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The Power of Conversation and Elvis Presley

That great management guru Elvis Presley was not having a good day when he drawled “A little less conversation a little more action please”. I am sure that man from Memphis was quite rightly railing against the focus groups, working parties, paper writing apologists for inaction that bedevil much of corporate life. But at another level he was very wrong – dangerously so.

In fact there is very little conversation around organisations and an awful lot of muddle-headed action. The sorts of conversation I am talking about here is where all those involved begin by wanting to understand the point of view of others; continue in a spirit of openness and exploration and end with a shared and rich picture of what needs to happen and a commitment to it. A conversation in which those involved, in a way that is often significant and profound, have changed.

There are many dangers when action is undertaken without this quality of dialogue, but one that has really struck me recently is the block on learning that is created. Major insights are lost from a broad range of experiences that could be brought to the table and critical information is left unexplored due to the  complexity of the situation  and the posturing of the actors involved. The result can be disastrous as the lessons learned from one problem are not heard when a similar problem is faced even a short while later.

Martin Vander Weyer, business editor of the Spectator, recalled in a recent article his experience as Managing Director of BZW, the forerunner of Barclays Capital, during the late 1980’s and the catastrophic financial failures of ‘Black Monday’. In conversations with his then boss Lord Camoys he realised:

“that neither of us really knew anything about extremes of market behaviour — and what we learned that week was never passed to our successors who would be there for the dotcom bust and the crisis of 2008.”

It used to be a ‘hot issue’; knowledge management, with IT experts finding themselves blinking in the harsh light of the most senior executive tables. There has been a retreat from these glories more recently as the learning and practical wisdom that is captured in conversation seems not to be suited to the abstractions inevitably created by even the most sophisticated process.

I would argue that the right sort of conversations create learning which is immediately and personally understood by the participants and has embedded within it the potential for mental rehearsal  and anticipation that creates effective action. The King said once “I forgot to remember to forget”, he was surely commenting on organisation learning and the underpinning of effective action!

Comments on this Post

Philip Lindsay on 12th February 2013

Conversations, as you describe them, are crucially and demonstrably important - as is the wider communication of learning from such conversations. My feeling is that most organisations do not have the culture or procedures that encourage them - and therefore, for many, if these conversations and communications happen at all, it is more as a function of serendipity. So, seriously, where and when do employees learn the skills to 'converse' effectively? And who internally is celebrated, revered and promoted for consistently role-modelling wider effective communication of learning? I've sat around numerous Board tables over the years where senior people have nodded and agreed that these skills and practices are important for ongoing organisational health - 'it even says so in some learned texts' - but I have witnessed little in terms of concerted and supported action afterwards to make it so. Perhaps the King was talking about more of these sorts of 'action' to deliver better 'conversations'

Jonathan Males on 5th February 2013

I think there's another part to this problem; a tendency to devalue past experience because the people with it are perceived to be 'old' - and therefore past it. Some cultures seem to be better at valuing the wisdom that can come from age.

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