Conversational Leadership: Thinking Together for a Change
Thomas J. Hurley, Regional Vice-Chair, North America, Oxford Leadership Academy
You may have had the opportunity to take part in a World Café conversation, where groups of four or five sit at small tables, exploring “questions that matter.” At intervals, all but one member moves to another table. The remaining member shares highlights from the previous conversation. After several rounds, participants offer insights, learnings, and opportunities to the whole group.
If so, you may have seen how the collective intelligence of a group can cross-pollinate ideas, make unexpected connections, and create action opportunities. You may then have thought about how we often use the intelligence of just a few people when we could gain so much more by including people more intentionally in the conversation.
This new approach is “conversational leadership” in action. Conversational leadership is a way of seeing, a pattern of thinking, and a set of practices that are particularly important today, when questions are complex and require new ways of thinking together. Through strategic conversations about questions that matter, leaders have unprecedented opportunities to tap collective intelligence and guide committed action. How we address challenges and opportunities may mean the difference between “business as usual” and the breakthrough thinking and action needed today.
A Framework for Conversational Leadership
To design effective architectures for engagement, a conversational leader will do these six things:
- Clarify purpose and strategic intent
Without clarity and intent, no one knows where they are headed or why. Purpose determines which issues are important and which questions matter. It helps leaders discover relevant stakeholders and select formats to support collaboration. It guides the development of strategy and enables people to decide what to do as they make real-time decisions in rapidly changing circumstances.
- Explore critical issues and questions
Without a focus on critical issues, there’s no reason to act and no context for collaborative learning. Leaders are typically judged on how well they address the issues that define their domains. Yet we often act on issues without taking time to thoughtfully define them. A conversational leader develops the capacity for evoking and articulating powerful questions—and fosters that capacity in others.
- Engage all key stakeholders
Without engaging all key stakeholders, there is little chance of breakthrough thinking. The process of identifying critical questions shows the need for diverse voices so innovative solutions can reveal themselves. Cross-functional teams, multi-stakeholder dialogues, and getting the whole system in the room make us aware that an “ecology of thought” is needed to understand any important issue, develop solutions, and catalyze support for change.
- Skillfully use collaborative social technologies
Without collaborative social technologies, dialogue can devolve into diatribe, and solutions are owned by those with the loudest voices. This all doesn’t happen by accident! We must be intentional about choosing processes for engagement in ways that foster “coherence without control.” To design an environment that fosters collaborative thinking, we need to clarify context, create a hospitable space, explore questions that matter, encourage everyone’s contribution, cross-pollinate and connect perspectives, listen together for insights, and share collective discoveries.
- Guide collective intelligence toward effective action
Without collective intelligence and wise action, our future remains imperiled. The outcome of all this activity is effective action in service of purpose and strategic intent. Once leaders view the organization as a living network of conversations, they can focus on questions that truly matter. In addition, they can design infrastructures that enable “harvests” so related conversations can connect and amplify each other.
- Foster innovative capacity development
Without leadership capacities that rise to today’s complex challenges, we rely on approaches that are no longer adequate. Developing the capacity for conversational leadership may be one of the most productive investments that organizations can make. Yet our formal training and experience poorly equip us with the mental models or process skills needed to respond creatively to the complexity of today’s challenges.
Shaping Positive Futures
We need an expanded concept of leadership development— one that encompasses the skills, knowledge, and qualities to create and guide networks that continually renew the capacity to learn, adapt, and create value.
A true conversational leader:
- Creates a climate for discovery.
- Evokes and honors diverse perspectives.
- Asks powerful questions.
- Suspends premature judgment.
- Explores assumptions and beliefs.
- Embraces ambiguity and not-knowing.
- Listens for connections between ideas.
- Captures key insights and articulates shared understanding.
Our individual and collective power is amplified as we “think together” and connect our conversations to create possibilities for change. In an era when all of us are called to step forward with courage, conversational leadership can transform how leaders understand their organizations, how companies employ their collective intelligence, and how we all participate in “thinking together, for a change.”
Tom is a senior consultant and executive coach on creating strategic alignment and competitive advantage through collaboration, engagement, and accountability. He serves as Regional Vice-Chair, North America, for Oxford Leadership Academy. Juanita has served as a senior affiliate with the MIT Sloan School’s Center for Organizational Learning, as a research affiliate with the Institute for the Future, and as a Fellow of the World Business Academy.
To learn more about The World Café, go to: theworldcafe.com. To contact Tom or Juanita, you may email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.