When we discussed the issue of strategic alignment, we found enabling the right conversations to be a critical element. This sounds easy, but in practice it can be very difficult to achieve. For a start, how do you know which are the right conversations? And how do you make sure that people have time for them?
As ‘ideas magnets’, sales enablers are in and out of other companies, and are therefore perhaps uniquely placed to facilitate the ‘right conversations’, both within their own company, and with customers. And there is some really interesting thinking developing about enabling conversations on both small and large scale, including semi-facilitated interventions and self-organising events, which can inform what they do.
When you know that a group or an organisation needs to have some serious conversations, how can you help that to happen? One way is obviously an awayday or conference, but these often have such negative connotations that individuals may be reluctant to engage. But by using semi-facilitated approaches in a more informal environment, it is possible to help individuals engage in relevant conversations.
An example of this is ‘World Café’, where tables are set out in ‘café style’, with refreshments. It allows small discussions among a large group, on a rotating basis, in an informal atmosphere. One person at each table acts as ‘host’, welcoming newcomers. The principles include focusing on what matters, contributing your thinking and experience, listening to others, and connecting ideas. The more informal atmosphere means that individuals connect on a more intimate level, and discuss issues in a way that is not always possible at work.
An example of a self-organising event is Open Space, which grew out of an observation by organisational consultant Harrison Owen that participants at a conference got more value out of the coffee breaks than out of the organised sessions. He therefore proposed a new type of conference. At an Open Space session, participants create their own conference. Conference organisers make available spaces and session times. Anyone who wishes to initiate a discussion or activity writes it down on a large piece of paper and stands up and announces it to the group, then chooses a time and space for that discussion. When everyone who wishes to do so has announced their proposal, then the ‘village marketplace’ begins. Participants put together their own schedule from the proposals, and the first meetings begin straight away.
It may sound scary, but such a conference is both totally chaotic and amazingly organised. The principle behind it is that everyone who comes must be passionate about the topic, and want to create something from that passion. The other ‘rules’ are that whoever comes are the right people, whatever happens is all that could have happened, when it starts is the right time, and when it’s over it’s over. This means there can be no discussion about ‘if only so and so had been here’, or ‘but it’s not the right time to talk about this’.
The final rule of Open Space is the Law of Two Feet: if you find yourself in a position where you are not learning or contributing, go somewhere else. While originally coined for a conference situation, it applies as much to life outside. The energy created by this self-organisation is huge, and can drive enormous change because of the passion behind it.
What does this mean for marketing and sales teams?
You may not wish to organise an event like this, but the principles can be used to guide every interaction, both within your own company and with customers. For example, using Open Space principles, whoever chooses to talk to you about a particular topic, be it product, change, or idea, is the right person to talk to about it, at the right time. If they are interested enough to raise it, then there is passion enough to drive change, and you are the right people to do so.
And looking at World Café ideas, remember the importance of informality. Large set-piece meetings are often not the best way to achieve consensus. Small, informal, ‘chance’ meetings may be a much better way to influence, particularly one-to-ones over a coffee. And if someone else arrives to join the discussion, welcome them in, even if the discussion changes to one in which you have little interest. Think of it as facilitating someone else’s important conversation, and key to your role as an ideas magnet.