Category Archives: Conversations

Excellence – if not now, when?

Excellence is an exciting topic. Is it about being perfect, never making a mistake? Or is it more about a mindset and set of behaviours?

In this article, I will share five tips that individually, and collectively, will have you achieving excellence more often, than not.

Continue reading Excellence – if not now, when?

A structure for creating Meetings That Matter

Ron Ashkenas, author of The Boundaryless Organization reports that most managers believe that the majority of meetings are inefficient. Despite ‘knowing’ how to conduct effective meetings they continue to practice ineffective ones.

Ashkenas offers three reasons for this behaviour:

  1. Meetings offer the opportunity for social interaction
  2. Meetings are a practical way of keeping everyone in the loop
  3. Meeting can represent a certain level of status having been attained

He provides the basic tenets of an efficient meeting to be:
“Be clear about what you want to accomplish; invite the right people; send out pre-reading in advance; have an agenda and follow it with discipline; send out notes with key decisions and action steps.”

From my experience one of the problems with the prescribed successful meeting process is that people are too busy to do the required pre-reading. In fact, most managers have reported to me that they don’t have the time to pre-read the prescribed agenda. This is something they do on the way to the meeting or when they first get there.

Managers have also reported to me that they don’t focus on the content of the meeting “…until I am there.”, especially when they are travelling from one meeting to the next.

In this context it seems near impossible to create efficient meetings. Thankfully there is a way, but it will take some of you some time to get used to the ‘instant formality’ that the process creates.Organisations That Matter, Gary Ryan, Yes For Success, Leadership, Plan for personal success

Step 1: Provide an opportunity for staff to ‘check in’ at the start of the meeting (keep it short)
Efficient meetings require all present to be ‘present’ during the meeting. Wandering minds don’t aid efficiency. The purpose of the ‘check in’ is to allow team members to psychologically separate from what was going on before the meeting to focusing on the meeting that is happening ‘now’.

A ‘check in’ can be a single word where everyone is asked to share how they are at that moment through to just those feeling the need to share a recent experience that may be on their mind (e.g. I nearly had a car accident on the way here).

Step 2: Clarify the purpose of the meeting
Even if this is a regular meeting, remind people why it still matters. If the meeting no longer matters then you shouldn’t be wasting your time conducting it!

Step 3: Collectively set the agenda
Publicly create the agenda. A whiteboard is perfect for this task (remember there is power in the whiteboard marker, so while you are teaching people this method it is best to be the ‘scribe’).

Accept all suggestions from all team members. Then select the most important items that need to be addressed today. It is okay to use your positional authority as necessary when completing this task.

Literally place numbers beside each item as you prioritise them.

Next allocate approximate time slots for each agenda item that you have agreed to talk about. These time slots do not need to be equal – they need to be relevant to the importance of the agenda item and how long (in the available time) you have to discuss the item.

Step 4: Set a time-keeper
A team member will need to take on the role of time-keeper. It is amazing how often the simple statement that we have used our available time on an item results in the discussion ending. Please note that this role can (and probably should) move around the team members from one meeting to the next.

Step 5: Make a record of the meeting
Create meeting notes that highlight the agreed agenda and any actions that result from each item. This can be done by using the left hand side of the whiteboard and recording the actions as they arise throughout your meeting. Share the meeting notes in a timely fashion. This can be done by using your smartphone to take a photo of the Action Items and then immediately distribute the photo to all team members. You can leave the meeting without any extra administration tasks to be completed!

Step 6: Reflect on the meeting skills displayed throughout the meeting
This step spends a few minutes providing the opportunity to team members to talk about their thoughts about how well meeting skills were displayed by the team members. Comments such as, “Joan asked a lot of powerful questions today. Especially when she asked me about the most powerful benefits for the organisation that my suggestion would provide. It really made me stop and think more clearly about why this project matters.” provide an example of what might be said during the reflection.

That’s it. Like anything new this six step approach will feel strange at first, but you will get used to it.

Please feel free to ask questions about any of the six steps outlined above.

Please note that this article was catalysed by a recent conversation with one of my Executive Coaching clients. Thanks Elise!

Gary Ryan enables talented professionals, their teams and organisations to Move Beyond Being Good.
View a TedX Talk by Gary here.

Primary school teacher develops conversation skills with children

One of the members of the OTM Academy has applied and modified the OTM Strategic Conversations® process to teach conversation skills to eight and nine year old children in his primary school class.

His humility is such that he has asked to remain anonymous, but for the sake of this article I’ll call him John.

Focusing on water conservation as his topic, the children were organised into groups of six. They were asked to be conscious about how much they were talking and listening.

The first question asked was, “What would be the perfect world to have for water?”

The children engaged in the conversation expressing ideas about how water could be managed. While they were conversing, John moved around the room listening to what they were saying. Part of the purpose of the conversation was to see how much they had learned from the previous few weeks of learning about water.

John, initially nervous about using this process with young children, was quickly convinced that the process worked as he heard the children talking with passion, focus and knowledge as they conversed on the first question.

As the process encourages, John mixed up the children in their groups for the second question, “What are the challenges of achieving this world?”

As John moved around the room again he was once again impressed by the way the children were sharing the conversation and demonstrating that they were listening. A Teacher’s Aid who witnessed the process remarked that she was amazed at how engaged some of the children were, particularly a number of them who had not previously shown much interest in contributing to classroom conversations.

Collecting the output from the second question John was amazed at the maturity and deep understanding of the topic that the children had clearly developed.

Rotating the children again to ensure that they learned to speak with different children, the third question focused on action. “What are we going to do?”

John was delighted that the children came up with a broad range of practical ideas, which included sharing them with the rest of the school community.

Delighted by the outcome of the conversation John contacted me to share his story. “I was very nervous at first wondering if this would be too much for the kids, but as you had encouraged me, I let myself trust the process. And it worked. I couldn’t believe that the 90 minutes we spent talking went so fast. And the kids were on centre stage, not me!”

Teaching people to hold conversations can occur at any age.
The OTM Strategic Conversations® process is based upon the original work by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.
What are your experiences of conducting large group conversations or, as we like to say Conversations That Matter®?
The OTM Academy is a free Online Community created by Gary Ryan to enhance the Personal & Professional Development of members. More information on how to host a Strategic Conversation® is available in the academy. Otherwise, email for more information.
Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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How to use illustrations to catalyse Conversations That Matter®

Creating Conversations That Matter® is a key skill for organisational leaders. Amidst forecasting, attending to meetings and writing reports, the development of this skill is often neglected. Think about it, how do you stimulate Conversations That Matter® with your peers, direct reports and your leaders? How do you stimulate them with your key stakeholders and clients?

Conversations That Matter® are conversations where people are able to speak from the heart, speak their truth (whatever it may be) in a safe environment where there will not be negative consequences for speaking their mind. This does not mean that people lose responsibility for what they say. Rather, their responsibility increases as respect is a core requirement for a conversation that matters to be conducted.

So how might a leader create a conversation that matters, especially when there may be a level of distrust present amongst team members?

One way is to use illustrations to catalyse your conversations. For these conversations to be successful, the leader must be prepared to do the following five practices:

1. Be prepared to ‘listen to understand’ to what is being said, rather than listening to defend/justify
2. Guarantee that no negative consequences will result to people as a result of the conversation
3. Listen more than speak – a good rule of thumb to follow is to speak 30% and to listen 70% of the time
4. Be prepared to ask open questions (see The Art of Skilful Questions)
5. Judge the quality of the conversation by the level of truth that is present in the conversation (see the video Transparency – How leaders create a culture of candor)

If you are able to follow the five practices above, then determine the focus of your conversation, then select an image that you could use and give it a go. As an example a great friend of ours Jock MacNeish has been creating such illustrations for the best part of his life. Over time Jock has created many illustrations for us and the 0 to 10 Relationship Management body of knowledge. As Licensed Elite Trainer Facilitators in 0 to10 Relationship Management, Andrew and I are able to use Jock’s illustrations.

The 0 to 10 Relationship Management Culture Survey illustrations are very powerful catalysts for enabling people to have a conversation that matters. If you were interested to know what your team members thought about the level of autonomy that they had in their jobs, you could place the illustration below on the table and ask them to mark on the scale where they believe the level currently sits.

When people place their finger on the scale that they believe represents their view, simply say, “Thank you for your honesty. What examples do you have that would help me to understand what this score means to you?”

Their answers will be powerful and enable you to identify what you should keep doing, start doing and stop doing. If, of course, you have tried this technique and no-one in your team spoke up, then you may have your answer anyway!

On the other hand if you’ve never tried this technique before please give it a go. Either print the illustration from this article or select a different onee for your team and create a conversation that matters. Please let us know how you go!

Finally, if you like this concept but aren’t sure what illustration to use, please provide a brief description of your issue in the comments box and I’ll help you find an appropriate illustration.

As a leader a significant part of your success is driven by your capacity to create and stimulate conversations that matter. Is this a skill that you possess? What are you currently doing to develop it?

Please feel free to ask questions and/or to make comments about this article.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at

How To Create Conversations That Matter – large group conversations that work!

Sign up to the iTunes Gary Ryan Professional Development Series.

A major problem facing people leading large teams is, “How do I truly engage the people I lead with the direction that we are heading?”. Hosting a Conversation That Matters can significnatly enhance a team’s sense of shared direction and responsibility for where it is heading. In this episode Gary explains the key features of a Conversation That Matters and shares his experience of participating in a conversation with over 1,000 people!

It was the year 2000 and Andrew and I were attending the Systems Thinking in Action Conference in San Diego, USA. Andrew had attended this conference several times before but it was my first time attending a conference in the USA, let alone one outside Australia. There was a buzz of excitement in the air as the 1,000 delegates from around the world were waiting to file in to the large auditorium for the keynote speech on the first morning. All of a sudden a piano commenced playing in a modern classical style. “This is interesting” I recall thinking to myself.

The hotel staff simultaneously opened four or five large doors so that we could enter the conference venue. My eyes were met with amazement. Rather than the seats being arranged in rows (which was all I had ever experienced at conferences) the seats were arranged in groups of four around small, round, cafe sized tables. Each table was covered with a cafe style cloth, had a large piece of butcher’s paper on it with some coloured pens in the middle of the table, a “menu” that included some rules for how we would conduct our conversations and a small flow placed in the middle of the table. With the smell of coffee emanating from the stalls across the back of the room, I felt as if I had just walked into a huge cafe!

Within minutes the place was buzzing with excitement. This was different. I sensed it. Andrew sensed it. Everyone seemed to sense it. Our host walked to the podium and introduced himself. He was Daniel Kim one of the co-founders of Pegasus Communications who were conducting the conference. Daniel explained that he was going to provide the first keynote of the conference and that he would also be playing the role of ‘theme weaver’ throughout the conference. He then explained that his keynote would not be a ‘talking at’ event, rather it would be a ‘talking with’ experience. “How is that possible? There are over 1,000 people in this venue at the moment. How can we hold a conversation together?” is the immediate thought that went through my mind. But hold a conversation we did. It was truly amazing.

Daniel shared with us a process that he had learned from Juanita Brown and David Isaacs. Upon leaving the conference venue that morning Andrew and I looked at each other and said that we had to find out more about the process because it fitted perfectly with our perspective of including people who were working on issues that directly impacted them. It also seemed to solve our problem of creating a shared understanding amongst large numbers of people. As a result we have been conducting our version of Conversation Cafes (we call them Conversations That Matter or Strategic Conversations) ever since.

We have worked with many, many different organisations and groups of people and the process continues to work. People like to be able to have their say, but not everyone likes to have their say in front of everyone else, which is why the Conversations That Matter process is so effective. It allows people to have their say while also enabling people who might not normally have an opportunity to speak with each other to have a clear and focused conversation about issues that concern both parties. The process works for group sizes as small as 12 through to more than 1,000 people as our story above highlights. We have also modified the process for groups smaller than 12 using some of the core principles of hosting Conversations That Matter.

The process is relatively simple and includes the following features:
* People sit together in small groups (ideally 3 – 5 people per table)
* Butchers paper and coloured textas are provided at each table
* People are encouraged to have tea, water of coffee while they converse * A brief overview of the process is provided including the etiquette for the conversations
* The first question is posed to the group and the people at each table hold a conversation for 10 – 15 minutes, recording whatever they like on their butcher’s paper
* After 10 – 15 minutes one person stays at their table and acts as the ‘host’, while the other 3 – 4 people who were at the table move on to separate tables for a second ’round’ on the question
* The host welcomes the new people to the table, explains the conversation that had taken place in Round 1, and then invites the new people to share their conversations (this is called ‘cross pollination” of the conversation)
* Depending on the issue and numbers of people present, a third ’round’ on the first question may be conducted
* A ‘town hall’ process is then held to capture themes and patterns that have emerged from the conversations
* Over-all two to four questions are usually posed to the group following the process outlined above
* The final question usually focuses upon a call to action, so that people can clearly see something will happen as a result of the conversation

While the process is simple, creating the right questions to ask is not so simple. Also, this process should only be used when there is a genuine desire to have input from the people participating in the conversation. If you are in a position to include people in conversations about issues that directly affect them, then we encourage you to adopt a Strategic Conversation process because quite simply, they work!

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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