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

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of the book, "The Most Important Leadership Skill They Don't Teach at Harvard Business School (Or Anywhere Else)."

 

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

Chris Ertel & Lisa Kay Solomon

272 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2014

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Moments of Impact is a new leadership book about how to design creative and collaborative problem-solving sessions that meaningful engage cross-sector perspectives to tackle some of our most challenging issues. Drawing from social science research and stories of impactful conversations across diverse industries, authors Lisa Kay Solomon and Chris Ertel show why innovators come before innovation, and why creating the conditions for change may be this century’s most important leadership skill.

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 skillsets 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 demotivate 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.

From MOMENTS OF IMPACT by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. Copyright © 2014 by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 
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COMMENTS

  • Michael Carson's avatar

    BY Michael Carson

    ON February 25, 2014 12:13 PM

    Your article is insightful. However the authors do not describe or explain how to have strategic conversations that will impact an organization’s strategic direction.

  • Natalie Zappella's avatar

    BY Natalie Zappella

    ON February 25, 2014 06:54 PM

    Interesting article. Facilitating strategic conversations is a very critical and practical skill, and I find it hard to believe this isn’t discussed more in professional business schools. This was definitely something that was included in my social work education (Master of Social Work program at the University of Michigan). To be fair, I’m sure many students at the UMSSW didn’t necessarily receive this kind of training, but if it was of interest to the student, the resources (including amazing faculty) and opportunity were there. Community organizing/development classes, group development, dialogue and other classes provided some of this, complemented with field placements/internships, capstone projects, work and volunteer positions for more practical experience. In my experience, the combination of these helped me develop a basic framework, strategies, and skills in facilitating strategic conversations. Perhaps B school students need some training in community organizing and social change theories.

  • This article states and restates the importance of crafting a strategic conversation.
    That’s it.

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