How to get a notoriously siloed industry to speak bluntly

It takes a lot of trust to have an open dialogue among fiercely competitive leaders. Here’s how: York University, Toronto - ON, Canada

Interview with Jim Danahy: Application of Solution Focus in a Kitchen Table Roundtable

Jim, you recently organized a roundtable for the RAC as part of your Centre for Retail Leadership (CRL) featuring three senior marketing leaders from large retailers like Home Depot, Loblaws and Canadian Tire. Can we have your views on the session facilitation using a Solution Focused version of Rick Wolfe’s Kitchen Table model.

Thinking of the dynamic dialogue (among a great panel including yourself) that took place at the table, what pleased you most about the conversation?

Center for Retail Leadership, in the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business at York University

In a notoriously siloed, secretive and competitive industry, three of its most influential leaders avoided the temptation to spew platitudes and chose instead to speak bluntly on some very thorny industry topics and identify a few specific ways they can elevate their profession together. It was the real deal.

Can you point to one or two aspects of the Solution Focus facilitation approach that added value to what the audience experienced?

They spoke about current relevant issues and gave examples of ways each will immediately make things better both within their organizations and in better future industry collaborations.

At the Kitchen Table we come to share news, ideas, have a laugh and to disagree. We want the panel to engage in rambunctious interaction with each other. How does that set it apart from the traditional panel moderation approach?

It prevents scripted messages and brings out candour.

If I were a prospective participant at the Centre for Retail Leadership, what would I have enjoyed most when the main themes of the panel were offered to the audience for discussion?

No one was stuck ‘on message.’ You heard uncommonly candid opinions from senior executives. You should take comfort that the people ‘on the bridge of the ship of retail’ appreciate their own leadership responsibilities, and that recruiting, training and rewards systems must change dramatically to get retail results – starting today.

If I were a panel member how would I have benefitted from the dialogue?

We’re not alone and there is much we can do, and have committed to do, as an industry to advance our profession. Some panelists made specific new plans for staff interactions later the same day. Not bad for 90 minutes over eggs and coffee.

What three things please you most about your work in making the Centre for Retail Leadership happen?

All three things revolve around a real hunger to build professionalism in our industry. 1) As a 3rd generation member of “the accidental profession,” I was especially encouraged to see some of the country’s biggest retailers were first to bring their senior and high potential executives in to the Centre for Retail Leadership to help them tackle specific objectives 2) Mid-sized retailers and major consumer products vendors are now reaching out to us to help them build retail best practices 3) Individual retail professionals have begun to ask for open enrolment programs to build their careers with retail-specific skills and leadership courses.

the Center for Retail Leadership, in the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business at York University

About Jim: A third generation retailer, Jim Danahy is director of the Center for Retail Leadership, in the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. He is also CEO of CustomerLAB, a retail productivity firm serving retailers across North America since 1994.



Solution Focused dialogue via disagreement at the ‘Kitchen Table’

How do you make sense of negative dialogue during strategic planning?

Changing the dialogue at the Kitchen Table

During a strategic planning project the client agreed to roundtable dialogue sessions. The organization was successful, but elements of its old culture made change difficult. We decided on three groups of roundtables: the customers, distributors and staff. In all three areas the client was worried that there would be disagreement and negativity. Hence, the use of ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue to overcome the negative perceptions.

My colleague Coert Visser kindly a blog that examines this interesting case where the organization had thought there was disagreement and resistance to change, and instead they created purposeful dialogue and progress.

Click here to view case

How do you handle negative dialogue in your organization?

More on ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue



What’s your communication tool for strategic change?

Frequent and open communication: the #2 best practice in change management

Here’s a tool to create powerful change communication, namely The Roundtable, a la ‘Kitchentable Conversation,’ as explained by Rick Wolfe of PostStone in a recent interview:

“I’ve simply tried to make our business conversations as much like a real life conversation as much as possible. The phrase that we usually use is to just call it a “kitchen table conversation.”

I would put a kitchen table, roundtable, at the very centre of change management. I think it’s a more efficient and effective tool than most of the other change tools available because it lets us strip away what isn’t important and really zero in on our conversation with each other on the things that are important.

One of the key purposes of kitchen table conversations is to be preparing the ground for action to understand what resources are going to be needed to make that action happen, and to make sure those resources are available. To understand what kind of commitments are going to be needed and to know what steps need to take place so that those commitments can be agreed.

I love its reliability. I love its power. Time and time again, when you sit down at the table and ask people a big question that they find to be an exciting question, you can be really confident that some wonderful answers are going to come out of it, and that if you ask people in a respectful way, they’re going to take action based on those credentials.

A kitchen table is that place where we let our guard down, where we really listen to people, where we really share with people, where we disagree with people not because we think they’re wrong, we disagree with them because we know that by really wrestling with the issues together, we can arrive at the truth.

The kitchen table conversation succeeds because of hospitality. And the host always has a special responsibility to make sure that the guests at the table feel that they’re… that this is a hospitable place.

You have to make sure that the shy people get a chance to get a word in, but those people who are larger than life are looking for you to help them tone it down – and I mean that quite seriously. All the larger than life people I’ve ever met loved people and they just get carried away and need a bit of help to know that. They need more feedback than the rest of us do to make sure that they leave room for the rest of us to be in the conversation.

People like wrestling at the kitchen table. That’s one of the reasons we come to the kitchen table, for a good rambunctious, lively, laughter-filled conversation.

I think that organizations would be able to move with more speed, that they would be more adaptable, more flexible, that even though they were moving with more speed, that the people on the team would be having more fun.”

Rick Wolfe of PostStone is a management consultant. Companies bring him in to help them find answers to big questions and turn those answers into action.

For a solution focused perspective on using the kitchen table for dynamic dialogue, here’s a case on asking the right questions