Today’s insights are brought to you by my colleague and futurist, Keith Coats.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the quality of conversations within a business will go a long way to determine whether the business succeeds. How we discuss strategy, deal with unexpected disruption (and opportunity), tackle the multiple issues and concerns around the staff, the overarching work environment, the informal gossip, and those critical conversations with the stakeholders…determine much about the business. Conversations are the lifeblood of our work environments.

And yet all too often, they are not handled at all well, or even worse, needed conversations find themselves ignored altogether.

Social media isn’t helping. As a tool for connecting people to social media, it is unparalleled, but it does little for bringing about mature conversations, nor does it skill the user in how to have those conversations. It could even be argued that for the most part, we don’t really have ‘conversations’ when it comes to social media. Rather there is an endless stream of dislocated soundbites that seldom achieve any sense of cohesion or yield valuable insights. Certainly, the ratio of time taken to benefits gained seems a poor return for the majority whose lives are enmeshed with social media. But here I reveal my bias.

Several years ago, as we got ever deeper within the multiple organisations that made up most of our client base, we at TomorrowToday continually came face-to-face with this ‘conversational deficit’. All too often the conversations that were glaringly obvious and those desperately needed were deemed too politically risky and/or were simply ignored altogether. To be fair, some of the needed conversations were fraught with challenges and sometimes almost impossible to navigate. These types of conversations, many of which once sat outside of work expectations, now find themselves fully entrenched in the business terrain. It is no wonder that leaders and managers are overwhelmed with how best to go about such conversations that eat at the core of society at large. I remember working with a group of CEOs where we were discussing gender identity when one CEO slammed his fist on the table and expressed his opinion on the matter in terms that remain unprintable. I remember thinking at the time, ‘so how does this conversation have any chance of being had when this is the attitude of the CEO?’. So, as said, important conversations get buried due to the inability or unwillingness of those who should ‘host them’ to bring them into the light of day. So, we often found ourselves (as TomorrowToday) invited in to initiate or navigate such conversations on behalf of a team or company as a result of this unwillingness/inability to engage the conversation internally. The problem with that is that ‘ownership and accountability’ within the organisation or team were diluted and if it didn’t ‘go to plan’ well then, there was always someone on whom to ‘pin the blame’.

START Conversations was an attempt to help overcome this obstacle. It was designed as a ‘method’ to help grease necessary conversations within the work environment. It was seen as a tool to empower leaders and managers within to have the conversations that needed to be had. The suggestion was to introduce a START Conversation to the team agenda to become familiar with and increasingly better at, having those difficult conversations.

What then is a ‘START Conversation’?

START is an acronym for the five steps to the conversation: See, Think, Ask, Respond and Take.

See: An image is used to create a link to the intended topic of conversation. Images are powerful and connect with us in ways that words can’t. So, a powerful or provocative image is projected or given out and the team is invited to simply ‘take it in’ without comment for a few minutes.

A quote or comment is then presented. Together with the image, the thoughts of those present should be suitably stirred. Again, the quote or comment takes the team further down the intended pathway without any discussion haven taken place. Meg Wheatly has said that ‘thinking is the place where all intelligent actions start’ – and so time to ‘think’ has been created through this simple introduction.

Ask: A question is then presented. It is said that the mind works best in the presence of a question and so selecting the right question is critical to the START process. This now leads to the next step which is…

Respond: Now is the time for discussion, the topic having been framed by an image, a quote, and a question. Understanding that on topics that are both deep and complex the goal is not always about ‘solving the matter’ or reaching some definitive conclusion but rather about having the discussion and learning more as a result. In light of this, it is helpful to have a time constraint put into the discussion.

Take: The discussion ends with clearly articulated action points – the thing that each participant ‘takes away from the conversation’. This could be to further explore the topic, have a further conversation with a specific person, experiment with some tangible action, or any number of things that will ensure that ‘legs’ are given to the conversation, and something is done.

For example, one of our clients wanted to raise the profile of conversations to do with ‘women in the workplace’ but felt somewhat daunted by initiating this course without help. The easy option would have been to outsource the responsibility for this initiative, but we suggested using the START method which would serve to equip and empower those within the organisation to take responsibility for the conversations. So, we together with them, designed a ‘menu of conversations’ that covered this territory. Each topic was accompanied by a resource article that the convener of the conversation could read beforehand. This just helped them feel a little more prepared and confident in putting the topic on the table. It was a grand experiment that exceeded expectations as it grew organically throughout the organisation. Of course, there is no creative limit to START conversations and so it became a helpful tool (especially the image, quote, and question runway) for framing other difficult but necessary conversations.

Using START Conversations soon means that one becomes an avid collector of provocative images, insightful quotes, and inviting questions – all of which can be employed to the START end. I think that smart leaders always look for ways to engage others and invite them into active participation; I think that smart leaders fully understand the importance and power of questions and so linking such questions to images and wise words that echo over time and space is…well, smart!

It might just be that by using the START method you could unlock those difficult but necessary conversations within your own team or company. Of course, there is no shortage of helpful literature on having these courageous conversations – two that will undoubtably serve as building blocks are: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz and Think Again by Adam Grant. Both would be good places to start should you wish to develop your own capacity and competence for hosting those important but difficult conversations.

Why not download our free START Conversations resource here, to use with your team at an upcoming meeting?


The world needs a new leadership response to a global context of change, complexity, and uncertainty. Leadership Thinker (and author of today’s Tuesday Tip), Keith Coats is passionate about helping audiences around the world to understand what this response looks like and to equip leaders with the tools needed to respond to this changing context.

Keith’s research and global experience of over 20 years has helped him identify the key-defining factors of a successful leader in the 21st century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. It is his great privilege to help leaders access new frameworks and thinking in order to successfully lead into the future. Chat with us if you’d like to explore how he could help your team prepare for the future.


TomorrowToday Global