Leaders often talk about the need to align people behind goals and the challenge of doing so, and yet frequently adopt conventional top down approaches focused on “key messages” that just don't work when change is so rapid and people expect more adult to adult approaches. A more impactful approach that resonates needs to relate to the way people naturally communicate. Organisations need to use conversational approaches that include core narratives and weave discussion about everyday challenges into more strategic conversations about higher purpose and longer-term goals.

For example TUI Travel, BAE Systems, Vodafone and TNT Express have all transformed understanding of strategy by inviting teams to discuss their priorities and actions in the context of a bigger picture. Ernst Young, Rolls Royce, RBS, Aviva, Cisco, Lilly and Royal Dutch Shell are all publicly talking about their use of narrative to help give people greater contextual understanding, to share goals and to improve collaboration.

Strategic conversations

A strategic conversation connects people to an organizational narrative. It is a conversation in which people talk about what they do in the context of a bigger picture; one that enables them to explore purpose, strategy, dilemmas, problems and solutions. It is a meaningful exchange that gives the opportunity to challenge and to think through what a team, or a group of people from different teams, aims to achieve in the context of bigger goals, and the best way to do so.

A strategic conversation is an intervention that prompts people to talk about forces for change, leadership intentions and their own intentions in response to local issues and challenges. Having conversations like these moves an organisation in the direction it aims to go. The theory underpinning this approach comes from social constructionism and, in particular, the work of David Cooperrider considered the father of Appreciative Inquiry – an approach to change that sees organisations as human living systems where asking questions and encouraging focused conversations which are not prescribed can help raise energy and change.

Different approaches work better in different situations and for different organisations, but here are 10 core principles that underpin any approach to help colleagues have more meaningful strategic conversations.

1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision

An organisation needs to be able to tell its stakeholders and its people what it stands for. For example:

  • Disney’s vision is to make people happy
  • Twitter wants to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.

These are more than marketing devised straplines to differentiate. These statements capture at a deeper level why an organisation exists: what it is for. This is important to give meaning to the people who work there for whom this purpose should be explicit and something that gets talked about constantly. For customers and other stakeholders, the purpose may be more implicit, but nevertheless it is important to confirm why the organisation is relevant for them.

The purpose needs to drive the business and sit at the heart of every strategic conversation. Even though it may not get mentioned in the course of the conversation, it still acts as a guiding light against which proposals, ideas, activities, behaviours and plans can always be tested by the simple question: is this aligned with our purpose?

Other famous statements include:

Nike: "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world."

Google: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

2. Develop shared goals at top

This sounds like a statement of the obvious but the reality is that many organisations talk about wanting to align people behind their vision or purpose while leaders do not themselves share a set of common goals, or are not seen to.

Unless the top team can develop and convey commitment to coherent goals that they all share, and are seen to share, it is futile to expect other people, starting with their direct teams, to do so. The strategic conversation process must always include the top team for if there is any sense that there is a lack of shared goals from the top, energy and commitment for the process will drain away.

In larger businesses, this extends to the wider leadership cadre – typically the direct reports to the executive committee. Winning the buy-in of this group to the value of the conversation process, and providing them with the confidence and skills to lead their own conversations, is critical. For example, BAE Systems encouraged all members of its senior group to attend conversations led by their leaders before leading their own. In this way, the top group not only worked through a better and shared understanding of their strategic aims but also learned the value of a process that encouraged open dialogue and the exploration of how different teams support the strategy.

3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what the organisation does well

Our brains respond positively when we are told what we are good at and we focus on things that we do well. This builds self-esteem and releases dopamine in the brain that reduces threat and makes it easier for us to collaborate and create. Important elements in strategic conversations are current strengths, and historical successes, and it is the appreciation of these that carries an emotional punch for people.

Many will overlook the importance of this. They will avoid, for example, historical brands or reference to past (e.g. pre-merger) organisations. This is a mistake – even if brands or companies may no longer trade, their legacy may mean a lot to the people who still work in the business. Erasing them from the story just damages the impact of the narrative; celebrating past successes acknowledges what they meant to people and displays a sensitivity to, and confidence in, the history of the organisation.

Focusing on current strengths allows people to think about how we can build on them and is more likely to raise energy. Typically, conversations at work tend to focus almost exclusively on the issues and problems to address. The power of a positive focus can be demonstrated by making relatively minor shifts in the style in which conversations are led. For example, starting with some of the things that have gone well in recent weeks; key achievements of the business or people in it; positive customer or other feedback, etc.

4. Build conversation skills and curiosity

Good strategic conversations are really an enquiry into why things are the way they are and how they can be better. The kinds of questions to stimulate these can include:

  • What are we here to achieve?
  • What do we believe in?
  • What works and what does not?
  • Why does it or why doesn’t it work?
  • What can we learn from that?
  • How can we change the way we work?
  • How will we know if we are getting better?
  • What would our customer say if he or she was here?

What is implicit in this approach is the assumption that we all have a perspective on the world that is relevant and we each have an equal right to express that perspective. Sceptics may discount this because some people bring more to the team and its work than others. Of course, they do. But it is still the case that every person in the organisation shapes how it works and what it achieves. A spirit of enquiry helps all members to contribute to an exploration of what can be better and the team needs to ask itself these questions to reach alignment and that “aha” moment to connect what’s important day to day with the strategy and purpose

5. Focus on the Future

Strategic conversations need to focus on where we are going. They may and often do begin with where we have come from, what makes us proud and what are our successes. But a strategic conversation is primarily future focused – it is about where we want to get to and how are we going to get there.

The pace of change today often makes this difficult because people and teams need to react to what is happening around them as new competitors appear, customers defect, and new initiatives are launched. But a strategic conversation needs to be more proactive and to look at the things teams can do to influence events and to take more control of their environment.

For one recent client, this was at the heart of their strategic conversations and drove the process from the top down with the desire to look at the things that people could take control of and influence to ensure their work patterns and outcomes supported the achievement of the longer-terms aims of the business.

6. Adopt an external perspective

One of the great challenges a strategic conversation brings is its focus on the external and internal organisational drivers for change. Typically, these are

  • The needs or actions of customers, competitors, or regulators,
  • The outcome of social or technological trends
  • The impact of organizational change

Normally they are a combination of all the above. A good strategic conversation builds peoples’ awareness of these opportunities and challenges that lie well outside the team and provides a platform for people to reflect on them, perhaps to vent and then to think about options for supporting the response to them.

This is important not only because it acts as a reminder of how change is always necessary but also because it is the hallmark of a healthy organisation – and the ability to be able to monitor the external environment and make changes is what makes organisations sustainable. Increasingly the need to do this at local levels, quickly, marks out the higher performing organisations from the ones that get left behind.

7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience

We all crave certainty but modern businesses operate in a climate of huge uncertainty. We do not know if we will win that next contract or not, what resources we may have, when we will have a change of leader and who it will be, what political, environmental or technological forces will shape the economy and our livelihood, and so on.

Building resilience involves acknowledging that change happens and that it is not always good; indeed, it involves cultivating the expectation that life will always present us with challenges. Leaders face the choice of being open about these challenges or not, and they often choose not to for fear that such discussion will be unsettling or de-motivating.

In my experience people respond positively to invitations to discuss the implications of what a future decision may mean for the business, even though the people involved lack the power to influence the decision. The reality is that people talk about this all the time and strategic conversations provide the opportunity to talk openly about uncertainty and responding to it. And during conversations about the impact of change a clear purpose is helpful to keep people focused on what they want and what they are there to do.

For example HM Revenue and Customs over the years has transformed its estate reducing the number of offices. Although this uncertainty hung over the business it encouraged its local leaders to get involved in conversations about what the future may hold for them. They were not “comfortable” conversations but they were important. They helped people express their feelings and more importantly they helped them exercise some control over the way they managed and responded to change. It enabled people to think and talk about their personal concerns and to talk about how to lead their teams to maintain service to the taxpayer during uncertainty.

8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility

Strategic conversations are an opportunity for people to focus on the outcomes of their work that move the business forward in the right direction, and identify what does not. Clarity of outcomes makes it easier for teams to work smarter and to build trust based on achievement and delivery.

But strategic conversations are also about sharing responsibility for outcomes. On a pragmatic day-to-day basis, more and more uncertainty permeates our working lives. The future is less predictable and keeping people focused depends less on telling people what to do and more on working with them on what needs to be achieved. A strategic conversation is an opportunity to acknowledge uncertainty and share responsibility for managing it throughout the business. It is a mistake to think that as a leader or manager one can shoulder the entire burden. A strategic conversation shares responsibility and asks the team to think about what can be resolved and what needs to remain unclear.

9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking

But equally, and alongside, the need for clarity of outcomes, strategic conversations provide an opportunity to explore new ideas and thinking about what teams and individuals can do to achieve outcomes in new ways.

To gain this insight and to create new ways of working a strategic conversation can help and encourage people to discover the direction of travel for themselves in a way that makes sense for them. It’s essentially about letting go but in the context of a clear framework.

This can be challenging for managers and the people who work for them, and it is one of the reasons why leading a strategic conversation is normally best done after people have participated in one themselves and have experienced the role they need to play as a conversation leader by being a participant first.

10. Build relationships

We need social relationships at work and outside, and neuroscience is demonstrating that these needs are as basic as our need for food and water (see for instance Matt Lieberman’s “superpower” talk at the RSA). When we are threatened, we want to connect more to groups. Global competition, digital transformation, changing work patterns, rising customer expectations and disruptive competition are all creating huge “threats” across industry.

We need to help people connect over strategic conversations that enable them to tackle these challenging problems together and to share perspectives to enrich their own and to come up with more informed action plans. These conversations help us to connect with each other at meaningful levels to build relationships that are important for our own health and for the good of our organizations.

Strategic conversations are here to stay. We no longer have the luxury to manage people in traditional ways. Success depends upon our ability to empower people, which requires a different level of awareness of the big picture and buy in to strategic priorities and common goals.