Claiming 10,000 + hours of leading and planning strategic conversation, the coauthors Chris Ertel, a social sciences PhD consultant who works at Deloitte Consulting and Kay Solomon, a professor of innovation from an MBA program in design strategy, describe this work as sitting “at the crossroads of three disciplines: strategy, design and conversation (or group dialogue)” (p. 14). They do not purport to break new ground but rather create a laser focus on the intersection of the three disciplines, which they call strategic conversations.
This book is written for today’s business leaders facing ambiguous challenges. It is in the vein of creative Creative problem Problem solving Solving in that Ertel and Solomon refer to divergent and convergent thinking in the process of devising strategic plans. However, they use the term adaptive challenge instead of creative challenge to define a situation where there is no single best solution—in other words, the kind of situation that calls for leadership instead of management. Ertel and Solomon call this the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. The general solutions this book offers are how to identify the need for, and then design, successful strategic conversations.
The role of strategic conversations is explained as “pivotal, synthesizing moments within a larger process” (Ertel & Solomon, 2014, p. 39). The outcome of an effective strategic conversation will “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” (Ertel & Solomon, 2014, p. 39). Strategic conversations are intended to be galvanizing moments that release energy and momentum for an organization. They are frequently held off site, can include interactive experiences, and bring in people with multiple points of view. They also require detailed planning so that the affective experience, although perhaps not consciously appreciated, anticipates needs and minimizes distractions. Contrasting types of meetings are standard and brainstorming sessions. Standard meetings are typically held in conference rooms and rely on PowerPoints, charts, and data for analysis, this keeps people in their regular analytical, answer-seeking mindset. Brainstorming sessions are generally held in the same type of environment. They get people excited but, according to Ertel and Solomon, lead to a lot of ideas that are neglected once people leave and go back to business as usual.
The competencies Ertel and Solomon focus on helping the reader develop are understanding and figuring out how to design strategic conversations. They offer three reasons to have a strategic conversation: (a) building understanding, (b) shaping choices, and (c) making a decision. The reason is determined by assessing what type of output is needed and where the organization is in relation to the adaptive challenge it is facing. Ertel and Solomon offer Core Practices and Key Principles which will help the planner determine various components and logistics of the session. Some elements are the type of information presented, how information is presented-there might be games, stories or interactive experiences. Who attends and what information they bring is also a large consideration. The idea is that when all of the elements are carefully crafted, you improve your odds for best possible outcome. In order to support the reader, the final section of the book is a starter kit that lays out the elements for each type of conversation. It also includes a reading list for further exploration of each topic.
I found the book timely because it is written be a guide and tool for people in who find themselves in leadership positions that require out-of-the-box thinking. The authors used expert interviews to describe successful scenarios where this type of conversation took place. The writing is very straightforward and businesslike. It has a “nothing but the facts, ma’am” kind of attitude. There are no funny anecdotes or Dilbert cartoons. It is logical, methodical, and specific to supporting strategic thinking. I believe mastery of the principles outlined would be beneficial in running any type of meeting. For instance, Ertel and Solomon’s suggestion that one think of oneself as a producer and event coordinator can only help improve any meeting experience. The more a leader takes the attendees’ needs into account, the better participation of any sort is bound to be.
From a research perspective, the book does include references to scholars and researchers in the business and psychology and creativity realms. Ertel and Solomon referred to cognitive psychology to describe and explain the type of resistance and challenges one may face in leading these conversations. They include a whole chapter devoted to “yabbuts” and how to diffuse them.
As I contemplated the differences between a well-organized meeting and a well-designed strategic conversation, I noticed that the latter type of engagement is more multidimensional. The way I would describe it is that in an ideal execution the experience should be the difference between seeing a regular movie and a 3D movie. Both experiences will give the story, but one puts the viewers in the center of the action and changes their perspective and reactions. Being able to effectively execute such a lofty outcome requires practice and attention to detail. Using this book as a starting point can give the novice leader insight and confidence to attempt the goal of trying something new with people.
Ertel, C., & Solomon, L. K. (2014). Moments of impact: How to design strategic conversations that accelerate change. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
About Vivian Geffen:
Vivian Geffen, The Creativity Muse, is in the process of earning a Master’s of Science degree in Creativity Studies at Buffalo State College in New York. She has developed an interest in how to apply creativity to strategic planning, particularly for non-profits organizations like The Samburu Project, where she is on the Board of Directors.
Vivian also created and developed Creativity for Personal Transformation, a workshop that uses Creative Problem Solving as the impetus for generating personally motivating and meaningful strategies to overcome challenges. She lives in Los Angeles. @creativitymuse