Imagine that your organization is facing a thorny adaptive challenge. Maybe an aggressive new competitor is stealing your market share, or an attractive but complicated growth opportunity is opening up. Once an organization recognizes that it’s facing an adaptive challenge, it typically sets out on a winding road of exploration, discussion and action that eventually leads to decisions and results. It comprises many different interactions and touch points that unfurl over time, including informal discussions, intensive research, formal review meetings, working-team sessions and — most important — strategic conversations.
This kind of creative problem solving follows an arc of divergence and convergence. You start by taking a broad perspective on a challenge, then gradually shift into identifying and winnowing down possible solutions over time.
1. Seize Your Moment. Strategic conversations are pivotal, synthesizing moments within this larger process. They enable a group to achieve new levels of clarity and coherence about their adaptive challenge — and help move leadership teams toward deeper levels of shared commitment and understanding. While an adaptive challenge rarely gets “solved” in any one conversation, a well-designed session can release tremendous energy and create forward momentum. These moments of impact propel a group forward, often opening new avenues of insight and alignment along the way.
2. Pick One Purpose. Strategic conversations have just three overarching purposes: Building Understanding, Shaping Choices or Making Decisions. Any strategic conversation you can imagine will sort into one of these categories. A well-designed strategic conversation must focus on one — and only one — of these three types. If your group doesn’t know much
about the issues — or has sharply divergent opinions on them — you need to run a Building Understanding session. If they have tons of knowledge but are spinning their wheels on what to do, it’s time for a Shaping Choices session. Only when you’ve done both of these jobs well
should you consider calling a Making Decisions session.
3. Go Slow To Go Fast. An important part of running any good meeting or strategic conversation is getting to a clear list of next steps. When approaching a strategic conversation, it’s common for participants to push for agendas that drive faster toward agreement and decision making than is realistic. That’s a problem because people need time and space to process together the complexity of adaptive challenges. Groups that make the effort to get to a true moment of impact — that is, some deep alignment on important insights — recognize this as progress. After they reach this point, they can usually start taking action — fast.
If you leave a strategic conversation without consensus, no list of next steps — no matter how “action oriented” — is likely to help. By contrast, when your group walks out of the room with genuine agreement around some important new clarity, you can always sort out next steps later.