What’s the best way to address complex challenges facing your organization? Bringing smart people together for truly strategic conversations. I know I don’t have to tell you this, but the reason for the reminder is a lament that I often hear from leaders:

I thought I did everything right. I put a logical agenda together, picked a location, and invited the inner group. Then the meeting was off and running — data-packed presentations, brainstorming, animated debate. And at the end of the day there was shockingly little to show for it – no clear conclusions, no new insights, no shared intent to act. What happened?

The book Moments of Impact reveals why putting great strategic thinkers in the same room doesn’t guarantee great strategic insights or shared commitment. The authors write:

“Imagine if a professional golfer trained for all parts of the game – except putting. She can hit 250-yard drives straight down the fairway and chip with precision. Only to stumble around the green. A pro golfer wouldn’t last long without the ability to putt. How can any leader expect to get far without the ability to spark productive collaboration around critical challenges?”

Just as masterful golfing requires perfecting multiple skills, designing a high-impact strategic conversation requires leaders to incorporate three distinct skill sets: strategy, design, and conversation (group dialogue). Moments of Impact draws on these three disciplines to teach leaders how to stage breakthrough conversations. Here are a few of my favorite insights from the book.

Design for healthy tension between comfort and discomfort. People are most creative when their basic needs are met and they aren’t under high stress. Conversely, innovative thinking involves a measure of discomfort. While most organizations actively avoid conflict, the book’s authors believe in orchestrated conflict or what they call “controlled burns.” Tactics for igniting controlled burns include:

1. Set and maintain clear ground rules for the conversation
2. Take a longer time perspective on the issue (make it less immediate)
3. Focus on external drivers of change
4. Make the group grapple with tough trade-offs
5. Have people walk in the shoes of others (e.g., customers, competitors, etc.)

An example of tactic #5: I once participated in a planning session to prepare a police department for the Olympics. Rather than pointing out the short-comings of the department we split the group up into “terrorist teams” and challenged them to design an attack that would prey on the known weaknesses of the department.

Apply Design Thinking to Your Meeting. Most of us invest a lot of energy thinking about the actual meeting event. The Doblin Five-E Model invites us to apply a “user experience” frame to the way we think about a high-stakes conversation.

1. Entice: How participants learn about the session in advance.
2. Enter: How they arrive at the venue and room.
3. Engage: How they experience the session.
4. Exit: How they leave the venue and room.
5. Extend: All related communications and interactions following the session.

Don’t Just Present Data. Frame the Issue. People typically come into conversations with different levels of information and understanding. But gathering all of the data in advance and providing it to participants is not enough to set a group up for success. Using a “frame”, a device that focuses the mind, can help focus the group’s understanding of data related to the issue at hand. Frames can take many forms, including questions, catchphrases, metaphors, visual frameworks, and stories. A case study of a school that was considering expansion outlined two simple but powerful questions that framed the conversation: 1) Could we build the new school? 2) Should we build the new school? This is an elegant framing because it separates two essential yet distinct conversations that must occur – the viability of and need for the expansion.

What are your best principles and practices for bringing smart people together to address the big opportunities and challenges facing your organization?

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