I invited suggestions for the last posts before the 1000th post on this blog and Cai Kjaer suggested the great topic of how to have meaningful work conversations online.
This is a topic that has been underexplored so let’s dive into a long post to breakdown some of the elements and suggestions how to improve the interactions in your community. I don’t propose that this is a comprehensive response to the topic. What follows is my tools and approaches for managing meaningful online conversations. If all you want is a short post with some tools for conversations online, jump now to step 5. Before we answer the question, there are a few preliminary topics to consider.
Step 1: What’s a meaningful conversation?
Mark is right that a meaningful conversation could be widely interpreted. I interpreted Cai’s tweet as using meaningful in the sense of significant to the participants. That lifts us out of the realm of light weight information exchange or chatter and into the realm of conversations or collaboration. Because we are looking at conversations and collaboration, I will be using a range of concepts from adaptive leadership, effective conversations, coaching, collaboration and other domains to guide us in how to foster an meaningful discussion.
For this post, I will use a definition of meaningful conversation in line with the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration. A meaningful conversation is one that the participants or the wider organisation see as delivering value to them personally or to the purpose of their work. Value in this context is not limited to monetary value. It is value as the one or more participants or the wider community define it.
The value might be intensely personal or it might be something shared with others in the organisation. These latter types of value include achieving an organisational goal that benefits external stakeholders, enabling an employee to grow and develop or helping a customer. Meaningful conversations are often those that create or deliver value to the participants in the conversation or to the beneficiaries of work. The conversation particularly will leverage the economic and non-economic drivers of value.
Step 2: What is your goal?
A successful meaningful conversation requires some kind of goal to measure success against. Something needs to change as a result of this conversation. Achieving progress in the change that you want to explore should be your goal.
Our organisations today already have many conversations without meaning, value or purpose. To have a meaningful conversation, you need to know the significance you want to deliver. Start with the end in mind is great advice and it applies in this context too.
The best goals aren’t capitalised nouns. They are specific changes to enable you to think about who best should be involved in the conversation and what kinds of value you might be looking to realise from a discussion. Starting a conversation about Employee Engagement in an online community is likely to be unproductive. Using employee input to design solutions to improve a specific pain point in the employee experience is much more likely to be productive.
The end should not be a specific predetermined outcome of the change. A meaningful conversation is one in which the participants have the opportunity to add value to the discussion in a generative way. Meaningful conversations are those where greater value is created than anyone expected going in. If you know exactly what you want and you aren’t open to input, you aren’t trying to have a conversation, you are trying to deliver an order.
The goal should not be having the conversation itself. Conversations are great. However, in the work context people are busy achieving meaning and creating value. If you want to take their time, their input and leverage their potential, it needs to go beyond a conversation alone. Your meaningful conversation is only meaningful if it results in new value, new actions or new changes.
Step 3: Should the conversation be online?
Not every conversation is well suited to be online. There I said it. I’m not suggesting you start pulling out your ‘what to use when’ guides. I am suggesting you reflect before you start as to whether an online environment will be conducive to the participants, the participation and the value that you seek to achieve from the conversation.
Online conversations are often more asynchronous, lower bandwidth and less rich in context. We know participation can be an issue at many times but particular when the stakes are high. This means that they can be great for wider engagement, real-time interaction and less personal issues.
Online environments aren’t always a great environment for emotive issues, win/lose debates, situations that are highly stressful or where there is a large amount of context or confusion to address. One person’s speculation or thought leadership can feel to another like trolling. Meaningful conversations require participants who have trust and sensitivity to diverse others.
Step 4: Where online?
Just as not every conversation should be online, not every conversation should be public online. Reflect before you start on this meaningful conversation whether there are issues that might cause some people concern if this conversation is held publicly. We know that the best teams ensure that participants in discussion feel psychologically safe to participate and make contributions. You might want to choose a smaller group or a more private environment to maximise the value of some conversations.
Choosing the right place online will depend whether the conversation one that belongs in the inner or outer loop in your workplace, the culture of use of those tools in your organisation and the velocity of conversations and messages in those tools. It can be hard to try to have a meaningful conversations that requires though reflection and changing views while being bombarded with new messages, distractions and other issues. The culture in practice of your organisation and your own choices are the best guide to where it makes sense for you or the organisation. Don’t follow a ‘what to use when’ guide blindly for an important conversation.
Relevance of the place chosen matters too. Working out loud works best when it is a conversation about work in a relevant community with relevant people. The best place to have a meaningful conversation is where those conversations will be appreciated and people will want to be involved.
[We are the length of an average blog post and we have only just finished preliminaries. Great question, Cai. However let’s get to the ‘how to’ part of the answer]
Step 5: How to have meaningful conversation online
As I framed at the beginning of this post, this is not a definitive guide, but is instead a description of my practice in creating, sustaining and fostering these conversations. More work and research is required to build a complete picture of all that is needed. I would encourage readers to treat the following ideas as ingredients in their own experimentation, rather than a definitive recipe.
The Ingredient List
- Have a Plan: Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate – The four stages of the Value Maturity Model can also act as a handy planning guide for meaningful conversations. Who do you need to connect? What information do you need to share? What needs to be solved? What can you do more, better, different or less?
- When: The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. Conversations need to be timely. That may mean having a meaningful conversation when matters are hot. It may also mean having a more reflective meaningful conversation at a later stage. The question is when is the best time for this discussion to occur. There may be no perfect answer and if in doubt start now because currency is often the best context.
- Are you ready? If you are seeking to facilitate a conversation, your state of mind, confidence and readiness is an important part of the discussion. Your inner state will influence others even if you never verbalise it, even online. Reflect before you start and understand your doubts and uncertainties. Ask yourself how you might use them in the conversation explicitly rather than be undermined by them. Sharing your vulnerability in the right way can be an important part of facilitating a meaningful discussion.
- Be Inclusive: Great conversations are inclusive. Focus on what capabilities are required to ensure everyone can contribute their capabilities to the conversation. Opportunity to participate is not enough. For truly inclusive conversations, you may need to engage diverse voices on how best to be involved and actively invite the participation for those who may not otherwise speak.
- Create a Context: Conversations don’t happen in isolation. They occur in a context. Two or more people who don’t share a context won’t be able to have a valuable or a meaningful conversation. That context includes such issues as shared facts, the rationale for the conversation, power, authority, status, safety and so on. The context needs to allow for the culture of the organisation. One way to rapidly bring in a context and lift above dry facts is to focus on beginning your conversation with some storytelling. Storytelling is the human way of sharing context.
- Love and Power: Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love is a reminder that meaningful conversations take account of both power and emotions. If you don’t deal with both aspects in your meaningful conversation it will fall over. Ask people questions that engage their emotions and encourage them to share how they feel. Make sure you have engaged and involve those with power and explicitly discuss the issues power presents in your conversation. You don’t want an utopian conversation.
- Call Bad Behaviour: if you get disruptive, trolling or other negative participation, you will need to call it out and encourage others to do so too. Don’t hesitate to discuss how to make the conversation more productive while the conversation is underway. Change course if there is a better way. You may need to exclude people if the behaviour persists after warnings. Sustaining a safe and constructive environment for the conversation is important. As you invited the discussion, it is your responsibility to keep it safe.
- Defer Action: In every conversation, someone arrives too early with an answer. The more senior they are the more likely they are to believe that they have the answer and that they want to act on it now. Facilitators know to structure discussions to allow actions to be decided later. We find better actions when we have understood more by discussion.
- Framework for Discussion: In the book The Communication Catalyst by Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek, the have a conversation framework that I have found incredibly useful in high stakes conversations. That framework is to discuss in order people’s purposes, concerns, relevant facts and then agreed actions. Facilitating conversations in this order creates a process of alignment that helps people collaborate even where they have opposing views.
- Manage the Disequilibrium: Adaptive Leadership reminds us that meaningful conversations are not easy ones. To foster a meaningful generative discussion, we need to encourage participants to feel unsettled, to reflect and to consider the system more widely. This means you will need to lean into some conflict and challenge to get people’s attention and shift them out of everyday transactional discussions. I know I am prepared for the disequilibrium when my fingers tremble at starting the conversation.
- Jumpstart discussion: If you want to start a meaningful discussion online with lots of participants, it is valuable to have a few people you have invited in to get the conversation going. Mentioning people is one way to start this, but for really meaningful topics you may want to engage a small group of early participants to help set the tone and kickstart the discussion. Don’t tell them what to say, but do arrange that they will participate to make their own contribution. Give some thought to ensuring that this early group has some disequilibrium in it. You will want disagreements and diversity of views. Watching a group of people engage in group think is not engaging.
- Conversation meter: Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek also have a tool in the Communication Catalyst called the conversation meter. It encourages participants to reflect on whether their contributions to the conversation are on a rising scale from Pretence, Sincerity, Accuracy to Authenticity. Conversations below Accuracy are unlikely to be effective. Conversations from Accuracy up improve in effectiveness.
- It’s not A to B in one transaction: A meaningful conversation is a relationship, not a transaction. Don’t expect a meaningful conversation to be over and done in one interaction. Allow time for the conversation to develop over phases. Good generative conversations include new insights and ideas generated from pauses and reflection.
- Questions: A good generative conversation depends on great questions. Ask lots of questions, especially early on in the discussion. Keep asking questions all the way to the end. One of the forgotten elements in modern workplace conversation is asking questions to confirm understanding and to validate agreements. These are critical to the value of a discussion. As George Bernard Shaw said,
‘The greatest challenge in communication is the illusion it has taken place’
- Explore Options: Questions can encourage people to look widely for solutions. Encourage people to explore the whole system in which they operate. Ask people for analogous situations and metaphors that might help foster new and different patterns of thought. Spend as more time on what can be done than on the barriers and historical issues. You want to help guide people to their degrees of freedom to act.
- Don’t Panic: Meaningful conversations aren’t easy. Things can and will go wrong. You may want them to go wrong to cause disequilibrium and have reflection on why. Whatever you do, don’t panic if something bad happens. Pause, reflect, deal with it and move on.
- It’s Never You: You want to have a meaningful conversation and nobody else does. Your meaningful conversation collapses in fights and name-calling. Someone tells you the great discussion was a waste of time and won’t go anywhere. People will attack you personally. Remember you are not the conversation. You are just the facilitator. Don’t take it personally. It’s never you. You are not your work. There will be other conversations and you can try again.
- Work towards Value: Purpose, your goals of the conversation and the value that flow should be your guide in the conversation. There may be many byways and digressions but your role is to keep bringing the conversation back to these elements.
- Finish with Action not more Discussion: You will learn more by doing. Make sure your conversation agrees some actions at the end and there are experiments to be run. If people can’t agree, then decide on some hypotheses to test in action.
- Practice: The best way to have meaningful conversations online is to practice having meaningful conversations online. Engage people and learn by doing. The skills you develop across a range of online forums will help you to develop your skills in starting and managing these discussions. You will also learn to appreciate the best practices and things to avoid that you see in action.
Community managers getting to this point might reflect that what I have described above sounds a lot like community management. Do we really expect each employee or user to manage each conversation in this detail? Yes, if the stakes are high enough. If you want a meaningful conversation you must deal with the fractal nature of online communities. The large scale issues are reflected at a conversation level. Skilling up participants to support the wider group dynamics is a powerful part of highly effective communities.
Creating the right value in online communities requires people to manage the scale and value of conversations. Developing these practical skills is essential to organisations ability to learn and adapt. Most importantly, conversation are how we leverage the potential of the people in the organisation.
‘Markets are conversations’ – Cluetrain Manifesto