How to have breakthrough conversations

In my previous article I addressed my thoughts on how to best facilitate a discussion around strategy with the leaders of an organisation. When a leadership team is gathered together to discuss strategy, as mentioned in the previous article, a great way to start the conversation is to begin with information gathering with a focus on educating everyone in the room. The conversation then evolves to look at the situation through a number of future frames (outlined in detail here). As the team moves through analysing and defining the strategy through these frames, breakthrough questions will begin to emerge. As a facilitator of these workshops, these can be the moments in the meeting that can be a turning point and really move the team forward with momentum. It’s vitally important to recognise when these questions arise, harness them promptly and steer the group into pondering and collaborating on solving these questions.

So, what is a breakthrough question?

As the name suggests, a breakthrough question is a strategic question that, if solved, can lead to a genuine strategic ‘breakthrough’ for the organisation.

To better understand what a breakthrough question is, let’s first define what a breakthrough question is NOT. A breakthrough question is not “how do we do that?”, nor “how do we build that?”. These types of questions already imply an answer. A breakthrough question, on the other hand, is a genuine question that we don’t already know the answer to. There is no obvious answer to the question and it’s one that is going to take some thought and work. A breakthrough question sparks genuine excitement, curiosity and reflection and, they are strongly connected to purpose. When breakthrough questions are asked, you can sense the shift in energy in the room, they are the big questions and the ones that everyone is interested in; because if solved, they would create a huge impact.

Breakthrough questions are emergent in nature so part of facilitating these strategic discussions, is identifying when such a question emerges, stopping the flow of conversation to hold this question in everyone’s thoughts, reflect on it, and agree on a way forward. This is a question strongly linked to the greater purpose of an organisation; one that has not been cracked and one that, if solved, will bring unity and a common purpose. When these questions bubble to the surface during a strategy meeting they unite the team and have a way of diminishing conflict and tension in the group.

Here are some examples of breakthrough questions. In all of these examples it’s clear that if these questions can be worked through and solved, it would lead to a genuine breakthrough.

  • How will we become the dominant voice in this industry in the country?
  • How will we get to a point where funding is no longer a concern?
  • How do we get our processes to be as simple and frictionless for our consumers?
  • How will technology and data analytics will deliver the most benefit over the next ten years?
  • How can we make our industry work to truly benefit everyone within it?
  • How do we become the go-to business for government when it comes to this specific key area”?

Breakthrough questions can be a great catalyst to reach a turning point in the conversation around strategy. Once a turning point has been established the team can work together to make a resolution and define the way forward.

It’s worth noting that most breakthrough questions can’t be solved and answered straight away. Once we arrive at a point in the conversation where the group is sufficiently satisfied with where they are with their question at hand, to move forward; the conversation can move towards clarifying the strategy and a united narrative.

Getting clear on a united narrative

Before it comes to a close, the participants in the strategy meeting need to agree on a narrative and how to communicate this to stakeholders outside of the meeting; staff, the board, customers, etc. A united narrative needs to be formalised and documented.

Applying the Chatham House rule can be helpful in this situation to ensure a united front is enforced. When a meeting is held under the Chatham House rules, participants are free to use the information received but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speakers, nor that of another participant, can be revealed. In other words, when asked, if a participant is asked about a particular issue the response would be along the lines of “that was discussed and tabled” rather than “I brought that up but no one listened and Joe shut it down”.

Facilitating constructive, dynamic and deep conversations amongst leaders is not an easy feat. Ending those meetings with a united team is even more difficult. But it is achievable. These are just some of the techniques I use to manage breakthrough conversations.

Could you and your leadership team do with one of my tailored breakthrough strategy workshops? I’d love to help. Don’t hesitate. Get in touch today.

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