As an artist/designer and coach, I'm interested in exploring the essence of people, places and things. When it comes to business, it's been said that the basic unit of business is  relationships and that the basic unit of relationships is dialogue. How we feel about each other impacts the quality of conversation which in turn impacts the quality of creativity and innovation.

 "Dialogue can lead to new ideas and speed as a competitive advantage," asserts Ram Charan, global advisor to CEOs in his HBR essay on decision-making. "It is the single-most important factor underlying the productivity and growth of the knowledge worker. Indeed, the tone and content of dialogue shapes people's behaviors and beliefs - that is, the corporate culture - faster and more permanently than any reward system, structural change, or vision statement I've seen."

Yet, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle, argues in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, "we are too busy connecting via technology to have conversations that count. We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection." This flight from face-to-face conversation undermines our relationships, and creativity.

Meg Wheatley and Debbie Frieze in their essay on "Leadership in the Age of Complexity" note: "Hosting meaningful conversations isn't about getting people to like each other or feel good. It's about creating the means for problems to get solved, for teams to function well, for people to become energetic activists."

Two approaches to dialogue

Decisive Dialogue for decision-making: Ram Charan says decisive dialogue must:

  1. Involve a sincere search for answers.
  2. Tolerate unpleasant truths.
  3. Invite a full range of views, spontaneously offered, and 
  4. Point the way to a course of action.

Charan warns a lack of dialogue around decision-making can cause ambivalence or outright resistance among the people charged with moving forward on a project.

The World Café (also known as a Creativity Café and Knowledge Café) is a powerful conversational method that inspires, engages and mobilizes groups. It is not designed to create any pre-determined solution. Rather, it convenes people to learn together, create actionable knowledge, and build community.

Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, the originators of World Café note:

Using the World Café as a methodology and as a metaphor offers a practical yet innovative way to cultivate both the knowledge required to thrive today and the wisdom needed to create the futures we want, rather than being forced to live with the futures we get

Through conversation people discover who cares about what and who will be accountable for next steps. We are finding that when people come to a new level of shared understanding around real-life issues, they want to make a difference. When participants return from Café conversations, they often see additional action choices that they didn't know existed before.

The World Cafe? approach has been used to develop business strategy, to create new product ideas, to harvest ways to better serve clients' needs, to enhance safety performance, and to foster community development.

Café hosting tips

  • Set up Café-style tables for small groups and create a relaxed setting.
  • Provide food, and beverages.
  • Have markers and paper available for visually representing key ideas.
  • Facilitate informal conversation focused on the key questions that matter to your group/team or business.
  • Contribute your thinking; speak your mind and heart.
  • Listen together for insights, patterns, and deeper questions.
  • Allow time for silence and reflection.
  • Encourage members to "cross-pollinate" ideas and insights across groups.
  • Link and connect ideas; Weave and connect emerging themes and insights.
  • Honor the social nature of learning and community building.
  • Help members notice that individual conversations are part of and contribute to a larger field of collective knowledge and wisdom.

Café conversations are typically done in three to four rounds to delve deeper into a topic and point the way to a course of action. If you are asking your group to contribute ideas for innovation, be sure to make a commitment to the group to follow up on important ideas and take appropriate action.