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How to have strategic conversations in business

5 Mins

This brings a renewed desire for ‘strategic’ conversations. The reality is that very few organisations know how to make these happen properly.

Most businesses have a regular roster of functional get-togethers, quarterly catch-ups and leadership committees. The number and frequency will vary but the goal is largely the same: to provide a forum for people operating in far-flung parts of the organisation to connect, share knowledge and engage. 

With all the brains in the room, these sessions are the ideal setting for strategic conversations, but these meetings often get bogged-down with endless rounds of updates and ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentations which nobody apart from the person speaking is really interested in.

According to a study by Harvard Business Review, top management teams spend just 15 per cent of their time in any given year devoted to strategic issues. In many cases this is squeezed into an already packed agenda, without careful design and facilitation, so they are set up to fail. 

This results in the leaders declaring that they’ve tried but simply can’t have these types of discussions so let’s not bother. This is because many leaders fail to recognise that this type of future-focused discussion needs a different approach to the shorter-term operationally focused ‘business as usual’ conversations.

Here are some practical tips to help any team have good strategic conversations.

1. Allow enough time

Don’t rush it. You can’t have a decent strategic discussion in 30 minutes. Allow at least 2.5 hours, and see where you’ve got to.

2. Focus

Don’t try and tackle a long list of topics. Focus on one or two strategic issues and really do them justice.

3. Pre-select issues

Avoid wasting time on the day choosing which topics to discuss by pre-selecting ahead of the session. Invite attendees to submit their ideas, and get them to vote for their top two.

4. Appoint issue champions

Nominate a person to prepare a short introduction to the topic, frame the issue, and articulate the questions & areas for discussion, and the specific decision(s) needed.

5. Set clear ground rules

Confirm how you expect people to behave. Ban mobile or laptop use. Identify any off-limit or out of scope areas.

6. Clarify decision-making rights

Be aware of the difference between a discussion and a decision; many people can talk about an issue. Yet only two or three are likely to be able to make a decision.

7. Use proper facilitation

Appoint someone to run the discussion. Not the most senior person in the room, ideally a neutral or external person who can navigate the internal politics and keep things on track. Think about the room layout – boardroom style is rarely conducive to engaging discussion!

8. Avoid plenary discussion

Large groups are ineffective for effective discussions as they tend to favour only the loudest or most senior voices. Break people into smaller groups to enable all views to be aired and shared.

9. Keep it action-focused

Discussion must lead to action. Make sure you allow time to determine what the implications and associated actions are. Assign clear accountability for follow-up and next steps.

10. Limit update time

If strategic conversations need to happen within a regular meeting, make time on the agenda by running a ‘newsround’ session at the start of the meeting, limit individual updates to five minutes, and ban PowerPoint.

Effective strategic conversations shape the fortunes of an organisation. They can help identify and solve challenges impacting the future of the business. They can uncover exciting new opportunities to be seized. And if they are managed well they have the power to transform the teams who have them, harnessing their enthusiasm and galvanizing their commitment. That’s got to be worth a try.

Olivia Buckle-Wright is a director at strategy consultants Cognosis.

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