Facilitating Strategic Conversations

Crafting strategy is one of the most important jobs of any leader. Many executives don’t spend enough time on strategy, or when they do they often mistakenly believe that they individually have to be the strategic architect, and in doing so fail to engage others in the process. Such an omission can have the negative outcomes of a plan that’s not as good as it could be and/or a set of stakeholders who don’t feel bought into the plan since they had no hand in developing it. (We have all experienced leaders who had a great idea but no followers.)

More than a few business writers have observed that strategy development in the last generation has had to evolve beyond post-WWII command-and-control approaches characterized by rationality and opacity. Our increasingly “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world requires a more open, adaptive, and inclusive approach: top-down strategies are mostly doomed to failure these days. Enlightened CEOs and senior executives recognize that every manager must become a strategist. And as the future becomes less predictable and numbers of stakeholders increase, the role of an effective strategist is less about mere research- and analytics-based projecting and more about facilitation, coaching, and communication.

Our colleagues Dr. Frank Rouault and Jean Segonds have spent the last decade studying how organizations develop strategy. They have also facilitated and coached dozens of strategy-development sessions for senior executive teams in Europe, Asia, and North America. Their experience argues that facilitating effective strategic conversations depends on attending to three core activities: Providing knowledge; Seeking knowledge; and Managing the “flow” of the conversation. Leaders who want to improve their organizations’ development of strategy will be well served to deepen their skills in each of these activities—none of which is difficult to learn, but each of which may depend on approaching things in a different way than you’re accustomed to.

Following is a snapshot of what these three core activities can look like for someone who is facilitating a strategic management session with a group. (Note that these same activities can be applied in one-on-one conversations with your direct reports.) As you read the lists, ask yourself to what extent you frame your senior team meetings and planning sessions around these activities and behaviors.

Providing knowledge:

  • Be clear about the purpose of the session: agree on objectives and “start with the end in mind”
  • Explain your role as facilitator
  • Establish “rules of engagement”: how the group will dialogue, make decisions, and table certain topics for later consideration
  • Generate relevant data beforehand, and use it to catalyze the conversation
  • Bring in new and different ideas to challenge assumptions
  • Share stories, experiences, and input from participants and key stakeholders
  • Get the bad news on the table
  • Explore options
  • Provide relevant insights but don’t dominate the conversation
  • Introduce models or other intellectual capital if/as useful

Seeking knowledge:

  • Acknowledge everyone and stress the importance of their participation
  • Encourage the group to share knowledge and experiences, and to challenge ideas and assumptions
  • Listen, listen, listen
  • Ask “why?” Ask “why?” again
  • Suspend judgment and seek insights
  • Challenge issues constructively
  • Ask follow-up questions—even unexpected ones
  • Clarify and confirm by summarizing (“what I understand is…”)
  • Have the courage to explore negative consequences
  • Be comfortable admitting you don’t know

Managing the “flow” of the conversation:

  • Develop a challenging but realistic agenda
  • Ensure that the right people (with the right expertise) have been invited
  • Keep a good pace and maintain rhythm—and stay alert on timing
  • Foster involvement, interactivity, and discussion
  • Accommodate different communication styles (e.g., introvert and extravert)
  • Maintain healthy tension
  • Project energy and excitement; demonstrate conviction and humility
  • Hold the group to the “rules of engagement”
  • Document the group’s ideas (flipcharts or whiteboard), and capture them afterwards in a clear and attractive format
  • Manage the work and progress prior to, during, and after the session

Effectively facilitating strategic conversations is difficult but exhilarating. The facilitator must project authority but not necessarily have all the answers. She must possess the courage to know when to share an idea, when to ask a question, and when to go off the agenda because that’s where the group needs to go. Facilitating is not an activity that can be scripted and there’s no safety net—but if you trust the process by Providing knowledge, Seeking knowledge, and Managing the “flow” you will discover powerful results and outcomes.

Frank and Jean have described facilitating a great strategic session as being like playing the sport of curling, often called “chess on ice”: the surface is slippery; a great deal of thought and teamwork go into choosing the ideal path and placement of the stone for each situation; and the skills of the curlers determine how close the stone will come to the desired result.

What have you learned via your experiences facilitating strategic conversations? We'd love to hear: newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
— Harry S. Truman