The Stove Side Chat
LA&M On Managing Column
Feb 1, 2004
vol. 18, number 3 Summer, 2004
John Lubans

What’s a stove side chat?

The term seeks to evoke an old timey mood, one amenable to frank discussion of mutual problems. I use it to trigger an image still in the popular mind: a gathering of friends around a radiant stove, gloves, hats and boots off, musing about the way things are or ought to be. Eons ago, hunters gathered in firelight to fend off the gloom and whatever was hunting them. While we’ve fast-forwarded to virtual fireplaces, we are still interdependent in our human-ness.

My last column, “You Have the Resources,” inspires this setting forth of a technique that can lead to resourcefulness: the stove side chat. I use it in workshops for peers to make sense of a shared difficulty. Along that line, I will also take a look at the intriguing concept of self-organizing groups, ones that succeed without overt supervision.

Here’s how the stove side chat works:
At the start of a workshop I ask participants to think of a response to a statement about the day’s topic. For example,
My biggest bug about teamwork is _______.
The worst part of performance appraisal is ________.

To prime the pump, I declare one of mine, writing it on the flip chart like I want them to write it: succinctly and large enough to be seen across the room.

Then, while I review the day’s agenda, participants have time to ponder what they’ll put up as their personal bete noire.

I ask each person in turn. With little hesitation, the ideas tumble forth. Once the concern is out in the open, I try to help clarify, sometimes paraphrasing, to keep it specific and true to their actual concern. I do this because, the greater the clarity the better the stove side chats will be. It’s best when the statement reflects the individual’s heartfelt meaning.

And, I work at moving it along. With two flip charts there’s no waiting even with 30 people. The lists are posted for the day and available for a participant to edit. Some do, wanting their statement to be a vote getter, to make certain they have captured what they believe. And, a few simply have to add a second burning concern.

We hold the stove side chat at the end of the day. The timing is deliberate. Everyone has worked together in mixed groups in several activities including problem solving games and case studies. There’s an elevated comfort level; by now, each participant has a greater appreciation of the others. To counter the inevitable fatigue, I’ve learned to precede the chat with an energizing physical activity. If possible, we go outside and do something seemingly unrelated.

Before numbering off into small groups, we edit the posted lists, aligning similar concerns, collapsing redundancies, and further clarifying. This helps the group attend to what is now their list. The filtering step is time consuming and challenging for me to keep track of changes, but the process reduces confusion and squandering of votes. There is a way to speed up this step: prior to the edit cut up the flipcharts so that each statement can be moved around easily.

Participants vote with dots. Each gets five dots and can stick all five on one or one dot on each of five statements. The statements with the highest votes are the ones to be discussed, one topic per group. The “multi-vote” is familiar for some; others see the value of this quick (and silent) way to prioritize.

I tally up the dots – usually the top five vote getters are clear. If necessary, we can do a quick tie-breaking vote.

Each small group spends about 20 minutes in their stove side chat and then reports out to the group at large on the first steps they’d take in resolving the problem.

Recent stove side chats:
My biggest bug about teamwork is ________.
A few doing most of the work
Teams in name only
Norms (for how we will work together) are set but ignored
Team members who are not team players
Teams that do not value each member.

What really gets in the way of my leadership is ________.
Assuming that people will know what to do and (that they) will do it
My reluctance to call errant behavior in subordinates
Not knowing how to get others to follow
Resistance to change by others
Liking things done the right way, so I do it myself. But, I don't confront you for doing it wrong
Tendency to micro-manage – I need to stay focused on the large picture, yet subordinates keep coming to me for advice on things they could handle themselves

Not surprisingly, who’s in the workshop makes the difference in how the session goes, how valuable the stove side chats will be.

The ideal participant arrives open and flexible, eager to engage, not timid about asking questions, and ready to apply learnings to the real world.
The engaged participant adds further value – they help pull along reluctant participants. Some of the reluctant are understandably skeptical – they may be workshop weary veterans with not much to show for their tours of duty. But, if another participant’s energy and enthusiasm can spark some residual interest and help them give the process a chance, some learning may occur.

Another brand of passive participant wants me, the so-called expert, to tell them what to do - resisting the real work of learning for themselves. I see participants not as empty vessels - they never are - but as co-explorers with their own work to do and challenges to meet. By declaring the workshop a safe zone, that whatever we do will be kept confidential, I encourage them to engage, to risk their own idea formulation, to take a small step beyond the familiar.

Does my asking for their biggest and baddest concern promote an unproductive gripe session, an unending chorus of A Sad Song Don’t Care Whose Heart It Breaks? Fortunately, that’s not been the experience. Why? Because, the stove side chat has a built in governor – reporting out. The negative slant serves to get out the problems – the work to be done – and, instead of commiseration, participants understand they are to provide realistic first steps.

Why do this?
Many find it reassuring to know we all have the same problems. Their realizing that makes action less daunting. And, the engaged participant is probably going to discover that her ideas are not off the mark – in fact, they may well be on target. That realization can be a big boost for the young leader.
In workshops for a single library or a library cooperative, this sharing of collective wisdom reveals the best thinkers for networking and mentoring purposes at a later time when other problems come up and you need to talk with someone you respect.

While most stove side chat groups address issues head on and offer many good ideas, a few groups avoid. Their group dynamic leads to settling for the status quo and presenting lame first steps. For example, if their primary recommendation about a staff member’s problem behavior is to send him to a workshop, never confronting him, the group probably could have done better. Again, the engaged, thoughtful participant adds unique value. By the end of the day, they are comfortable with challenging the inadequate solution and offering one or two that may make more sense.

Does the learning transfer beyond the workshop? Do participants practice the learning? That depends on the rigor and robustness of the workshop. My facilitating role is to add value to the process, to ask what people are not asking. If a participant is being indirect or avoiding, I press them for what they really are thinking, for what they are not saying. In this regard, I have come to regret whenever I ignore my intuition. Yes, the clock was ticking and others were waiting, but my paying attention to those red flags would have made the difference between a good session and one with profound learnings.

The stove side chat builds on the notion of self-managing groups. The theory goes that if a group of people is left to its own devices, they can be productive without orders from outside experts or bosses. Much of what is done for groups by managers in the formal organization, self-directed groups can do better. Perhaps not in all circumstance: certainly, when goals are unclear, the visionary leader shines and inspires others to see and work toward that vision. When the goal is clear and immediate, effective workers do not need outside guidance or a vision imposed – there is complete clarity about what needs doing.

Crisis brings clarity. Without waiting for orders from a command center or consulting a manual of procedure, staff can figure out and act on what’s most in need of doing. People leave formal roles and do what needs doing, tossing aside the organization chart.

I am reminded of a colleague’s 1998 email about how her research library responded to a disaster. The library flooded shortly after midnight, thousands of books were soaked. In less than an hours, staff were on site, responding, calling students to come in and help. By 2:30AM, 100 students were helping move wet books. By 5:00AM more than 200 students were helping. And, when my senior administrative colleague got to the library around that time, she found her unit heads already at work: “The three of them were running the show when I got there, so I was happy to step back and take orders from them.” While she was the formal leader, she trusted her staff and took on other roles to help them achieve the over-riding goal: rescue thousands of books. Her leader did not fault her for stepping back. Would you?

Can the stove side chat technique transfer to the work place? Its deliberate streamlining is a plus. Instead of asking staff to contemplate what is wrong with some process and to list out all that needs improving, the stove side chat limits our tendency to produce endless lists. Each staffer gets to put up one or two concerns and then, after clarification, the top several are selected for action.

An example: Ask your library department: “What is the biggest barrier to working more effectively with X unit?” Or, ask it neutrally: “What one thing would you change in how we work with unit X?”
What do you do with this list? Before you develop the list, make sure that X knows you are doing this, feels good about it, and will reciprocate with its own list about things to change in their relationship with you. The two units can figure out how to take actions steps on the key items. Probably a small task force of people from both units could rapidly implement changes.

Implicit in this process is trust and respect – both are essential. Obviously, if the organizational climate is fear based or avoidance preferring, then… well, you know the answer.

Leaders who make a positive difference create conditions in which subordinates aspire to do their jobs better and better. For that to happen, a leader has to be explicit in his or her expectations about innovation and experimentation. Best of all is the leader who has corralled a few sacred cows and otherwise challenged the complacent. Staff seek an answer to a perennial anxiety: How safe am I if I question the way we do things around here? They want tangible assurance that those who covet the status quo won’t easily derail them. The more widely that is understood in the library, the better staff can do their work.

Author’s note: John Lubans is Visiting Professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences. Contact him at