The art of strategic conversation


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A brief introduction to Second Road's Strategic Conversation process, including an explanation of the ABCD process and the thinking wave

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The art of strategic conversation

  1. 1. The Art of Strategic Conversation Most people love a good chat, yet in the world of business, conversation is often dismissed as wasteful – certainly not "real" work. Office spaces are divided into separate rooms or cubicles to enable people to focus on the tasks at hand, and not get diverted into "idle" conversations. Though managers spend much of their time in meetings, seminars and workshops, they often lament that these activities are boring and unproductive – mere "talkfests". The Ancient Greeks would have been surprised by our attitude to conversation, as it was a central part of their intellectual process. Socrates is famous for his "dialogues", and rhetoric was one of the foundational skills sets for thinkers and leaders throughout the ancient world. Two types of real-world problem To appreciate why the Greeks valued conversation so much, you need to understand an important distinction that Aristotle made between two types of real-world problem. On the one hand, there are problems relating to things that "cannot be other than they are". This involves any situation where there are fixed circumstances or quantities which can be measured and analysed – the sort of problems that are typically addressed by maths and science. In business terms, you could think in terms of financial reporting, productivity measures or sales figures – which all involve looking back at past performance. However, there is a second category of real-world problem, relating to things that "can be other than they are". These are the problems that relate to future possibilities, to circumstances which could be different than they are. Mathematical and scientific solutions
  2. 2. are of limited use in this context, because you are not dealing with fixed entities that can be measured, but with options and opportunities that don’t yet exist. The goal in this second sort of problem solving is not to find the "right" answer, but to create a compelling argument about which option is best out of a range of possibilities. The great insight that the Greeks had – and which we have forgotten in the modern world – is that the key tool for addressing this kind of problem is conversation. This distinction is highly significant for the world of business and management, because most of the important problems that people face in this environment fall into the second category, the realm of future possibilities – for example, topics such as strategic planning, investment decisions, cultural change programs and design of new systems and processes. Indeed, I would argue that any problem which involves human beings, as opposed to mere numbers, falls into this second category, because in the human environment, nothing is fixed – there is always potential to change. In these circumstances it's a tragic irony that modern western culture generally has invested so heavily in the scientific method, yet forgotten how to have productive conversations. We live under the illusion that if we can only get the right numbers we'll be able to make a good decision, when in reality, what we need is a good conversation. For all our emphasis on technology, we have lost the one technology – conversation – that could make a huge difference to the success or failure of the futures that we create for ourselves. The art of strategic conversation So how do you have a good conversation? Conversations by their very nature are fluid and flexible, an art rather than a science. Yet there are definitely some natural rhythms and structures to a good conversation, and a set of simple tools that can be learned to make conversations far more productive than they often are. The consulting firm which I work with, 2nd Road1 , has pioneered an approach for conducting effective conversations as part of our overall goal of creating thinking 1 The name 2nd Road refers to the fact that the Greeks bequeathed us two roads to truth, the path of rational scientific analysis based on numbers, and the path of rhetorical argument based on conversation. As consultants, we have chosen to invest our intellectual capability in developing the second of these roads, the one that has been neglected for the last 350 years or so of Western culture.
  3. 3. organisations. Our “Strategic Conversation System™ provides a simple but powerful generic structure that can be used across a wide range of group planning activities and problem-solving exercises.2 Strategic conversations have been used with great success in both the public and private sphere, in large corporations and in small NFP organisations, across many and varied industries and over very different scales of problem. Key idea 1: The Thinking Wave™ The first key idea that underpins our process is the idea of the “Thinking Wave™” (see fig.1). Creative thinking has a rhythm to it, and understanding this rhythm is very helpful for guiding a conversation to a fruitful outcome. Importantly, there are two quite different sets of conceptual skills required, depending on how far a group has progressed towards solving a problem. In the early stages of the thinking process, we are confronted with a confusing array of issues, questions, challenges and opportunities. The organisational context is often complex, and the problem itself can have many layers. Moreover, different people have different perceptions of where the issues lie. In this “upstream” environment, the sort of conceptual skills required are fundamentally non-linear and intuitive, as we seek to push and prod our way through the mass of information and insights to find a pathway that will lead us forward. It can feel like an uphill battle, but it is a necessary part of understanding a problem. In most cases, scientific analysis will not be very useful here, except perhaps to provide some data to consider. The real intellectual work involves reflecting on experience, forming opinions and weighing up different viewpoints, which is far more the realm where conversation is a powerful tool. Strategic decision, hypothesis Upstream  Intuitive  Complex  Non-linear  Fluid Downstream  Analytical  Linear 2 The Strategic Conversation System™ was developed by Tony Golsby-Smith, and has been thoroughly researched and documented in Tony’s doctoral thesis, “Pursuing the Art of Strategic Conversation”.
  4. 4.  Systematic  Structured Fig. 1 The Thinking Wave™ At the peak of the thinking wave, a strategic decision is made or a hypothesis emerges as the best way to move forward, and the rhythm changes. A clear direction has been established and momentum starts to build towards action. The decision or hypothesis may require some further creative thinking to develop it fully, but there is now a sense of purpose and increasing clarity. By the end of the thinking wave, but only at the end, it is possible to apply the analytical, linear, systematic type of thinking that we often associate with planning, as we put in place structures, timeframes and budgets. Understanding the rhythm of a strategic conversation helps to protect those running the meeting from falling into two temptations – the first is to get disheartened when things seem complex and fluid early on, and to fail to push through to a point of clarity and decision- making; the second is to rush too quickly to making a decision out of the desire to move directly into action. Since we were writing essays in school, we have been told that it is important to invest time in thinking upfront to avoid costly mistakes and wasted effort down the track, but we still succumb to the illusion that quick action is better than purposeful reflection.
  5. 5. Key idea 2: The methodology The second key element in the Strategic Conversation System™ is the methodology. In order to move across the Thinking Wave™, a group needs to spend time in four key places of thought, four “conversation spaces”, which we have labelled A, B, C and D for easy recall: A: Where are we now? A conversation needs to begin with a thorough exploration of the area, structure, system or process under review. This part of the conversation involves reflection on past experience, discovery of new insights about what is really going on, as well as identifying specific problems that need to be addressed. B: Where do we want to be? Understanding the present helps us recognise the challenges we face, but does not create momentum for change. This is why the “B” space is so important. The group needs to shift gear into a different mental space, one of imagination and aspiration. We cannot generate any enthusiasm for change without a vision of how the future could be different, or a dream of what we would like to see in place. The tension between the present (“A”) and the future (“B”) creates the momentum for change and engages the desires of the individual members of the group. C: How do we get there? Knowing where we want to get to is a great step forward, but the conversation will ultimately remain fruitless unless we conceive some clearly-defined strategies for how to get there. This involves both invention (conceiving what we could do) and judgment (working out which options have the highest priority or would create the most leverage). This stage of decision-making and direction-setting is vital to crest the wave and build the downstream momentum. D: What steps do we need to take? Only at the end of the process do we start working on an action plan, by defining what needs to happen next to put our strategies in place, what the timeframes should be, who we will need to engage and what resources we will need.
  6. 6. If the Thinking Wave™ gives the person leading the conversation a sense of its flow, then the methodology provides a clear structure and direction, not only for the leader, but for the whole group. The approach can be explained in less than five minutes at the beginning of a conversation, and then serves as a useful reminder to the group about where the conversation is up to – especially for participants who want to jump straight into solutions and action before the conceptual thinking has been done. Key Idea 3: Thinking technologies A third important component of the whole Strategic Conversation System™ approach is to recognise that a good conversation needs to be supported by some "thinking technologies", that is, tools that aid the communication process. Just as scientific analysis is supported by a set of appropriate techniques and tools, so too the right techniques and tools can make a big difference to the outcomes of a conversation. We always recommend that a Strategic Conversation should be led by an external or internal facilitator, who is well-versed in the methodology and can guide the group through the process. This frees up the person who is sponsoring the conversation to think about the content of the discussion, rather than worrying about the process, and also places them on a more equal footing with the rest of the participants. A second vital element is an electronic whiteboard. Too many great ideas and important insights are lost in the midst of a robust conversation, because minimal notes are kept of the conversation itself – since people believe that only the conclusions or follow-up actions are important. To overcome this tendency, we map the whole conversation on an electronic whiteboard, which has several important benefits – it provides a running record of the conversation, it enables participants to keep track of ideas and make connections between them, and it also gives scope for a skilled facilitator to create visual models of new ideas that may be emerging. Following on from the conversation, we employ two communication technologies to document the conversation as a whole and the strategic plans that were made. The TalkBook™ is a blow-by-blow account of the conversation as it unfolded, with all the
  7. 7. whiteboard printouts collated in a document, and with commentary on facing pages to capture and synthesise the main ideas. The BlueSheet™ is a one page strategic roadmap, summarising the main themes of the conversation – the issues that were identified, goals that were established and strategies put in place – based on the structure. The joy of strategic conversations Those who experience a Strategic Conversation for the first time are often surprised and impressed by the richness of the discussion and the quality of the outcomes. There are a number of significant benefits to the Strategic Conversation approach: 1. It provides a clear structure to a conversation, giving people a reassuring sense of direction even when they are grappling with a complex problem, and helping to keep the train of thinking on track. 2. It engages a number of different thinking skills, including intuition and imagination as well as reflection and synthesis, which draws out the different conceptual capacities of those involved. 3. It is a very inclusive and participatory process, so that each person in the group can contribute on a relatively equal footing and develop a sense of shared discovery and learning. 4. It creates a powerful sense of common ownership of the problem and shared purpose towards implementing a solution, which then generates impetus and energy for following through on the decisions made. 5. It enables management and project teams to think together, rather than working in silos; to communicate, rather than compete; and to be creative, rather than being frustrated. At the end of a Strategic Conversation™, people usually feel relieved that their issues have been heard, encouraged by the ideas that have emerged, inspired by the prospects for change and energised to move forward to achieve it. They have discovered that there is real wisdom that can be drawn from their collective experiences and insights, provided the right tools are used to unlock it. And for those who have previously been disillusioned by
  8. 8. meaningless "talkfests" or subjected to the torture of "death by PowerPoint", it is truly a breath of fresh air. Julian Jenkins 2005 The Thinking Wave™, methodology, Strategic Conversation™, Talkbook™ and Bluesheet™ are all trademarks of Walsof Pty Ltd. --------------------------------------------- 2nd Road offers both public and internal training courses to teach people the skills of facilitating a Strategic Conversation™. For more information about the M2M™ (Meeting to Making™) course and any other 2nd Road products and services, phone the Second Road office on (02) 9016-1400. 2nd Road can also provide trained facilitators to conduct Strategic Conversations around a specific project or design issue, or to generate a broad- ranging strategy across the whole of an organisation. Julian Jenkins is an experienced workshop facilitator and skilled information designer who loves to take complex information and communicate it in an accessible and compelling manner. He works in association with 2nd Road on a wide range of projects combining his facilitation, writing and design skills to create engaging group conversations, user-friendly business documents and highly accessible information systems. Based in Sydney, he has earned high praise for his work with a number of public and private sector clients, which include PwC, Leighton Holdings, Thiess, the Australian Tax Office and the Defence Community Organisation. He can be contacted on 0425 240 326 or at