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Turn "They should" conversations into "We should" conversations

by Chris Grams on January 27, 2011


chris-grams's picture

Turn "They should" conversations into "We should" conversations

Imagine for a minute you are a member of the senior management team of a 5000-person, global organization. Your CEO has asked you and the entire senior management team to participate in an emergency week-long retreat.
He doesn't reveal the purpose of the meeting ahead of time, but as he kicks off the week, it is clear he is livid.

"Our employees have become complacent," he says, "I want each employee to be as passionate about this company as I am. We will not leave this week until we have developed a plan for how to inspire a more passionate, accountable employee community."

After a week of intensive meetings, the group manages to design a fantastic plan. It makes perfect sense, won't break the bank to implement, everyone is sure the employees will love it. Your CEO is ecstatic, and you all pat each other on the back and celebrate a job well done. With the emergency contained, everyone returns to the regularly-scheduled programming.

One year later, it's like Groundhog Day. The CEO is livid again, another retreat appears imminent. "Our employees still aren't as passionate as I am. It feels like nothing has changed," he complains.

What went wrong?

My first rule for building passionate communities is very simple:

If the community isn't invited on the journey, it will reject the destination.

In the example above, by trying to design a more engaged community at an executive retreat, the CEO held what I refer to as a "they should" conversation. "They should" conversations are attempts to define or design plans for a community ("what they should do") without involving the community itself in the process.

I believe "they should" conversations are the #1 reason for the failure of community efforts within and around organizations. Yet in the traditional command-and-control management model, "they should" conversations are the norm. Strategy comes from the top ("we"), orders to implement are handed down ("they").

Good community catalysts take a very different approach. In my experience, most members of communities don't respond well to orders. Members of volunteer communities (your fan community or your customer community, for example) rarely will do exactly what you ask of them. But non-volunteer communities (such as paid employees) will often ignore you too. People may appear to be following your orders, while in reality they are only paying lip service. When your attention wanders, they go right back to what they were doing before.

That is precisely what went down in the example above. Our hypothetical senior management team came back from the retreat, handed over a strategy to a group of people in the employee community to implement. These folks didn't have the same passion for the strategy as the senior management team and they saw some embarrassing flaws that would easily be exposed during implementation. Not wanting to be held accountable for a flawed strategy they didn't design, the implementation team swept it under the rug.

Successful community catalysts try to replace "they should" conversations with "we should" conversations wherever they can. Community catalysts give the community ownership in the design process.

Back to our story...

Before your CEO has a chance to schedule another retreat, you approach him with an idea. Rather than attempting to design a system we believe will inspire more passionate, accountable employees, we instead approach our employee community with the problem we are trying to solve and see if they have ideas.

At the next company meeting, the CEO makes a passionate plea. He tells the employees how much this company means to him. He tells them he is looking to better understand what drives others in the organization, and he is seeking out good people who are interested in helping him define a standard of passion and accountability for the organization.

Your CEO is fantastic--you even get a bit choked up as he makes his case. After the meeting, his mailbox is flooded with emails from employees who want to join the effort. You help him choose a cross-section of great candidates from across the organization to lead the design effort. Over the next three months, the best and brightest people in the company openly design a new model for employee engagement involving ideas gathered from every corner of the organization. The employee-driven model puts the plan from the executive retreat to shame.

What's more, the volunteers believe so strongly in what they've put together, and they've openly involved so many other employees in the design of their model, that each of them feel deeply accountable for its success. Their own reputations are on the line. Because the community designed the strategy, the community is invested in following it through to implementation. It is their plan.

The example above is fictional. But I've seen the power of "we should" conversations in action more often than I can count. At Red Hat, we involved our employee community in collaborative projects as diverse as designing the values and mission of the organization, creating a culture of recognition, and building the on-boarding process for new employees. As an open source company, we were regular participants in "we should" conversations with external communities as well. My favorite example? The entire mission, culture, and brand identity for the Fedora community was built in a collaborative effort between people inside and outside of Red Hat's walls. That effort continues to this day, with passionate community members still making ongoing contributions.

Do you trust your communities enough to allow them to define their own destination and strategies for getting there? Are you willing to give up some level of control in return for deeper engagement? If you can apply these principles and turn "they should" conversations into "we should" conversations, you may find yourself a happy member of a more engaged, passionate community.

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ellen-weber's picture
Great read Chris, Thanks - love your notion of inclusion and engaging people! So often we speak it -- and it's wonderful to see it modeled. Imagine if Imagine if Designed thinking is Redesigned to fit diverse thinkers in ways that you model inclusion!.    Via Forbes

Seems to me that until we redesign - we'll not shift into innovative as a culture. You?

Appreciate your refreshing insights!