are important; but I didn’t want to spend the whole unconference talking!). One of the great things about the ConnectingHR was that, aside from the pecha kucha sessions, there weren’t any prepared presentations – it all felt more or less spontaneous, with no whizzy graphics, bullet point hell or hard sell.

Innovation through conversation described for me the kind of things that go on at Tuttle Club and, in particular, the process we used with Tuttle Consulting. The whole thing about Tuttle Club, for me, is the conversation: it is all about interesting conversations with interesting people. Or maybe the other way around… And out of the conversations, ideas form; and from that, products have been created. Which is innovation, to some extent.

Conversation is the product from Tuttle. But I think that can be a bit of a problem, because conversations are hard to sell. Pitching for a project, if one says to a CEO “we’ll help your people have conversations…”, we’d probably swiftly be shown the door: everyone has conversations the whole time – about what they did last night, what they’re doing for their holiday – sometimes even about work. How is what we do different, and why?

People, though, rarely have a chance to kick about new ideas in an open conversation, without preconceptions coming into play. I think this is what Tuttle Club does, and what we have recreated with clients, comes down to creating structures in which conversations can happen freely, openly, without judgement. Because those on the projects bring their experiences of making conversations in the Tuttle Club, a space based around conversation, we are quite happy having conversations with – well, complete strangers. By giving permission to people to have conversations, by opening up organisations to the power of deep conversation, those involved feel able to do so. Seeding conversations like this can cause them to spread through the organisation.

What happens in these conversations is a lot of improvisation and making connections between ideas – creating new meaning. Making it up as we go along. There is not necessarily a product, because the conversation itself is the product. The client takes a very active role – Tuttle might facilitate, but the conversations belong to the client.

That’s more or less what I scribbled down on my mindmap; but the discussion at ConnectingHR took it a lot wider as the other participants brought their own views and opinions, because ConnectingHR was all about the conversation, too.

Conversations can be very powerful. Introducing open conversations between different parts of an organisation allow new social – and product – connections to be made, across business silos. Bringing together new people and new ideas creates new thinking; it doesn’t stop with a single conversation, and can leave seeds, nuggets, waiting to develop. It leads to new learning, and a sharing of experiences and ideas; the outputs can be very rich.

Enabling people in organisations to talk to each other is engaging and empowering: it enables people to think in new and different ways. It can change organisations in permanent ways.

Someone emphasised the benefits of using appreciative enquiry, focussing on the positive aspects of processes and organisations – building on what works rather than trying to correct what doesn’t. I haven’t a lot of experience in appreciative enquiry, but it can be a powerful tool – very often, people in organisations use a lot of time and energy griping about what is wrong; using that time and energy to build on the positive aspects of what they do.

Social media – Twitter, Facebook, and so on – can also provide space for conversations. They give people permission to communicate and to connect. Someone at ConnectingHR said that when an office cleaner and the CEO connect through social media discussing (for instance!) the latest episode of Spooks, it’ll change the way they relate to each other.

I reckon that use of social media in organisations will have a flattening effect on organisation structure, opening up communications and free up people to have conversations. There are fears that with people spending time on social media at work, productivity will fall – apparently unwarranted, since someone pointed out that research had shown no decrease in productivity following the implementation of social media tools (I didn’t get a reference for this – if anyone can point me in the direction of this research, I’d be grateful!).

Someone else pointed out that people would use social media as they used to use cigarettes, and that instead of allowing people a “fag-break”, organisations could allow people “Twitter-breaks”, time between tasks when it’s ok to surf or tweet. Whether online or off, if organisations want people to talk, they need policies. I have been amused – and amazed – at hearing several times from different people in the last few weeks that internal communications departments are so worried about Twitter that some of them require anyone tweeting to have their tweets signed off. I think it was Bill Boorman who pointed out that it didn’t matter what the medium was – you need have a policy for communication, not for specific media.

I think organisations should free people to communicate with each other, whatever the medium – online and off. Because through conversation, people make new connections, spark off each other – and innovate.

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