How leaders start Electric Conversations

Powerful tips to facilitate more creative team meetings

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Have you ever been in a conversation that takes on a life of its own? You lose track of time and become completely engrossed? Sometimes, it even makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? In the The Spark, How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity (FT Publishing) I coined a phrase for these special interactions that has chimed with a lot of business people: Electric Conversations.

After years of working with management teams in creative companies on leadership and change, I noticed an important skill that separates inspiring leaders from the rest: they facilitate meetings in which Electric Conversations are encouraged.

You’ll have experienced an Electric Conversation. They often precede important decisions and change in your life. Sadly, they’re often stifled at work. People clam up because they’re scared of sounding stupid – especially when the boss is the room. This kills off any hope of innovation.

Allowing creative discussions to flow couldn’t be more important to your business; these conversations are behind every profit-making idea you’ll ever have. They lead to that most precious of commodities: new ideas. Ideas change your future. Electric Conversations allow ideas to develop in the spaces between people.

You can tell when you’re having an Electric Conversation because they are:

Idea-Driven: Not focussed on hierarchy – all about the idea.

Brave: Constructive conflict is part of it – and the potential for failure takes courage.

Passionate: It’s not possible to be creative without caring.

Playful: No assumption of a “right way” – unpredictable, playful and fun.

Purposeful: The team can disagree – but share values and an inspiring purpose.

If you want to start some Electric Conversations here’s how:

  1. Find a Challenging Question: Think of one of the biggest or most intriguing questions facing your business. Something that makes you scared and hopeful all at the same time. Some examples: How could we improve our products to embarrass the competition? What are we really good at – AND really bad at (but have been too scared to admit it?) What new technology do we need to exploit before it makes us irrelevant?
  2. Pick a Diverse Team: Invite a group of people to a no-holds barred creative conversation – be careful to select them from all levels and all parts of your team or business.
  3. Drop Hierarchy: Make it clear you are all there “on the same level”. Listen more than you speak. Facilitate a flowing discussion where all are involved and then summarise what was achieved. This is a golden opportunity for you to demonstrate what an Electric Conversation should look, sound and feel like.
  4. Observe Carefully: Use your eyes, ears and instincts to make sure the conversation embodies the Electric Conversation characteristics listed above.

This blog is an adapted extract from The Spark, How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity (FT Publishing, £14.99). There’s more information at gregorme.org/the-spark/. It’s available in all good book shops and on Amazon.

Copyright © 2014 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Be Like Steve Jobs: Offer Focus AND Freedom

Point to the mountain – but don’t tell people how to climb

Steve Jobs

First Focus…

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997 he took his leaders on a retreat. On the final day he stood at the whiteboard and asked: “What are the ten things we’re going to do next?” His lieutenants fought to get their ideas on the board. As the discussion subsided, it displayed the list of ten. At this point Jobs crossed off seven. “We can only do three,” he explained. What he meant: we can only do three things brilliantly well (and better than the competition). Jobs obsession with focus has become the Apple motif. He once declared: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Focus should be a mantra for any business. But it’s particularly important for businesses plying their trade in knowledge and ideas. There’s precious little that’s tangible about a creative business: an office, some laptops and software, weightless intellectual property – and a group of creative, clever people. This imbues the business with an entrepreneurial spirit and a flexibility that’s exciting and full of potential. But agility presents an ever-present challenge: what to focus on – and what to say “no” to.
Creative people can do anything, and they often try. I call it the “Kid in a Sweetshop” Syndrome. Everything looks so appetising and interesting the business ends up doing too much. As a result what they deliver to customers is average. And they end up feeling a bit sick when they look at their profits – and the success of their rivals.

The key to offering focus is to be crystal-clear about:

  1. Purpose – Why you’re in business
  2. Values – What you believe in
  3. Focus – What you want to be famous for
  4. Vision – What your business will look, sound and feel like in the future

…Then Freedom

Paradoxically, once you have established clarity, you can empower your people with confidence. When Jobs found a person he trusted he offered latitude. He called his chief designer Jonathan Ive his “”spiritual partner” and organised Apple to offer him free rein. Creative leaders point to the mountain; but allow enormous freedom on how to climb it. By contrast, non-creative businesses offer the following prescription:

“First, put on your boots… 
“Second, use the handy and detailed map provided by your line manager.”
“Third, lean your body weight forward and swing your right leg. You are now what we call ‘walking’.”
“Fourth, ….”

You get the picture.

In 2013, the advertising business Ogilvy & Mather became the first agency to be awarded over 100 Cannes Lions for creativity, while also winning its first ever Creative Effectiveness Award. The Ogilvy corporate culture is expressed like this: “We don’t like rigid pecking orders. We give our executives an extraordinary degree of independence, in the belief that freedom stimulates initiative. We dislike issuing orders; the best results are produced by men and women who don’t have to be told what to do.”

This blog is an early draft extract from my book “The Spark – How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity” (FT Publishing, 2014) an inspiring ‘how-to’ manual to boost innovation in your team or business - available in all good book shops and on Amazon

All Rights Reserved, © Copyright Greg Orme 2013

Why meetings are a waste of time (and how to fix it)

Six steps to transform leadership meetings from talking shops to opportunities for change. 

waste of time

Management and board meetings are a fact of life. A recent study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School found leaders spend a third of their team in meetings. They can either be valuable milestones to build the team, share information and make decisions. Or, as one of my client’s once put it: “A life-sucking waste of my time!” The stakes are high. The clock is ticking on those chunky salaries if meetings are not adding value. Here are six steps to get it right:

  1. Explicitly Value Working Together: In some cases the perceived worth of exploring issues and making key decisions as a management team has plummeted. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No preparation is done. People turn up late, if at all. Often, the meeting gets cancelled at the last moment. When it finally gets started its unfocussed and lacking in energy and inspiration. The power for breaking this vicious circle sits with the leader. He or she needs to clearly signal the Rules of Engagement have changed.
  2. Agree Rules of Engagement: Ask: “How do we need to behave in order to make this meeting the best use of our time?” Agree some clear, non-negotiable rules. When I’ve encouraged clients to do this in the past it’s resulted in common sense principles such as: turn up on time, be open and honest with each other, seek to understand before responding, speak to the point, show respect, encourage full participation and accept no distractions (those nagging phone calls and emails!). When people break these rules, speak up. Self policing works.
  3. Set Clear Objectives: Is this a “Decisions-and-Actions” meeting, where the objective is to converge on a way forward? Or, a “Dreaming-Together” session where free-wheeling creativity aims to produce new thinking? Both are valid. But they’ll have a different process, style and feel. Establish the type of gathering you need. Create a clear agenda. Identify the best possible outcome. Get started.
  4. Guarantee Engagement. The whole point of a management team is one person can’t do it all! Increase participation and engagement by assigning roles to discussion leaders, having multiple presenters, and asking open-ended (rather than yes-or-no) questions.
  5. Show Leadership: Many of the innovative, people-focussed businesses I work with have an informal, non-hierarchical culture. That’s great! Listening to all sides of the argument and empowering people is important. But let’s be clear: someone needs to fairly and firmly guide a meeting. If consensus can’t be reached it’s not an excuse to duck tough decisions. People don’t expect democracy in a business – and there’s nothing more frustrating for a team than a leader who won’t lead.
  6. Follow Up: At the end of the meeting agree a list of who is responsible for each next action – and when it’s due. Hold people accountable the next time you get together. Meetings get a reputation as pointless talking shops if they don’t result in progress outside the room.

Copyright © 2013 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Caution Change Ahead!

6 Ways To Avoid Being Tripped Up When Leading Change In Your Organisation   

Creating change is often difficult, expensive, and prone to failure. And as a leader when you initiative the “pet project of the month” over and over again but nothing really changes guess what? You start to look a little like a politician: all mouth and no trousers.

Change is difficult because it’s about new behaviours. And we all know how difficult it is to alter our own habits (drinking less, exercising more or turning the TV off once in a while!) Imagine how much harder it is when you are trying to modify the attitudes and actions of an entire organisation.

Over the years I’ve been involved in the implementation of major change in a variety of businesses. From my experience – and research into good practice – here are six handy tips to help you to become a successful Change Maker.

1. Start Shouting Fire – Many businesses are too inward looking. They don’t listen enough to their clients or know enough about their competitors. An inward-facing mentality can breed complacency, even arrogance. As a leader you need to show your people that the need for change is urgent. If there is not a pressing commercial or operational “fire” in your business (and there normally is) you might need to start it yourself.

2. Get the right people involved, at the right time, during the process –  change often starts with one or two people, but making it stick is not a solo sport. To get things going you need to get enough people involved with the expertise and credibility required. And ensure they are working as a team. Change Management is like getting a car started when it’s bogged down in the mud. You need a coordinated, sustained push with as many people involved as you can rope in.

3. Develop a Clear Inspirational Purpose – if it’s not there already start with a rigorous and collaborative development process to find this, then add specific objectives. Anything less is a recipe for confusion and apathy.

4. Communicate, communicate, and then communicate again – It is amazing how many businesses do not communicate effectively. Try this as a test: ask six team members what the fundamental purpose of your business is and see how different their replies are. You might be surprised.

5. Empower Your People – Make sure your team can grab the purpose and make it happen. But empowerment is pointless if it’s just a word. Take a look at your systems, structures and skill levels to make sure the sort of behaviour you want is even possible in your business.

6. Plan for some short term wins – Change is painful and difficult at times and it needs a sustained effort; timelines are normally not weeks but months and even years. To show your team the late nights are worth it make sure the changes you are bringing about delivers short term wins along the way.

Copyright © 2011 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

With thanks to John P. Kotter’s ‘Leading Change’