“Do you create the conditions for your team to hold truly strategic conversations?”

by Didier Marlier on Saturday March 12th, 2011

Two years ago, I was invited by my daughter’s  school in order to hold a conversation with the younger pupils, as they were reported to be increasingly stressed by all the things they heard and saw from their parents during the worst moments of the financial crisis. When, at the end, children asked me what job I was in, the simplest way I could describe it was: “I am helping very bright people to hold the conversations they need to have about their business”… The kids seemed to think this was a “cool job” as one of them stated and ever since, I believe this is truly an important part of our work.

Marcial Losada[1] wrote a post on this blog about the fascinating work and research he ran on how to enrich our strategic conversations. I warmly recommend to those who haven’t read it yet, to go back and check it out! In short, Losada observed executive teams during strategic meetings. He was able to predict the business impact of their decisions just by looking at three indicators:

  • “Other” vs “Self”: for Losada, participants to a “strategic conversation” should spend as much time talking from their own referential and perspective than being interested to others’ points of view and ways of thinking
  • Inquiry vs advocacy: there should be as much time dedicated to exploring than to concluding
  • Positive behaviours should be three to five times more than “toxic” behaviours.

Marcial’s work is centered on behaviours. However, in my own observations of Boardroom discussions, I am always astonished to see the prehistorical (let’s call them 1.0) conditions in which extremely competent executives meet, hoping to let emerge sophisticated decisions from neutrality driving set ups.

My partners and I came up with a simple set of opposing styles. Observe your meetings and decide where the cursor is in reality and where you would like it to be in order to create the right conditions for a truly strategic dialogueff:

  • Logos only vs Logos, Ethos and Pathos: Is your meeting purely and only intellectual(ist) or do you pay attention to your behaviours (giving feedback to each other) and emotions (making this meeting a safe place for all to open up sincerely and authentically) as well?
  • Broadcasting vs Engaging: Is your reunion a succession of “one man show” presentations, condemning the audience to passive consumption or are they designed so that all can be engaged, inducing active co-creation?
  • PowerPoint driven vs flip-chart enabled: Slides projection can be a useful tool when showing an Excel simulation for example and we always observe that as soon as the projector switches on, the energy of participants switches off. A flip chart is an image of course but it enables co-creation and progressing together.
  • Silo by silo (vertical) or systemic & collective (horizontal): In 1.0 meetings, participants sequentially show the results of their silo. Others patiently await their turn and pay attention not to challenge each other in order to ensure they won’t be grilled in return when on stage… 2.0 dialogues ensure that the topics are wider and of interest to all. Positive and well intended challenge is welcome as a sign of engagement and encouraged.
  • Discovering (each other’s work during the meeting) vs Discussing (having prepared each other material): This is an old and classic; The infernal rhythm to which we constrain ourselves makes us go to the meeting and read materials sometimes carefully crafted by our colleagues during their presentation. A rich discussion can only take place if we all come prepared.
  • Random individual contributions vs organized and structured dialogue: A clear indicator of the poor quality of your session are the “random contributions” from participants. These appear in the form of opinions, disjoint sequences of points of views, “single cause” speaker hijacking the conversation… A truly strategic discussion is structured, participants build on each other’s points,  they facilitate the flow by parking diverging issues, allowing exploration but summarizing and refocusing as well when needed.
  • Formal settings vs Informal settings: Chateauform[2] is by far the most professional organization in offering ideal conditions for seminars and workshops of all kinds in Europe. I am however stunned to hear each time I go there (and to the relief of the clients we work with!) that the auditorium is already booked by another unfortunate organization. Auditoriums are conducive to edutainment and long sessions of broadcast. I am shocked to see how many organizations still poorly design their board rooms and meeting rooms. They all smell like distance to power, seniority is superiority and shout out loud an invitation to dive on your laptop while somebody else is presenting… Pathetic! I remember some of my most impressive breakthrough meetings to be sitting in the water on a beach in Praia do Forte (Bahia) with the management team of a bank, enjoying the panorama of the Mont Blanc with the Dutch partners of a tax law firm in Villars Switzerland or the session which changed the course of things for a French multinational under an oak tree.

I suggest you draw that list on a paper with a cursor between the extremes and agree with your team, before your meeting, of how you would like to run your next dialogue… 1.0 or 2.0?

Paris again (I am truly turning French!) for one of the most challenging Convention of the year: 350 participants plus Marcelo “Jimmy” Chiavone and his samba simulation with the Masters of the Vai-Vai School who just won the Sao-Paulo Carnival!!!

Have a great week all!


[1] http://blog.enablersnetwork.com/2009/11/01/marcial-losada-explains-his-research-for-our-blog-readers/

[2] www.chateauform.com

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5 Responses to ““Do you create the conditions for your team to hold truly strategic conversations?””

  1. hi didier,

    fully agree – i just came back from Jo’burg from a session with the exco of a large firm. we used 50 year scenarios as a way to create a space for them to discover and then discuss what big issues they may be missing in their strategy. all the 1.0 issues came up of course, but the scenarios helped also create a safe space to think. they could refer to issues and concerns in one world or another, without needing to take a stand on whether this was likely to happen. also placing things in a far future makes it safer to discuss, particularly in a context where there is also an “official” future, as prescribed by the ANC. for scenarios, the criterium is plausibility, not probability and this becomes a less threatening environment.

    In two weeks i go back to do the same with the board. fun to do, though.


  2. Hoi Didier
    I like the idea of strategic conversation. What I see missing at all these meetings and convention centers is the customer and customer insights. You have to start a conversation with your current and potential customers. Observe their needs, strike a conversation and please do not delegate this to your market researchers. As a head of a business (unit), it is your job to know the customers better than they know themselves.
    Market research can support you but no presentation (even without any slides) can be as good as insights you have gained by yourself.

  3. Thank you both Roland and Patrick,
    Absolutely, Roland, the scenario philosophy does help a team switching into exploration mode as opposed to endless and unhelpful “conclusion battles”.
    Yes Patrick I totally agree with your point: Marketing and customers should not be subcontracted to external agents nor to a single department but observed and scrutinized from withing.
    Thanks to you both!!! Have a great week

  4. Didier, seu blog faz sonhar e, o que é melhor, permite viver o sonho se quisermos fazer o pequeno esforço para romper com os velhos hábitos. Esse novo estilo de pensar e promover trocas de idéias me faz pensar na ágora em Atenas ou no Quartier Latin da Paris nos tempos de Santo Inácio de Loyola…
    Forte abraço,

  5. Great discussion here! Scenarios really help in EXCo and Board discussions. it’s interesting to see top leadership starting to think outside the box….outside their day to day work! Scenarios help do that! Typically, these discussions start with Exco pointing out issues that they believe the scenarios team has ommitted from its document. That kind of discussion in itself is a strategic conversation and it helps to look at possible futures! One Scenario planner said that “scenarios must not be too detailed but, must leave the discussion in the question”. The Exco must now engage in a strategic conversation to try get solutions to the questions generated by the scenarios.


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