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Eric Braun, Senior Director of Innovation at Retail Business Services, part of the grocery conglomerate Ahold Delhaize.

Talking is part of being human, and conversation generates energy between humans that starts our cognitive wheels spinning. Creativity is cultivated through conversations, and innovation feeds off of creativity.

On a small scale, conversations help ideas grow and develop by including diverse perspectives and additional information. On a larger scale, like the distributed network of the World Wide Web, conversations cross-pollinate and spread ideas, stimulating even greater creativity. As a natural human process, conversation is fundamental to developing and sustaining a culture of innovation. It enables and strengthens a sense of community and trust, which are part of the culture that helps innovation thrive.

Silence is Not Golden

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Startup founders have long realized that others have similar ideas, so remaining in stealth mode is not a good thing. Corporate innovators should bear this in mind, too. Stealth mode actually can hamstring a startup, because it stifles conversation. An initial idea that is destined for greatness rarely remains static. The creative process causes the idea to evolve through iterative steps of deliberate thought, visualization, and quite a bit of conversation. Within this vortex of creativity is the birthplace of innovation. 

When I use the word conversation, I’m not talking about office gossip, free-association about industry trends, or rehashing what the last customer you talked to told you. Constructive conversation involves taking an idea or a concept to the next level. It might be a product idea, a philosophy on ways of working, or a personal perspective on a project — something that is stuck inside you. Within you, the idea germinates slowly, but when you let it out for discussion with others, it grows and develops rapidly. Diverse perspectives and challenging questions are like the water a plant needs to grow.

Communication is Different from Conversation

While an innovation culture is created and sustained by conversation, a corporate culture is created and sustained by communication, and this poses a challenge to innovation. Corporate communications departments exist to ensure that everyone in a large company understands the strategy, values, and important happenings in the various departments. In order to get the job done, the department stays in touch with multiple layers, from executives down to middle managers. They function somewhat like a news organization that distributes information about strategy and direction from the top down and, from the bottom up, human interest stories that support corporate values and team spirit. Communication channels also define the right people to talk to for specific requests to support organizational processes.

Communication is not a bad thing, but it’s very different from conversation. It’s structured, formal, and planned. It follows guidelines, adheres to standards, and requires people to think more carefully before they speak or write, especially when external audiences are involved. But most employees in large organizations quickly learn this about communicating: When you go through the proper formal channels, you will often get deprioritized or delayed. When you go to a trusted colleague directly, you will usually get support, help, or at least a conversation, which can be the true gold you need.


6 Ways to Encourage a Culture of Conversation

Cultivating a culture of conversation is not that hard, but shutting down conversation is way too easy. Don’t build and strengthen structured channels of communication at the expense of valuable unstructured conversations. Both will coexist — and must coexist — in order to do great work. The following six concepts can help your organization succeed at becoming a conversational organization.

1. Intentional Conversations

Set up periodic “awareness meetings” to present the work of the team and open the floor to questions and discussions. This is critical for innovation teams, but is valuable for all cross-functional teams. In support of these meetings, forums or social media channels in applications like Microsoft Teams or Slack can allow for continuity after the meetings. Ideally, at least one person should facilitate these forums for greater engagement.

2. Open Channels Between the Tech and Business Areas

Rules that don’t allow the tech and business people to talk to each other only create silos of misunderstanding. Maintain a culture that allows people to ask others questions to learn more. Tech solutions that are not validated with customers or users will always miss the mark. Follow Steve Blank’s philosophy of talking to the customers. Likewise, be sure to allow business people within the company who have interest or knowledge of technology to talk to the tech team, perhaps spitballing ideas and geeking out together. These conversations stimulate creativity and cross-pollination of perspectives that result in great work through stronger project ownership and employee engagement.

3. Hackathons and Brainstorming Sessions

Collaborative activities like hackathons and brainstorming sessions put people into the perfect situation to engage in creative conversation. Even if no concrete outcomes stem from these events, they will show people you want them to get together and have creative conversations. Another cool idea is to organize an internal unconference.

4. Open Doors to Senior Leaders

Senior leaders should consider having an open door policy to allow people at lower levels to send thoughts and ideas to them through email; set up meetings to discuss ideas and perspectives; and learn more about leadership views. Open doors help lower level employees feel they have a voice in the success of the company, and they often result in valuable solutions rising to the forefront and helping leaders institute positive change.

5. Leadership by Walking Around

Complementary to an open door policy, which is passive for leaders, walking around is like an active open door. Leaders who walk around to see how employees work, and who sit down to ask questions or facilitate conversations, create environments of greater trust and employee engagement. (In remote times, scheduling Zoom or Teams meetings with colleagues they wouldn’t ordinarily meet with can serve this purpose.) Similarly, they help stimulate and bring forward innovative solutions.

6. Leaders Talk Last

In meetings, leaders often have a tendency to kick things off and speak first. The intentions are generally good, but when a leader speaks first, others often keep silent. Whether this silence or hesitancy to speak is due to politeness or intimidation, it can stifle the participation and interaction of the people doing the work, and squelch real discussion. Putting someone else in charge of the meeting, and having leaders weigh in later, can empower the team, create greater ownership, and stimulate more creativity.

 

A Case Study of Innovative Conversation in Action 

Let’s take a look at a real-world example of how casual, unstructured, and uncontrolled conversation can lead to innovation. This experience happened in my current role, leading technology innovation at one of the world’s largest grocery retailers. It should be noted that the tech innovation team does not just focus on technology in a back room or lab. We interact with the customers, and across all boundaries of a complex organization operating in the US and overseas.

One day, I received an email from the president of the company about a technology vendor that had contacted his boss, the CEO. They wanted to know if there was any value in what the vendor was selling. Let’s call it Product X from Vendor X. Often, when things come down through the chain of command, people jump in order to make the boss happy. I jumped, too, and set up a video call with the vendor. In addition to wanting to please my boss, I was intent on learning as much as I could from the meeting. As they presented, we discussed use cases and the value of the technology — two things that matter to me and my team in our discovery process. During the call, a few lightbulbs went off on, where there might be possibilities that I could take back to my team.

I’d like to point out that my team doesn’t typically start with technology in search of a use case. We have great strength in the design thinking methodology, and we try to be as human-centered as we can. But sometimes, we’re presented with technology, and we need to adapt and join the learning cycle somewhere in the middle. I had learned enough through my conversation to explain some ideas to my team on how Product X worked, and where there might be valid use cases.

From my information, a couple members of my team started talking to people they knew and trusted among our customers. Those conversations led to a more detailed understanding of the use cases, and where we might find the greatest value. And sometimes, a little value goes a long way when you’re working inside with a retailer with a lot of store locations.

The discovery team came back with enough information to put together a one-page project canvas to vet the idea, which led to more conversations within our technical areas and then a high-level overview PowerPoint deck. That deck was presented at one of our bi-weekly innovation awareness meetings that included people interested in innovation and the work my team does. Representation comes from internal technology areas, customer areas across multiple functions, strategy, business development, and just about every corner of the company. The meetings could have upwards of 100 people on occasion. The goal of these meetings is to create awareness of the work we do in innovation, and to foster safe conversations about anything and everything related to innovation. This meeting provided additional insights into the value and use cases of Product X.

Since exploration is part of the innovation game, my team now had enough understanding to work with Vendor X to get Product X into our lab for testing. In a large organization, the process can be slow and long, but we knew ways to speed some of this up. 

Within a couple of months of the initial meeting, we had Product X in our lab, and the conversation had started to percolate about its possible value. Eventually, news went back up the ladder to the president, who asked, “How much money can this save?” More conversations between the cracks allowed us to identify a high-level estimate of ROI value, which led the leadership team to put a high priority on the project and give us more support to work on a proof-of-concept within a production environment.

Corporate conversations expedited our ability to maneuver an idea through the complex organization relatively quickly, and put the team on a more focused innovation path. If we had followed traditional communications channels, we would have hit multiple bottlenecks and extended time delays, because the official channels can only handle so much volume, and the less that your colleagues working those channels know about something, the lower it ranks in their priorities.

Keep Corporate Conversation Alive!

As we’ve seen, conversations exist organically within the corporation, but their value can be easily overlooked. Corporations like structure and planning, so there’s a natural inclination to focus more on communicating in a structured and planned way. This is what biases corporations to repeat what everyone knows will work, and do more of what they knows best (rather than anything that is truly new).

Unlike communications, conversations are ad-hoc, informal, and often unplanned. They follow social norms but no rigid guidelines. Topics can range from chit-chat at the watercooler to brainstorming about ideas to talking to users and customers. When tools such as design thinking are used, conversations become exploratory and highly creative. They integrate multiple perspectives, and cast no judgment.

Conversations are the underappreciated connective tissue that keeps the best corporations nimble. If encouraged, they can inspire people to do great work, and help teams quickly get to the root of problems worth solving. Conversations help flesh out ideas within teams — and between teams — and they build trust and foundations for collaboration. When we talk openly to our colleagues, our ideas get better.

Conversations also can take vanilla ideas and turn them into outstanding opportunities by tuning them based customer needs, desires, and pain points. This is the essence of customer validation and a key principle of the lean startup approach. Without customer validation, ideas can easily miss the mark on delivering value.

In summary, structured communications are necessary as a way to distribute important information to everyone in the company. But it’s also key to recognize that conversations are critical to keeping people inspired and motivated. There is great energy between the cracks — where people talk and laugh and empathize (and yes, sometimes complain). Conversation is where great innovation is born, and fostering it in your organization is what enables great innovation to thrive.

 

Eric Braun is an entrepreneur and innovator who has led startup and corporate teams to create forward-thinking systems and applications that have gone on to win awards and create new paradigms for how work can be done. Eric is currently Senior Director of Innovation at Retail Business Services, an Ahold Delhaize company, where he and his team work on three horizons of innovation, from discovery through delivery.

(Featured photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash.)