If people are to make connections, they need to talk to each other. The pace of life, linked to the fact that many people in offices are largely glued to the computer screen on their desk, means that communication is ever more fragmented and one way. The same is true at home. Where it was once common for families to sit down and eat breakfast and supper together, this important social occasion is virtually a thing of the past in most households.
Many organizations are beginning to recognize that to harness the creativity of their employees, they need to create structures that encourage dialog. British Airways is one. As Colin Marshall puts it:
The most interesting and stimulating way of learning is from direct dialog with other people, whether in an educational context or straightforward business debate.
Dialog assumes that there is no one right answer. It assumes that solutions and truth may lie somewhere in the middle of two apparently conflicting points of view. Dialog encourages engagement and commitment. It is a two-way process in which speaking and listening are equally valued. In their excellent book Executive EQ, Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf memorably describe dialog as "the free flowing of meaning between people."
For dialog to take place, especially if it is to be accompanied by any eating or drinking—which, of course, it often is—it is helpful to have round tables. And, hey presto, you have invented the Creative Café. Café-style communication is becoming increasingly common. Café spaces are being planned into corporate architecture and into training and conference facilities. I have found that this can work very well at all levels of business life.
A little while ago, with the specialist learning and communications company Purple Works, the Campaign for Learning designed a café experience for about 100 people from right across the UK-based energy and telecommunications company National Grid.The purpose of the event was to encourage individuals to share their perceptions of where the company had come from, where it was going to, and what learning it needed to help it become a world-class company.
Around the tables sat the chairman of the company, David Jefferies, some of his board, some influential individuals not directly connected with National Grid, senior staff, engineers, trade unionists, and the linesmen who climb up the towers when storms cause trees to fall on them. On each table there was a circular learning mat, designed to fit it like a tablecloth. On each learning mat we placed a series of images, statements, charts, and questions designed to stimulate dialog.The feedback from this café-style approach was that it was far more engaging and far more satisfying than other forms of communication that they had experienced. It was also felt to be a genuine and realistic way for people with different kinds of responsibility and levels of seniority to communicate with each other.
The National Grid experience was designed as a special event. However, for the dialog approach to be really effective, it needs to become a way of life within an organization.
My own hunch is that there is more opportunity for creativity in dialog than in brainstorming, which has long been associated with the generation of ideas.
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The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave several of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce and check off items on our to-do list by each day’s end seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us.