Collaboration Above The Fray: Designing Strategic Conversations That Matter

The chief marketing officer (CMO) of a large, diversified consumer electronics company knew that he had to change the process for allocating marketing spend across four different product divisions, but wasn’t sure how.

The market landscape was shifting dramatically, along several dimensions. People were moving their online and media lives to tablets and mobile phones much faster than expected. Meanwhile, social networking campaigns—after being hyped for years—were now seriously competing with traditional advertising channels for resources. The CMO needed to make some big decisions at a time of budget constraints and moving targets.

In prior years, the CMO had collected individual budgets from each division—which were inevitably too high—and then tried to strike a compromise. This process “worked”, in a way, but allowed little space for the big strategic issues, resulted in incremental changes, and left everyone dissatisfied.

In this situation, the CMO faced several challenges at once: a competitive challenge, an analytic challenge, a foresight challenge, a political challenge, a leadership challenge, a learning challenge—and more—all rolled into one.

But is it a design challenge?

We believe so—strongly—and here’s why. Addressing a systemic challenge like this one requires truly collaborative strategic conversations among colleagues with different perspectives. They require conversations that can get “above the fray” of daily concerns and narrow self-interest (and group interest) to focus on longer-term priorities and collective purpose.

Yet, getting the most out of strategic conversations is not just a matter of good facilitation in the room—important as that is. To a large degree, it depends on creating the right context and experience for collaboration before the session begins. It depends on creating a total experience that addresses the psychological and emotional journey of the participants, and not just the substance of the issues.

What is a “strategic conversation”?

We define a strategic conversation as any conversation between two or more people that has the potential to help shape the future direction of an organization. Our work focuses on an important sub-set of these discussions: strategic conversations in a workshop setting with 10 or more people over a day or more. We are focused on these events because they represent significant investments of time and resources and because they can be powerful accelerators for change in the life of any organization, when done well.

The art of crafting effective strategic conversations is a little-known, yet high-impact sub-field of learning experience design. Few organizational leaders or professional designers are well versed in this discipline, though many designers would no doubt excel at it, given the opportunity to apply their skills to this context.

Over the past 15 years, we have designed well over 100 high-stakes strategic conversations for leaders and teams in a wide range of situations. During this time, we have built a set of core design principles and tools that can dramatically increase the effectiveness of strategic conversations.

Most strategic conversations are “okay”—and that’s not okay

From our experience and research, participants report that most strategic conversations are “okay”—in other words, not very effective, but not a total disaster either. Most of the time they are grateful to be done with the all-day meeting, and glad to get back to their “real work”.

The cost of “okay” strategic conversations, though hard to calculate, must be high. In some settings, direct costs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Okay” strategic conversations can also undermine confidence in leadership, creating confusion and frustration among participants. Over time, they can result in bad decisions that cost the organization money, jobs, or even its future. You have to wonder what kind of strategic conversations they had at Blockbuster as their customers ran away in droves.

Strategic conversations are becoming more important and more difficult. The days of steady-as-you-go strategic planning are over for most organizations, replaced by the realities of “VUCA world”—a nonstop environment of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Under such conditions, it is nearly impossible for any one senior executive (or small executive team) to come up with all the right answers alone. And, even if they could, they still need to convince others who weren’t involved in the process to support the plan with energy.

Leaders today thus face a tough dilemma: they need to develop effective strategies under uncertain conditions while engaging more people with different perspectives, more effectively in the process—and do it all faster, too.

Critical elements of a well-designed strategic conversation

Designing a strategic conversation is not to be confused with organizing a meeting. Most competent professionals know how to convene a well-organized meeting; far fewer can pull off an effective strategic conversation.

After reviewing a large number of successful cases, we find there are five high-level design principles that drive all great strategic conversations:

  1. a clear purpose, seen as a from/to journey (not just bullet point objectives);
  2. deep empathy for the participants and stakeholders as individuals (not just roles) and “users” of the process;
  3. skillful framing of content around future choices;
  4. follow-through to action built in to the program;
  5. and a total experience that integrates all the above.

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context,” goes the famous quote by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, “a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” In this spirit, a well-designed strategic conversation takes a much broader approach to the content and the experience than does your garden-variety meeting.

In Figure 1, we call out some of the key elements involved in a well-designed strategic conversation—in contrast with a well-organized meeting. Although these elements may appear commonsensical, it’s not easy to cover them all well in designing and executing one workshop. Doing so requires deep prep work, which takes time and effort.

Setting the objectives is a critical first step. In reality, there are just three high-level objectives around which you can design a strategic conversation: (1) Building Understanding; (2) Shaping Options; and (3) Making Decisions. Underneath these three broad “buckets” sit a total of eleven “Journey Spaces”, which are shown in Figure 2, below. Together, these spaces make up a classic funnel of progress, from divergent exploration through final decisions (and any specific strategic conversation can only cover a few of these).

Designing an effective strategic conversation starts with choosing a clear sub-set of these spaces and constructing a customized journey that this specific group of people needs to take together at this time.

What good looks like: three brief examples

Below, we share three brief examples of well-designed strategic conversations—one from each high-level objective bucket—along with the key choices that made them successful.

Building Understanding: The De LaSalle Christian Brothers

The De LaSalle Christian Brothers are the second-largest teaching order in the Catholic Church, with educational works in more than 80 countries. In the early 2000s, the District of Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea (as in many other geographies) was experiencing a decline in the Brotherhood, driven by retirements of aging Brothers and a shortage of new vocations. Their challenge was to embrace a shift to lay leadership—or face inevitable decline in the scope of their good works.

The critical design choices in this case were to: (1) show a tough documentary film, near the beginning of the program, about the closing of an order of nuns that had failed to address similar issues in a timely way (Empathy); (2) run a simulation game where participants were required to play out the next 10 years of expected leadership retirements in half a day, making decisions about which institutions to close or merge (Framing and Experience); and (3) engage in a candid dialogue with a select group of lay leaders about the personal and professional dimensions of the changes that would be required (Follow-Through).

The result of this powerful session was that it laid the foundation for the District to begin restructuring its operations sooner, rather than later, and to accelerate development efforts for a gradual transition to lay leadership.

Shaping Options: The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is entrusted with preserving and making accessible the vast cultural and knowledge base of the nation for its citizens. Increasingly, this content is created in digital form, requiring new approaches to curation and preservation. (How, for example, do you “preserve” today’s World Wide Web for the future?). Moreover, it was clear that the Library could not solve this problem alone. They needed to create a national plan for digital preservation that would engage a wide range of stakeholders in distributed, yet coordinated action over time.

A number of design choices were made for a series of workshops with key stakeholders from major technology, media and cultural institutions, including: (1) create three distinct scenarios, or visions, of the potential “endgame” of a new preservation regime, to clarify and frame future choices (Framing); (2) provide a prototype of the high-level architecture for the emerging system, for participants to critique and improve together (Framing and Experience); and (3) end each workshop by prototyping collaborative projects among participants (Follow-Through).

The resulting master plan (National Plan for Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program) was approved by Congress in 2003 and has supported steady progress on this complex challenge ever since.

Making Decisions: Large consumer electronics company

Finally, we return to our opening story, in which the consumer electronics company faced difficult choices about marketing investments across different product categories. The CMO’s goal was to craft a budget that was responsive to shifting market dynamics externally while also being politically acceptable internally.

The CMO decided to convene the leadership teams from the four divisions and—in just one day—have them wrestle with the total budget together. The goal was to require division leaders to confront the real trade-offs involved—and the CMO and his team to be more transparent about their decisions.

Sounds like a great idea—but a risky one, too. Unless well handled, a collaborative approach to budgeting could spark a political mess. Well aware of the risks, the CMO decided to take the gamble, because the company needed the best thinking of their top players focused on their collective self-interest. They needed to get “above the fray”, if just for a day. But how?

The critical design choices in this case were to: (1) immerse the participants in data (quantitative and qualitative) on the current state of flux in the technology platforms and marketing channels, to highlight the very real uncertainties in play (Framing and Experience); (2) establish clear, neutral criteria for allocating marketing spend across the platforms and channels (Framing); and (3) mix the teams up in a budgeting exercise, so that a combination of players from all four divisions created the plan and business case for each division, working from the established criteria (Empathy and Experience).

The result was that this workshop group was able—in just one day—to bring the four combined investment requests much closer to the total budget, making the CMOs job much easier—and more effective.

In each of the above cases, success turned on a few critical design choices to accelerate progress on the journey that group of participants needed to take at that time. Great experience design enabled the participants to get above the fray of their daily challenges and focus more on their collective, longer-term interests.

What bad looks like: six common mistakes

In our research, we’ve also collected a host of stories about failed strategic conversations. Along the way, we’ve heard about the myriad ways that conveners get strategic conversation wrong, wasting time and resources.

Here are six common mistakes that annoy participants most—all of which come from failing to approach a strategic conversation from the user’s perspective. Designers will likely recognize these from work in more traditional design practices.

Mistake #1: Setting vague objectives.

Here’s one way to convene a strategic conversation: “We just want to get people together and hear what they think about (issue x).” Most of the time, this is not a great reason to bring people together, and leads to cynicism around group work. Participants expect to hear what, specifically, they are being asked to accomplish at a session.

Mistake #2: Engaging in “fake participation”.

Here’s another phrase that we often hear: “We want people to feel as if they’ve been heard.” This is even worse than Mistake #1, because, too often, the host’s intent is give the impression that leadership is listening rather than to actually listen (a subtle but crucial distinction). In most organizations, participants would rather spend the day getting real work done than attend a “feel-good” session like this.

Mistake #3: Trying to do too much at one session.

As a rule of thumb, most strategic conversations can only tackle one high-level objective at a time—i.e., they can either focus on Building Understanding, Shaping Choices, or Making Decisions. A common mistake—especially in our time-pressed era—is to design a workshop around two or more high-level objectives at the same time. While our context is accelerating, however, our ability as humans to build alignment is not. Participants need time to internalize the progress they’ve made on one big objective before moving on to the next one.

Mistake #4: Pushing a group to do work they are not prepared for.

Related to the above mistake, impatient managers often convene a session by assuming that a group is farther along than they really are on a given topic. For example, they ask participants to start brainstorming options before they understand the issues and content at hand. Or they ask participants to start evaluating options before thinking through their full implications. Participants expect a strategic conversation to deepen their understanding of important issues, and have little use for “garbage-in, garbage-out” brainstorms, voting exercises and the like.

Mistake #5: Failing to be explicit about decision rights.

Hosts of strategic conversations are often reluctant to declare how the ultimate decisions will be made, and by whom. Failure to be explicit on this important point invites distrust. Most participants know if they have decision rights or not, anyway, and just want leaders to be upfront with them.

Mistake #6: Using group time for work that should be done “offline”.

Finally, nothing makes busy professionals crack open their laptops faster than tying up costly group time on issues that should be handled by individuals—or a small subset of the group—offline. Participants want to have their time used well.

All of these mistakes (and more) are painfully common, and explain why participants are so often disappointed in strategic conversations. Managers who fall victim to the above pitfalls aren’t trying to annoy their colleagues; they simply lack the awareness, the skills, or the confidence needed to design effective strategic conversations.

Empowering managers to design better strategic conversations

The number of people with deep experience and skills in designing great strategic conversations is very small. Yet, high-stakes strategic conversations are happening somewhere every day. What’s needed is a way for managers with good intent and aptitude—but limited skills in experience design—to raise their game quickly, and to get better with practice.

If this situation sounds familiar to designers, it should. There are so many areas where design thinking more generally can make a difference in peoples’ lives, yet too few skilled designers to go around.

The growing interest in design today presents both an opportunity and a challenge. For the design profession to channel the current buzz into real-world impact will require enabling non-designers to develop specific design capabilities. Indeed, there have been a number of recent efforts to create user-friendly design toolkits to address important challenges—especially in areas where trained design talent is scarce, such as in less-developed economies.

We are on a similar mission in designing for scale: to deliver the single, most useful resource that will enable managers and leaders anywhere to design great strategic conversations.

We know that great strategic conversations alone cannot solve everything; strong follow-through and execution are also critical. And better tools alone are no substitute for years of experience. Still, there are far too many important strategic conversations happening every day that are just “okay”, or worse—at a tremendous cost.

Well-designed strategic conversations can be powerful leverage points in accelerating the transformations most needed to shape the future. We are confident that, armed with better design principles and tools, any manager can create and lead much better strategic conversations now—to the benefit of our organizations and society at large.

Based on Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change by Chris Ertel, Ph.D., and Lisa Kay Solomon, M.B.A.