Improving meetings through the power of dialogue

Friday, July 27, 2018


Picture a senior leadership team sitting in a circle.

The circle includes sales & marketing, operations, HR, scheduling, product development, finance, IT, and others. 

These people work in the same business, but in various locations, and have never met all together as one group. And yet, they cover the entire span of meeting their customer needs from production all the way through order fulfillment.

As the meeting opens, it's clear these leaders have very different viewpoints of what is and is not working well in the business. Some of the beliefs that come to the surface:

  •     The biggest problems lie with the performance of others in the group or their teams.
  •     Others made poor decisions that negatively impact the team.
  •     We lack the right information to work effectively.
  •     We need more long-term planning rather than spending our time reacting to immediate issues. 

Despite these apparent conflicts, in this one-hour conversation they begin to see the commonalities in their viewpoints and how they might come to a more common understanding of the issues they face.

Surprisingly, in the end it's less about disagreement and more about not understanding things from the same vantage point.

The only ground rule for this meeting is that they must listen to one viewpoint at a time and have the group explore each viewpoint before moving to the next person’s thoughts. This rule encourages the group to refrain from debate and enforces the idea that all viewpoints have value.

This approach of having a group share their viewpoints is referred to as a “dialogue."

I began using this concept to implement practices that help an organization to learn more effectively (see “The 5th Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” by Peter Senge). Having this kind of high-quality conversation within the leadership team for one hour per month can completely transform the team’s approach and level of success.

I've heard it best described as “coming together as one mind.”

Naturally, people have different viewpoints when working at different points of the value chain. However, once a leadership team becomes more aware of the viewpoints of others, they just as naturally become more unified (and effective). Sales & marketing becomes more influenced by the needs of operations. Conversely, operations becomes more influenced by sales & marketing.

If you’d like your organization to become more unified and effective, five steps to follow are below:

  1.     Identify a facilitator and schedule one hour per month for the leadership team to meet. They should meet sitting in a circle with no table between them.
  2.     Agree on ground rules for a ‘great’ conversation. The key is that when each person speaks, the others seek to understand that viewpoint and only ask clarifying questions before moving on to the next person.        (Using a talking stick or object can be helpful to designate who has the floor.)
  3.     Have the group generate a list of what they think is the most important topic for them to talk about. Vote on which of them is of the greatest interest to the group.
  4.     Use this format within a one-hour timeframe. Various leaders are to present their thinking on the topic for discussion with as many of them participating as time allows. While it’s not forbidden for some people to comment more than once, the goal is to gather the entire group’s thoughts on the topic.
  5.     The facilitator takes notes during the conversation and then presents them back to the group. The notes are often a matter of record as the participants naturally assimilate the information into their ongoing work. Hence, this is where the value is created.

This style of conversation is referred to as divergent and reflects a time to explore ideas. Convergent conversations, which are more common in the workplace, focus on narrowing the choices to make a decision.

Who would have thought that allowing an hour per month to explore each other’s viewpoints, with the goal of improving understanding, could completely change how the team performs?

If you'd like more information on implementing dialogic work in your business, contact me at

Chery Jekiel is the founder of the Lean Leadership Resource Center and author of the book “Lean Human Resources: Redesigning HR Practices for a Culture of Continuous Improvement.”