From selection interviews or career conversations through to formal talent and succession reviews or board meetings, the effectiveness and depth of communication, and how people share and build knowledge, is critical for success. Communication is often taken for granted – people always talk to each other, after all – but it is also highlighted within employee surveys as needing more focus.
The truth is that more focused, and effective conversations can increase motivation, improve performance and support any organisation through change. Most importantly, when conversations generate new knowledge and create a shared understanding they also provide a foundation for innovation and agility of thinking. It’s something that is sadly lacking across many organisations right now – and a skill we must hone to create new opportunities leading to economic growth.
Three quick wins
It’s not an easy skill to master but there are three quick wins that, used appropriately, will help make effective communication an easier task.
- Understanding the balance between sharing and listening is important. Advocating your own views is all very well, but how do they relate to other peoples’ perspectives? Where meetings contain more time spent justifying a position than asking questions, they become entrenched in debate, and fail to produce any new thinking. An effective conversation has a relatively equal balance of both elements. For example; while working on a business transformation with a major retailer, I heard a long list of things that were missing or failing within the current processes. I kept asking the question, ‘what is working now, in this process, which is a source of competitive advantage that you would like to keep?’ This helped the team to start to move forwards from defending their views, and led to ensuring that best in class factory to store replenishment time for chilled foods was maintained.
- There needs to be positive challenge, not just tired defences and stock phrases such as ‘that will not work because…’ or ‘we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work’. Instead, use your ability to question to position the issue and seek a solution to any problem. At a recent client meeting I heard this done perfectly. The client, looking for a quick fix to a long-term problem could have said that it would take four years to resolve the issue, but probably longer without the right skills. Sounds like a barrier? It would have, but instead she said: “It takes 4 years to really understand how to build a cost estimate for our most complex products, and we need these skills today. You’re suggesting that we use existing staff to buddy with new recruits. How will we create the time for this to happen?”. In other words, by setting context, barriers were removed and replaced with a plea for help. By focusing on positive challenge questions, such as this, we were able to identify key capabilities. We then broke these into building blocks of learning with specific practical experience, allowing individuals to become useful immediately in specific, focused areas of work.
- You need to ask yourself; ‘what new learning or knowledge have we created together that none of us knew before?’ A recent example of this is when I was working with a colleague on their career goals, and they had just described to me what they were most proud of at work. I then asked ‘how are you going to make sure that you repeat and build on this experience in your next role?’ They fed back to me later that this was a real revelation – they had shifted their perspective to seeing this good experience as being something within their control to replicate.
By using just three small techniques to generate better quality conversation, we begin to increase learning at all levels. At an individual level, it starts to help us all to be more open, and flexible in our thinking – which is where new insight, innovation and change start to happen. At an organisation level, small shifts in individual thinking are the beginnings of greater agility and responsiveness to the market.