Focusing on excellence in operational performance is the primary focus of most organizations, but it is a different area of skill, type of conversation, mood and energy than innovation conversations. These two skill areas overlap more easily when the operational work includes design, strategy, and planning, but a full focus on performance often leaves professionals unfamiliar with innovation conversations.
Leaders looking to grow the value of their organization must help their people learn to engage in both types of conversations and skills without sacrificing one for the other.
Our work in Generative Leadership over the last three decades has shown that all action and results are shaped by prior conversations. This makes skills in communication and conversation crucial for successful leadership, management, and organizational culture. This is where an action is initiated, defined, and coordinated. This means that we have to see conversations as generative, generating action and results, rather than just descriptive.
As we look at organizational performance, we see that what dominates the results of organizations, teams, and leaders is their skill in two particular types of conversations – conversations for action and conversations for possibility. Action conversations focus on clear and effective coordination and teamwork to produce a valuable outcome, fulfilling a promise that satisfied customers. Most professionals have spent a career building their skills in this area, and management is about being able to make bigger promises by guiding the actions of teams and organizations. This requires skills in the active conversations. While most successful managers have some skills in this area, it is not widely taught and is almost always an area that can be leveraged for even better results.
Executives and leaders have the responsibility to create new value in addition to their responsibility for excellence in execution. To go beyond excellence in execution requires skills in different conversations – strategy, designing winning games, aligning the commitment of teams, creating room for learning, designing new applications of technology, process improvement, invention, and innovation.
For most professionals, the transitions from performer to manager, and from manager to leader, are huge transitions. This is because the skills for success at one level are not adequate for success at the next level. Some meet the new challenges, and many fail. They don’t know what the new conversations and concerns are, and don’t know how to develop their skills in these new areas. The default is hard work, more effort, often leading to exhaustion in the leader and in the organization. To work “smarter, not harder” means to know and develop skills in the new conversations required for the new level of responsibility.
With the focus on conversations as the starting point for action and results, we see that as professionals shift from a focus on individual performance to management, and from management to leadership they must develop more skills in conversations for possibility and value creation. These conversations are ones that have a structure and standards for skill, need to be learned through practice, and require a healthy rhythm for the leader, the team, and the organization.
Operational excellence requires a healthy rhythm of conversations for action, updates, and navigation, dealing with and learning from breakdowns. These practices and skills differentiate an excellent team from a good one. In the same way, value-creating innovation requires a rhythm of conversations for possibility, design, and integration into development and deployment of new offers. In our book, The Innovator’s Way Peter Denning and I outline these conversations of successful innovation.
The successful value creating leader must create a culture in which both sets of conversations – excellence in execution and value creating innovation – are part of the skills and practices of their organization. Effective generative leadership involves the design and learning to produce a successful blend of these two different kinds of conversations and skills.