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BOOK REVIEW: The art of strategic conversation

Mar 16 2017 05:02
Ian Mann*

Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change, by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon

THE world we operate in today is a bit like an amusement park: it’s full of thrilling rides - just not all of them are fun, authors Ertel and Solomon point out. The military have an official term for an environment like this, the acronym VUCA - volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

In the world of business new competitors emerge suddenly and apparently out of nowhere: disruptive technologies destroy entrenched business models with frightening speed.

Consider the Flip Video, an ultra-cheap video recorder that anyone could use. Developed in a small office above a jewellery store in downtown San Francisco and costing a bit over $100, it became the top-selling camcorder on Amazon.com within weeks of its launch.

It stayed there for years against giants such as Sony. In March 2009, Cisco Systems acquired the producing company, Pure Digital Technologies, for $590m. Just two years later, in April 2011, Cisco closed Flip. By then, low-cost video was becoming a ubiquitous feature inside mobile phones and cameras.

That is the world of business today: a company can emerge from nowhere to market dominance, to a massive payday for the owners, and then back to oblivion in just four years.

“Given the realities of a VUCA world, many leaders today are wary of traditional tools for strategy,” say the authors, and so they should be. These tools were built largely for tackling very different issues in more stable times. (Michael Porter’s hugely popular book Competitive Strategy came out in 1980, almost half a decade before you had a home fax, and 45 years before you got fibre in your office and home!)

The idea of setting an enduring strategy still has strong appeal, but it is just not possible when the playing field keeps shifting and the goalposts won’t stop moving.

There are two type of challenges: technical and adaptive.

Technical challenges require applying well-honed skills to well-defined problems, such as building a bridge or organising a production line. They may be - and often are - complex, but we can still resolve them with well-understood methods.

Contrasting to the technical challenges are the adaptive challenges. These are messy, open-ended and ill-defined. As such, even finding the right question is hard, let alone the right answer. Given the reality of a VUCA world, we must approach strategy less like mechanics and more like designers.

The authors point out that it is “nearly impossible for any one senior executive - or small leadership team - to solve adaptive challenges alone. They require observations and insights from a wide range of people who see the world and your organization’s problems differently. And they require combining these divergent perspectives in a way that creates new ideas and possibilities that no individual would think up on his or her own.”

'Strategic conversations, not strategic plans'

This requires convening ‘strategic conversations’, not meetings that produce ‘strategic plans’. To deal with adaptive challenges, you must connect the best thinking and judgement of your best people, who might well disagree with each other.

Convening such a meeting means going to great lengths and expense to bring together the best talent, different skills and backgrounds, so that the group can tackle our biggest challenges. When the enormity of the task is understood, it is little wonder that so many organisations retreat into the minimally successful, formulaic strategy workshops – again.

Today, more than ever, strategy is conversation. However, we have so little guidance on how to do this well - either as participants or as leaders, and that is the value of this very practical book.

Moments of Impact combines three disciplines: strategy, design, and conversations (or group dialogue).

Much of the general format of a strategic conversation has the same requirements as does any good meeting. But strategic conversations must be executed so much better and so much more thoughtfully to get the desired results.

You will need clear objectives, but not three bullet points. It could be a metaphor or some other framework the group can use to make some sense of a VUCA environment. ‘Running a radio station is like running a French patisserie in a city excited about Banting.’ The introductory framing of the core issue you need to unpack must be framed specifically for the time and competence you have available.

Then you need ideal participants, because it is they who are the key to a successful strategic conversation. The usual route is identifying a ‘dream team’ but ending up with a ‘must-invite team’, which only lowers the possibility of a successful outcome.

The venue matters: “You wouldn’t throw a kids’ birthday party at a formal French restaurant - or propose marriage at a run-down pizza joint. So why do so many people choose to hold strategic conversations in spaces that aren’t right?” the authors ask.

There are clearly many subtle, but important aspects to hosting and facilitating a successful strategic conversation and the key concept is ‘design’. Design is an approach to problem-solving that aims at addressing users’ often unarticulated needs through disciplined creativity. A well-designed strategic conversation doesn’t just ‘look nice’; it works smoothly and effectively often in ways that you can sense intuitively but may not even articulate.

“This effect can be found in the way Herman Miller’s Aeron chair gives you firm support while allowing you room to move and breathe. It can be found in the way a Michelin-star restaurant delivers a seamless dining experience,” the authors explain.

Pierre Wack, best remembered for bringing scenario planning from the military to the business sector, pioneered the art of strategic conversation as a discipline and practice. Wack realised that well-designed strategic conversation also requires attention to the emotional and psychological experience of participants. We need to focus much more on their mind-set and concerns.

As Michael Schrage said: “The whole purpose of a strategic conversation is not just to have a good conversation about strategy. It’s about getting to a framework for the alignment of behaviours that help you get to the outcomes that you need.”

A strategic conversation doesn’t just happen, and everything you design into your meeting speaks. Your task is to see it sends the right message.

Readability:     Light --+-- Serious
Insights:         High -+--- Low
Practical:         High +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of the recently-released Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews

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