Leadership Involves Mastery of Initiative Conversations

Effective Leaders Excel At Initiative Conversations

I say that a leader is s/he who brings about a future that wasn’t going to happen anyway. I also say that human beings are beings who live in-through language. This leads me to conclude that a leader is s/he who is a master of using language to bring about a future that wasn’t going to happen anyway. This begs the question, what kind of language? To bring about a future that wasn’t going to happen anyway a leader has to take the initiative and effect change in the present. This means that a leader has to excel in the art of Initiative Conversations.

An Enquiry Into Initiative Conversations

At this point you are likely to want me to define an ‘Initiative Conversation’. Here’s the definition:

An Initiative Conversation is a proposal to create a new future, with the intention of making the future a reality. What makes an Initiative Conversation unique is not that it is a way of talking about starting something. It actually does start something.

– Jeffery and Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations

I am aware of the limitation of definitions, so allow me to bring this definition to life by giving you an example of an Initiative Conversation:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. Let it be clear … that I am asking Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgement it would be better not to go at all.

President John R. Kennedy speaking to joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961

What Makes Initiative Conversations Necessary?

In my conversations with my children I often say “The being of man, your being, my being, is not the being of this table right in front of us!” What do I mean by that? Allow me to shed light on that by sharing the following with you (bolding mine):

The twig has no relationship to it’s future, drifting passively in the wind.

People are not twigs: we can create a future by design. We have desires or intentions, goals or plans, and can have an active relationship to the future….. When we become active and intentional about our future, we can deliberately choose to make something happen… The desire for something better is characteristic of human beings. 

To make your goals a reality, begin by having Initiative Conversations: announce the future you want to achieve, and invite other people to join you in making it happen

Initiative Conversations are proposals that share an idea for an attractive and worthwhile future, and show people the possibility and the value in fulfilling it…. In many cases, the Initiative Conversation goes beyond informing people, and begins to engage them and excite them about being part of making something happen….

– Jeffery and Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations

How can you tell whether you have held an effective Initiative Conversation or not? Simple. An effective Initiative Conversation does more than inform or provide direction. An effective Initiative Conversation moves the people taking part in that conversation! The people are moved as in excited by the new future and being so excited they are moved to enter into the ‘arena’ where work has to happen to bring about the new future. At a very human level, you/i feel it: there is a certain energy, a certain buzz.

What Are The Constituents of An Initiative Conversation?

1. What-When-Why

The following three elements make up the heart of an Initiative Conversation:

1. What is to be accomplished (the desired outcome);
2. When (date-time) are we committed to accomplish the desired outcome; and
3. Why does it matter that we generated the desired outcome by such a date-time?

Regarding these elements I share the following advice with you:

What
The What element …. needs to be brief and compelling to attract the intended audience.

When
Every goal needs a timeline – that is what makes the new future a specific event instead of an abstract idea.

Why
The value of an initiative needs to be spelled out clearly for everyone, especially when it requires financial or material resources, or causes people inconvenience or extra work. Why is a value statement that provides the context for the change and allows people to choose to spend their time, money, and effort to reach the goal.

– Jeffery and Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations

2. Who-Where-How

Let’s imagine that you have thought through your What-When-Why. Are you now in a position to out into the world and hold Initiative Conversations? No. You need to think through the Who-Where-How:

Before taking your initiative on the road, consider Who needs to hear the message, Where the resources are, and How the work might get done.

– Jeffery and Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations

How much work do you need to do in this domain? Do you need to have fully fleshed out stakeholder management plan? Do you need a fully fleshed out business case and inventory of resources required? Do you need a detailed MS Project Plan running into hundreds, even thousands of tasks, that will send just about everybody to sleep? No. Just need to do enough to show that you have thought through what it will take to bring about the desired future:

Who Needs to Participate?

Identify all the different individuals and groups you believe will be needed to accomplish the initiative. Who could do the work? Who could provide the resources? Who will receive the benefits? Who needs to authorise, approve, or regulate some aspect of the initiative? This is your first guess, which you will probably continue to revise as you go forward….

Where Will The Resources Come From? 

The process of taking an idea through an implementation process to its fulfilment requires resources….. consider what resources are likely to be required and where they might come from. Where could you get the money, the people, and the tools?

How Might The Work Get Done?

Even though you do not need a fully detailed work plan at the initiative stage, it is helpful to think through what might be involved in accomplishing what you are proposing…. The objective is to begin sketching out what you think will be required… suggestive rather than definitive. The prime benefit of doing this task now is that it lets you see where you need input and ideas from others …..

– Jeffery and Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations

3. Hold The Initiative Conversations And Keep Holding Them

When you have both the What-When-Why and the Who-Where-How then you are in a good place to hold Initiative Conversations through a variety of communication methods. When you hold these Initiative Conversations I counsel you to heed these wise words (bolding mine):

The important thing is to include everyone who might have a direct or an indirect contribution to make to the fulfilment of the vision. You want to give people an opportunity to learn about the initiative and think about how their own activities and environment will change. Your goal for Initiative Conversations is to get people talking….

You will probably say this same initiative statement (What-When-Why) many times. One important job for the leader is to keep the big-picture goals alive for people by repeating them as the initiative progresses towards completion. Initiative Conversations tend to have short lives. Even when things are going well, people get caught up in their local details, and the big picture fades from view, so they need frequent reminders about the purpose of their labors.

– Jeffery and Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations

What Does This Have To Do With Customer Experience Transformation?

I invite you to consider that most organisations doing Customer stuff (CX, CRM) fail because the folks in leadership positions fail to plan for and hold effective Initiative Conversations. These ‘leaders’ fail to move the folks through communicating a compelling-energizing-uplifting What-When-Why.

I also find that many ‘leaders’ fail to do a good enough job of the Who-Where-How. Consider the Who. Is it not the case that when it comes to organisational change only the favoured circle are included, really included, in the Initiative Conversations; most of the folks who will do the work and whose lives will change (usually dramatically) are treated as pawns to be moved around the organisational chess board.  Consider the questions of resources (Where) by using an airline analogy. In the airline business one does not have folks flying planes with say 90 units of fuel if 100 are needed to get to the destination. In organisational worlds that I have witnessed, I have found it is common for those charged with implementation to be given only 80 units when 100 are needed, and then for these folks to be punished when they ‘resist change’ or do not bring about the desired outcomes. Consider the How: how often is it that folks that dream up visions, develop strategies, and mandate change do not adequately grapple with  how the work of change will occur  thus storing up trouble during the implementation phase.

And Finally

I thank you for your listening to my speaking. I look forward to listening to your speaking if you choose to speak by commenting.  I wish you a great day and ask that you cause this weekend to be a great weekend for you and all whom you touch. Why not hold Initiative Conversations about what really matters to you, with the folks that matter?  Initiative Conversations are just as relevant in the personal domain as they are in the business/organisational domain.

Please note an earlier slightly modified version of this conversation was published in May 2015 at CustomerThink.com as part of the  monthly Human-Centred Leadership column.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

4 thoughts on “Leadership Involves Mastery of Initiative Conversations”

  1. Maz,

    I tend to be pretty good at the What and Why

    I am pretty poor at the Who and When

    And as for the Where and How….

    I don’t think I am alone in this, we are all different. So do the best initiative conversations come from individuals or groups?

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  2. Hi Maz,
    Your post reminded me of Kiplings ‘6 honest serving men’:
    “I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew); Theirs names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who.”

    I then started to think about the ‘What-When-Why’ and wondered about how that stage would happen and does it need to be initiated by the leader, does the leader facilitate it or is it a combination of the two?

    Adrian

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  3. Thanks for sharing your speaking, Maz.
    It reminds me of the conversation FOR enrollment, and some of the things to consider when enrolling others, including:
    1. My stand – what am I standing for, what possibility am I creating?
    2. Sharing myself – authentically
    3. Making sure my conversation occurs as an opportunity for my listener
    4. coming from nothing (vs. coming from an agenda, or an “in order to.”)
    5. being straight-forward
    6. not making a ‘NO’ significant
    7. Handling whatever is in the way
    Best,
    -Ron

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    1. Welcome Ron,

      Clearly you are a fellow Landmark / Est graduate. Great to come across you.

      Thank you for sharing that which you have shared. Your sharing takes me back 10+ years to my participation in Landmark Education. As such your sharing occurs as a gift.

      Live well.

      maz

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