Remember the last time you got a new job at a new organization? And then you went to dinner with your family or friends and had to explain not only your new job, but what your new company is about, why it exists, and what good it contributes to the world? I bet you stumbled a bit. You described your new company, but it came out a bit awkward and bland, because you didn’t yet have the fluency of phrases that your new colleagues were well used to using. You were still practicing your new “phrase patterns” – and you needed more practice saying it out loud, even though you understood what your new job and company were all about.
Similarly, when you’re working on an innovation—a bold new direction that’s a departure from your past practice—often the small team that’s been working on developing it knows what it’s about, but hasn’t developed and rehearsed the language for it yet.
In order for an innovation to be adopted, you need to secure both growing evidence of its efficacy as well as a growing number of people who are interested and accepting of the idea. Neither are likely to just happen – you have to intentionally pursue both. Language matters, and fresh, clear language signals to others the freshness and clarity of your ideas – and this requires practice!
Role playing can be a great way for teams to practice and gain fluency and confidence to share a new innovation with other stakeholders. There are lots of ways you could do this, but here’s a model that I’ve found to work well:
The “Coffee Meeting”
- Choose one team member to play themselves, with the task of sharing the innovative new idea with an outsider (the “sharer”).
- Choose another team member to play the “guest” you would want to talk with about your innovation – a funder, board member, corporate sponsor, community partner etc.
- Before you begin the role play, have your team consider the following questions*
- What do we most want to share with the person we’ve invited to “coffee”?
- What do we most want to learn from them?
- List 3 to 5 items in each category on a big page, and post it so that the “sharer” can see it as a reference during the role play.
- During the role play, greet, welcome and thank your “guest.” Really act and speak like you invited the person to have coffee and talk about your innovative idea. Share some context about the situation, the challenge that the innovation is designed to address, and the new direction you’ve chosen to experiment around.
- Make sure you make space for your “invitee” to speak! Remember, you want to learn from them as well.
- Notice what phrases, words flow easily and where you feel like your tripping over words. Notice where your guest is looking puzzled, or not sure what you are saying. This is all part of the practicing…
- Have a few other team members observe this 5- to 7-minute exchange and take notes.
- When the role play is complete, take at least 10 minutes to reflect and debrief.
- What went well?
- What did the participants and the observers notice?
- Were you able to share and/or learn everything you wanted to?
- Was there a dialogue or just a one-sided “info dump”?
- What aspects of your innovation do you still need to find better language around?
An activity like this gives the group an opportunity to use its reflection and adaptive leadership muscles, to “step up to the balcony” and observe patterns that aren’t visible when you’re working in the thick of things. Hopefully, it will help refine and clarify how to effectively discuss the innovation you’re working on with stakeholders and others outside your team, which is critical in building the widespread support that will be necessary for the innovation to take hold and succeed!
* Thanks to Phil MacArthur of Action Research for these questions, which I have used over and over in my facilitation work.