News & Views

Opinion / A Little More Conversation, A Little Less Action

by Georgia Malden

At Contagious Insider we run a lot of workshops for clients, from brand purpose defining sessions to capability building and creative ideation (on which more below). And we’re always on the lookout for new and effective ways of structuring and facilitating them.

To that end we recently had a fascinating discussion with an extremely smart business psychologist who has 25 years coaching under her belt. And she said something really insightful: that dialogue in and of itself can be one of the most powerful outcomes of a workshop.

Trouble is, that sounds so woolly.

More often than not the people organising – or at least signing off on – workshops are those red blooded decision makers whose successful career paths are based on getting things done, and taking tough decisions in stressful situations. Their lives are dominated by closed questions and definitive answers. These people don’t want to waste time with chat. They want action. And actions are the kind of tangible outputs that help them measure success and justify the costs.

Worse, workshops have become the default solution for any problem that needs fixing. (As Phil Adams has so wryly noted.)

Of course, workshops are not always the answer. If you need to come up with a fully fledged creative idea, getting 30 people into a room and expecting them to nail the solution in half a day is unlikely going to be the right route. And if the problem lies in a more fundamental process breakdown, then no amount of post-it notes will fix it in an afternoon.

However, perhaps we’re not being sufficiently honest about the value workshops can bring, nor giving them appropriate credit.

Our extremely smart business psychologist elaborated: behaviour change can sometimes be more likely to happen as a result of a jolly good conversation, rather than agreeing a list of actions and WhoDos (workshop speak for who does what next, to be credited to Dave Gray, author of Gamestorming).

A thinking environment

This thesis stems from the work of Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think. Her theory is that quality thinking precedes quality action, and that to get to quality thinking we need to create the right ‘thinking environment’ – a space for talking and listening in equal measure, and unlocking ideas through questioning and dialogue.

Kline’s research outlines ten components that make for an effective thinking environment. Without going into all ten here, I thought I’d highlight four of my favourites. (You can see the rest here.)

The first is ‘attention’ – that is, listening with interest, respect and without interruption. Think about it: how often during the day do you interrupt someone who’s speaking to you? Or perhaps finish their sentences? Or plan what you’re going to say next while they’re still speaking? Real attention is hard. But it can be very powerful. In fact, Kline argues that attention itself is an act of creation. ‘The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking,’ she says.

The second is equality – that is, giving everyone a chance to speak, on a level playing field and in equal turns. Workshops can be dominated by the loudmouths who think they’re right, while the quiet (and let’s face it, often the brightest) keep their opinions to themselves in the corner. In a ‘thinking environment’, equality keeps the talkative from drowning out the silent, and also puts an expectation on the quiet to contribute their points of view.

The third component is appreciation. We thrive on praise. And yet it is so much easier to be critical. In fact, we feel clever when we shoot down other people’s ideas. But criticism is often specious and can close down discussion and creativity. Kline argues for a strict 5:1 ratio of appreciation to challenge.

Finally: incisive questions. These are questions that strip away the assumptions that might be hampering progress in order to liberate fresh thinking. So, for example, a limiting assumption might be that you think you don’t have enough time, and the incisive question might be, ‘if you knew you had choice over how you spend your time, what would you do?’

Any one of Kline’s ten components, she argues, can deliver more effective conversations, and better thinking. Get all of them working together, and you can reach better ideas faster.

There are a lot of parallels here with dialogic theories of learning and education – which argue that learning through dialogue leads to improved thinking skills. Unlike dialectic conversation (which seeks resolution by arguing out opposing views), dialogic conversation allows for multiple viewpoints and seeks understanding through discussion. Put simply, people get to better results through dialogue.

Creative ideation as the means to conversation

The value of this approach seems evident when it comes to gnarly workplace situations that need careful and balanced discussion. But I think it also holds true even for creative ideation workshops.

Too often the stated objective of these is to generate campaign or innovation ideas that can be put into action. But if we’re realistic, we know that market-ready ideas are almost impossible to achieve in such sessions.

Creative ideation workshops can sow the seeds, but fully-fledged ideas require time to germinate and are often the result of recombining elements of a range of other ideas after the fact, by a smaller team who have the time and space to evolve them.

These workshops are also effective at bringing together different perspectives from across the business, which can result in some surprising new directions and lateral connections.

But most importantly, they can unearth areas of common interest and shared understanding, engendering newfound respect across diverse teams. I was heartened at the end of a recent workshop where the financial director professed his admiration for the marketing team who he’d previously thought of as rather fluffy creative types.

In fact, how often is it that at the close of a workshop, what people say they’ve valued most is the chance to come together with colleagues across the business with whom they don’t normally get the chance to work?

That’s not woolly. It’s one of the most important things. Creative ideation may not deliver a market-ready campaign idea, but it can start a conversation that leads to the kind of trust, respect, openness and understanding that form the foundations of much more effective and long-term working relationships.

So let’s not dismiss the value of dialogue as an output, and instead think about some of the elements needed to give these kinds of workshops their best chance of success.

Here are a few workshop planning tips for starters:

Be honest about the objective. If you want to get to a concrete campaign idea, a smaller team with more time and space to think might be more effective.

Get the right people in the room. Sometimes having the financial director there can add valuable insights, or start building bridges. But a free-for-all is often just the easy way out.

Schedule it for the morning. Decisive, action-oriented thinking is a barrier to open, ambiguous conversations. We wake up in open mode, and tend to get more closed as the day progresses. So start early.

Structure the agenda in the form of questions (ideally incisive ones). Questions help to put people into an open frame of mind, encouraging dialogue.

Give everyone a chance to speak, uninterrupted. Conversation doesn’t mean being unstructured and free-form, it requires careful management. Agree with the group the terms of engagement at the start.

Collect insights, not actions. Asking people what they learned in the session rather than what they are going to do next can in fact be more influential in terms of changing their behaviour.

Factor in follow up time. Smaller groups will need to come together to develop the ideas generated, or pick up on the issues raised. Workshops are only the start of a conversation.

So, to make the most of your next workshop, you might want to ditch the ‘WhoDo’ for the ‘Uh Huh’. A little more conversation might just lead to a little more action.


Georgia Malden is an Insider in Contagious’ consultancy division. If you want to find out more about what Insider does, or perhaps would like to talk to us about planning your own workshop, get in touch.