Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change

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9781451697629: Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change

Two leading experts on designing strategic conversations unveil a simple, creative process that allows teams to tackle their most challenging issues.

In our fast-changing world, leaders are increasingly confronted by messy, multifaceted challenges that require collaboration to resolve. But the standard methods for tackling these challenges—meetings packed with data-drenched presentations or brainstorming sessions that circle back to nowhere—just don’t deliver.

Great strategic conversations generate breakthrough insights by combining the best ideas of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. In this book, two experts “crack the code” on what it takes to design creative, collaborative problem-solving sessions that soar rather than sink.

Drawing on decades of experience as innovation strategists—and supported by cutting-edge social science research, dozens of real-life examples, and interviews with well over 100 thought leaders, executives, and fellow practitioners— they unveil a simple, creative process that leaders and their teams can use to unlock solutions to their most vexing issues. The book also includes a “Starter Kit” full of tools and tips for putting the book’s core principles into practice.

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About the Author:

Chris Ertel has been designing strategic conversations for fifteen years as an advisor to senior executives of Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and large nonprofits. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and daughter.

Lisa Kay Solomon teaches innovation at the groundbreaking MBA in Design Strategy program at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts. A frequent public speaker and guest lecturer, she lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Moments of Impact
INTRODUCTION

THE MOST IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP SKILL THEY DON’T TEACH AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL

(OR ANYWHERE ELSE)

The call came eight days before the meeting. The caller—let’s call him Bruce—was anxious. A senior executive at an international development agency, Bruce was about to host one of the biggest meetings of his career. Forty top economic-development experts from around the world were coming to Jakarta—on his invitation—to strategize about the future of Asia. As the date approached, Bruce was petrified that the two-day session might flop.

We asked him a few questions: What’s the purpose of the meeting? What are the desired outcomes? “We just want people to come and talk, so they can learn from one another,” Bruce said. “After all, they’re the experts.”

What important points do your experts already agree on? Where are they at loggerheads? “We figured we’d sort that out in the room. We haven’t had time to talk with everyone in advance.”

How will you set up the issues? “We’ve got a list of eight priority topics on the agenda. We figured we’d work through them one at a time with the group.”

What kind of environment are you creating to help them be productive? “The meeting is in a big hotel near the center of town. I haven’t been there yet, but you can check out their website. It looks pretty nice.”

What kind of overall experience are you hoping participants will have? “Er, what do you mean by that, exactly?”

As we peppered Bruce with more questions—Who’s kicking off the meeting and what will he or she say? What kinds of insights and next steps do you want people to walk away with?—we could feel his stress level rise. Bruce hadn’t thought through some basic but critical stuff. Now, his time was running out.

We shifted into triage mode to figure out what might be done in the little time remaining. Bruce had another idea. “Can you be in Jakarta on Monday?”

DESIGNING STRATEGIC CONVERSATIONS: A CRAFT, NOT A CRAPSHOOT

Bruce is an accomplished professional with a top-notch education and years of experience running meetings and events. Yet at no point in his career did he learn how to design a gathering like the one he was about to host—a creative, collaborative problem-solving session tackling a messy, open-ended challenge. That’s not a garden-variety meeting. That’s a strategic conversation.

If you’re a manager on the rise or a leader in your organization today, you’ve no doubt been to or organized at least a few strategic conversations. At some point, virtually all leaders—at all levels, across all organizations—convene them to address their most vexing challenges. At these critical moments, everyone will be looking to you—not for all the answers, but to help them unearth answers together.

Odds are, you have some ideas on how to set up a strategic conversation—but less than total confidence in how to get great results. Most leaders approach strategic conversations with a degree of anxiety because it’s a skill they were never taught. To our knowledge, no major business school or executive education program includes a course (or even a module) on how to design them.

Think about it. We go to great lengths and expense to bring together our best talent, with different skills and backgrounds, to tackle our biggest challenges. Yet we have precious little guidance on how to do this well—either as participants or as leaders.

It’s a bizarre oversight. Imagine if a professional golfer trained for all parts of the game—except putting. She can hit 250-yard drives straight down the fairway and chip with precision, only to stumble around the green. A pro golfer wouldn’t last long without the ability to putt. How can any leader expect to get far without the ability to spark productive collaboration around critical challenges?

Because we pay little attention to this skill, every day an otherwise capable leader is hosting a strategy retreat without a clear purpose. Or a strategic planning session packed with presentations that lay out one fact after another without illuminating the choices at hand. Or a feel-good off-site where participants are asked to give their “input” though it’s obvious the leaders have already made up their minds. Or a freewheeling brainstorm session where “every idea is good.” We could go on and on. But so could you, we suspect.

Even when we get the basics right, things can still fall flat. The right people are in the room, the question is clear, the content is pretty good, and yet . . . somehow, not much happens. People talk around the issues but make no progress. In our work, this is known as slipping clutch syndrome. You think you’ve got the car in drive, but it keeps falling back into neutral.

Bruce’s meeting in Jakarta went “okay,” we later found out. The experts kicked around a few interesting ideas and made some new networking connections. But the energy level never took off. There was no follow-through. Afterward, people grabbed their bags, caught flights home, and that was the end of it. Bruce had his chance to be a hero at a key moment. Instead, he was just exhausted.

Lots of strategic conversations turn out “okay”—neither home runs nor disasters. But okay strategic conversations are not okay. They carry an immense price. They waste precious time and money—in some settings, well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They de-motivate participants and make them wonder if leaders know what they’re doing. Worst of all, they can lead to terrible decisions that put careers or entire organizations in jeopardy.

By contrast, great strategic conversations can be powerful moments of impact that drive positive change in an organization. They generate novel insights by combining the best ideas of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. They lift participants above the fray of daily concerns and narrow self-interest, reconnecting them to their greater, collective purpose. And they lead to deep, lasting changes that can transform an organization’s future. We’ve seen it happen many times, often against the odds.

Yet the difference between an okay strategic conversation and a moment of impact isn’t random luck. Designing strategic conversations is a craft—not a crapshoot. It’s a craft defined by a few core principles and key practices that can catapult a “been there, done that” meeting into a gathering that few will forget.

Moments of Impact is a book with a mission. We want to eradicate as many time-sucking, energy-depleting strategy meetings as possible—and replace them with inspiring and productive strategic conversations. We aim to deliver the single most useful resource for managers and leaders who need better strategic conversations—now—to shape the future of their organizations for the better.

NEIL GRIMMER’S MOMENT OF IMPACT

Neil Grimmer is passionate about healthy food—especially when it comes to his two little girls. Grimmer is cofounder, CEO, and “Chief Dad” of Plum Organics, a baby-food company launched in 2007 with the goal of transforming the way small kids eat. The company offers sustainable, organic food (featuring unusual ingredients such as purple carrots) in innovative packaging, such as resealable pouches imported from Japan. By 2011, Plum Organics had built a loyal customer base, with annual revenues approaching $40 million.

In early 2012, Grimmer felt that his business was at an inflection point. Other small competitors with similar approaches were popping up, threatening to crowd the market. Meanwhile, Plum had hit the radar screen of big market leaders such as Gerber and Beech-Nut. “Most of our gains so far had come from their losses,” says Grimmer. “But you can only squeeze so much shelf space away from big players before they take notice and respond.”1

Grimmer knew it was time to engage his board in a strategic conversation. Its five members—all successful entrepreneurs or major investors—had many more years of experience navigating tricky competitive waters than he did. He needed their advice and guidance. But to get it, he knew he had to take a different approach from what he had done in the past. “We had talked about the what-ifs of competition before, but it had always been theoretical and elusive,” says Grimmer. “This time, we needed a more action-oriented discussion.”

At this critical point, most leaders would have reached for traditional business planning and strategy tools. Instead, Grimmer—a sculptor and designer by training—got creative. Rather than subjecting his board to the usual dense presentations and reports on Plum’s top competitors (which they’d seen before anyway), he came up with a war-gaming exercise designed to shake things up.

With just two hours on a standing meeting agenda, Grimmer paired each board member with a Plum team member and assigned each duo the role of a Plum competitor. For the first hour, he tasked each pair to do some web-based research and come up with a plan to present to the larger group. Their assignment: find a way to steal Plum’s small but growing market share. To set the right tone, Grimmer introduced the activity with a slide that had just three words—“Baby Food Fight!”—and an image of a cute baby waving boxing gloves.

Going into the session, Grimmer was apprehensive. As a former consultant, he thought the odds of success were good. But as CEO, he was less sure how his board members would respond to their unusual assignment. “My instinct was to provide them with detailed background materials,” Grimmer says. “But instead we asked them to do the primary research themselves, which they could have rejected. Unless they entered the exercise with the right spirit, it could have been lame.”

Grimmer needn’t have worried. The teams dove into the assignment. Because everyone could see the other teams hard at work, a sense of competition kicked in. At one point, Grimmer noticed that two teams had come together. The pair representing private-label brands was conspiring with the duo representing a niche player similar to Plum.

When the larger group reconvened, these two combined teams unveiled a dramatic plot to dominate the organic baby-food market: capture both the higher and lower ends with a one-two punch, using separate brands but the same supply chain and distribution networks.

“From a theatrical standpoint, all of a sudden, everyone felt the competition,” Grimmer recalls. “It became visceral. At that moment, we felt as if we were at a board meeting of our competitor. After that, the other players also got in character and raised their game.”

In the end, the results exceeded Grimmer’s expectations. “We came away with radical alignment that would not have happened otherwise,” he says. The exercise made clear the key challenges ahead for Plum—and what they might do to position the company against rising competition. Board members also left the session with a stronger shared understanding of the competitive dynamics at play. In the months that followed, it became clear that Plum needed to expand internationally to bolster its position. In early 2013, it acquired a British company with a similar approach and coincidental name: Plum UK.

To date, Plum continues to grow at a strong pace despite a crowded field, with combined revenues over $90 million in 2012. In mid-2013, the company was sold to Campbell’s Soup Company.2 While many factors contributed to Plum’s success, the Baby Food Fight was a moment of impact that helped propel the organization in a positive direction.

The Baby Food Fight worked for a number of reasons. It worked because it engaged board members in active problem-solving rather than asking them to lean back and judge the work of the management team. It worked because it ignited the passions and emotions of participants. And it worked because Grimmer was willing to take a few well-placed risks—knowing that a business-as-usual approach wouldn’t cut it.

Grimmer’s approach didn’t require a lot of props, tons of data, or advanced facilitation skills. It just required a dash of creativity and courage—and, most important, a shift in mind-set.

STRATEGIC CONVERSATIONS: THE THIRD WAY

Faced with a tough challenge that calls for collaboration—such as increasing competitive pressures or a shift in business models—most leaders will reach for one of two well-worn devices: the standard meeting or the brainstorming session. While both are fine for many situations, neither is sufficient for dealing with messy, open-ended challenges.

As Patrick Lencioni points out in his provocative Death by Meeting, most standard meetings fail to deliver the all-in participation that’s required to wrestle with tough issues.3 They invite participants to play out their established roles while multitasking on the side. And according to Keith Sawyer, a psychology professor who specializes in the study of creativity, brainstorming has a poor track record in delivering results. “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” he writes.4

There has to be another option—and, thankfully, there is. Strategic conversations are the third way. A strategic conversation doesn’t feel like a regular meeting or a brainstorming session. It is its own distinct type: an interactive strategic problem-solving session that engages participants not just analytically but creatively and emotionally.

Strategic conversations happen in lots of places. They’re not the exclusive domain of corporate strategy or strategic planning departments. They can take place in formal or informal settings—from a board meeting to a casual retreat. They can be workshops, working sessions, or a module within a regular meeting. Most of the time, they involve at least five to ten people and at least half a day. Their defining features are that the stakes are high, the answers unclear, and the participants are expected to create real insights together—rather than play out prepared scripts—across organizational boundaries.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of open-ended, high-stakes situations that call for strategic conversations:

→ A product development team trying to find “the next big thing” for its customers.

→ An HR executive wanting to engage the organization in crafting a talent strategy.

→ A management team trying to understand how global forces could affect their industry and markets.

→ A school planning committee trying to decide what infrastructure and staff to put in place for the future, with limited resources.

→ A business unit leader looking for ways to expand in a slow-growth environment.

→ A start-up’s leadership team facing a “pivot or persevere” decision point around its business model.

→ An IT department head trying to define a new technology platform to support diverse parts of the organization.

Many people feel their organizations have too many damn meetings already. They’re probably right. But we suspect those same organizations don’t have nearly enough strategic conversations—especially for the times we live in.

WELCOME TO “VUCA WORLD”

While it may be cliché to note that the world is changing fast these days, that doesn’t make it any less true. Unforeseen turbulence has become such a constant feature in our world that military planners (among others) have an official term for it. They call it VUCA World—an environment of nonstop volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.5

VUCA World is a bit like an amusement p...

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