Strategy Conversations

For some organizations, strategic planning is similar to the mating ritual of penguins. Emperor penguins waddle up to 75 miles once a year to mate for a few minutes and then the female immediately leaves. That’s not much different than managers making the annual pilgrimage to the off-site strategic-planning meeting for two days and then returning to the office to get back to their “real” work. Strategy should not be an event. Strategy should be an ongoing conversation.

One of the keys to maximizing your strategic leadership potential is to facilitate effective strategy conversations. A strategy conversation is a systematic method of encouraging the exchange of ideas, beliefs, and opinions on the key strategic elements of a business. The term conversation stems from the Latin con versare, which means “turning together.” In a strategy conversation, the participants mentally move with one another from point to point. Three characteristics promote healthy strategy conversations:

  • 1. Candor: The willingness to express honest ideas and opinions
  • 2. Suspension: The discipline to actively listen without judging
  • 3. Openness: The ability to thrive in a situation where the outcome is unknown

The participants’ ability to embrace these criteria can encourage new and different perspectives that can generate breakthrough strategy. The leader’s actions play a large role in determining the effectiveness of a team’s strategy conversations. If a leader is quick to criticize opinions and ideas instead of thoughtfully inquiring about them, managers will determine it’s not in their political best interest to show candor. If people are not able to suspend judgment and their body language includes eye rolls and stares of disapproval, then the conversation will quickly shut down. It takes a strong manager to mentally wade into conversations filled with ambiguous gray areas, especially when he or she is not fully armed with all the answers. Yet, these are the rare leaders that fully tap into the intellectual capital and insights residing in their managers’ minds.

A conversation is comprised of two types of exchanges: dialogue and discussion. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, it’s important to note the distinction as you facilitate strategy conversations amongst your team. New strategy conversations begin with dialogue. A dialogue is an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue. Think about your organization’s strategic planning process. Is it grounded in this open exchange of ideas and opinions? Or do new ideas need to survive a series of didactic monologues and a gauntlet of leadership critiques?

The term dialogue comes from the Greek roots dia- and -logue signifying “a flow of meaning through words.”56 A strategy dialogue facilitates the exchange of insights and understanding between two or more people on the important issues of the business. The key is to have these strategy dialogues on a regular basis, not just once a year at the strategic planning meeting or off-site retreat. As author Ram Charan notes, “Dialogue can lead to new ideas and speed as a competitive advantage. It is the single-most important factor underlying the productivity and growth of the knowledge worker.”57

Once the group has exhausted the topics of strategic relevance through dialogue, the facilitator directs the group to begin discussion. Through discussion, the group breaks down the insights generated in the exploratory dialogue phase, and harnesses them to develop solutions that move things forward. What emerges from the discussion are the actionable strategies, accountability, and implementation that bring the conversation its end result. This is where focus becomes clear, trade-offs are weighed, and decisions are made.

Unfortunately, many strategy development teams begin with a discussion mindset. Instead of starting with a preliminary dialogue rooted in an open exchange of ideas that explore uncertainties and unknowns, people immediately propose solutions in the form of tactics. This undermines the innovative, assumption-challenging, and exploratory nature of dialogue, which is an essential element of an effective strategy conversation. Groups that jump right into strategic planning without first engaging in strategic thinking are also likely to overlook new ideas, opportunities, and tactics. The result is the same tired plan that causes an organization to stagnate and lose interest in the strategy development process altogether.

Strategy conversations should occur frequently, in both formal and informal settings. They are not a replacement for the strategy development process; they are simply a technique to engage in throughout the year to complement the strategy development process and enhance its effectiveness and output. Just as an extension to the handle of a wrench will yield greater leverage to turn a difficult bolt, a strategy conversation serves to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the strategy development process. There are three steps to introducing strategy conversations to your management team.

  • 1. Educate on the strategy conversation technique. Provide managers with a primer on the difference between dialogue and discussion, as well as notes outlining the questions, tools, and techniques for leading strategy conversations amongst their teams. Ensure people begin with a dialogue—an open exchange of ideas and opinions—and do not jump right to tactical solutions.
  • 2. Record insights from strategy conversations. Managers should keep a log of their insights from both formal and informal strategy conversations in order to build their body of expertise. During every encounter, strategic leaders should continually ask themselves, “What is my insight, knowledge, or take-away from this exchange?”
  • 3. Engage people from other areas and levels. Seek out people from different functional areas and levels of the organization to engage them in strategy dialogue to stimulate new thinking. A fresh perspective from a different vantage point can often open up new channels of thought. London Business School professor Don Sull writes:

Strategy discussions should not be concentrated at the top; they must take place at every level of the organization. Strategy will remain stranded in the executive suites unless teams throughout the organization can effectively translate broad corporate objectives into concrete action.58

The conclusion of a strategy conversation should be marked with a form of commitment. The commitment is determined by whether the conversation was in the exploratory dialogue phase or in the solutionseeking discussion phase. The commitment may be as simple as scheduling a follow-up conversation or as intensive as creating a war room to compile intelligence on the launch of a new competitor. The important thing is to leave the conversation with some course of action in place. Upon the conclusion of a strategy conversation, you’ll also want to record the key insights, knowledge, or takeaways from the exchange to continue to build your base of expertise. As J. Bruce Harreld, former leader of the IBM Strategy Unit wrote, “The essence of strategy is disciplined, fact-based conversations.”59

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