I worked for a publisher in Washington, D.C., who almost always kept his office door closed. When he appeared in the doorway of my office, it was inevitably for one reason: to tell me I’d done something wrong.

You could find a lot of flaws with that management style, but I want to focus on just one: the way my boss closed himself off from conversation. It was a management gaffe then. But it would be an even bigger mistake now, in the Age of the Conversation.


Regardless of what you do for a living, if you’re not out there asking questions, listening, seeking input, collaborating and taking part in the larger conversation, you’re going to have trouble rolling with change. Because here’s the thing: a new style of conversation is transforming the way we do business.

Here’s where I’ve seen it happening lately:

1. Even Obama is picking up the phone to talk. According to a New York Times article, he makes at least two dozen calls a day in an attempt to stay connected to — and glean information from — the outside world.

It’s no surprise that President Obama calls heads of state and high-ranking advisors. That’s a given. But he’s also tapping into a group of people outside “the bubble.” He’s using his spare moments (not something he has in spades) to stay connected to a larger, more-fluid-than-ever conversation, because that’s where he’ll hear reactions that are relevant, unpredictable, maybe even perspective-altering.

2. Inspired by Obama’s presidential campaign, nonprofits are getting in on the act of using social networks to rally people around a cause. The best fundraisers are leveraging social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. They’re using micro-conversations, rather than enormous campaigns.

One example: Last month’s Twestival was organized on Twitter and raised more than $250,000 for clean water in Africa and India. The Christian Science Monitor described the evolution of Twestival this way:

The Twestival, which wrapped on Feb. 12, had little trouble generating buzz. Only hours after founder Amanda Rose made public her plans for the campaign in January, the news went viral, spiraling out across hundreds of blogs and Twitter feeds. Soon, Ms. Rose had secured a small army of volunteers and a team of corporate partners including TipJoy, which allowed users to contribute directly online.

3. Smart business leaders have stopped frowning on water-cooler conversation, and some (like biggies Cisco and Microsoft) fully embrace the collaboration that social networks spark.

I recently did an interview with Brad Brinegar, CEO of McKinney, an agency that propelled itself into the big league by taking innovative approaches to a business model that hasn’t changed much since the advent of television. At McKinney, they’re all about the conversation.

When you visit McKinney at their former-tobacco-factory offices, you’ll notice lots of gathering spaces. Brinegar says he spent a year planning a space that would force more collaboration and conversation between left- and right-brainers. It has 50 nooks and crannies to allow for “natural interactions,” Brinegar told me. The office is sprawled across one-and-a-half floors, instead of climbing vertically. There’s Wi-Fi throughout, a coffee bar, and no mail delivery — you have to pick it up yourself, which means you’ll likely bump into someone on your way there.


Meeting rooms at McKinney

McKinney Cafe

McKinney Cafe

He also compressed office spaces to a quarter of the size of previous offices. Why? “Creative people sometimes need to shut off the world and work. We made it private enough for them to have that space, but not enough to encourage them to perch there more than was natural,” Brinegar says.

Equally important, “it’s very easy to get to me,” he says. “I have glass walls, so people can always see me. My assistant has a heart attack because she can’t control the flow of people into my office.”

All hands on deck

All hands on deck

Initially, the new layout was so different from what they’d had before that a lot of people hated it. “But from the morning we walked in,” he says, “the agency entirely changed the way it operated. People that I’d always asked to collaborate all of a sudden were. The structure of the space released people’s natural inclination to collaborate.”

Another thing about a good conversation? It’s usually free. Which makes this one workplace trend sure to thrive throughout 2009.

[Top image from Twitter; all others courtesy of McKinney]