Strategic Planning is a “Difficult Conversation”

frustrationThe Board’s strategy team was struggling. They had met several times, and were lacking consensus on almost everything: what was the core strategic challenge, who had the best ideas, were there hidden agendas, was the time in the meeting worth their while, can they trust their colleagues?

I decided to address this issue head on. Here is what I told the group as we kicked off the session:

“Strategy work invariably involves ambiguity, as we discussed at the kickoff meeting. Ambiguity takes people out of their comfort zone and few people really like that discomfort. Ambiguity and frustration go hand in hand. I’m asking you to focus on the tasks of strategic thinking, and not the discomfort.

The ambiguity presently facing us involves several things. It involves defining and agreeing on the core challenge for the organization. It involves agreeing on whether or not our preferred future is feasible. It involves selecting the actions – the what – that will address the core challenge and move us toward the vision. We have to figure out all of those things in order to say “We have a strategy to recommend.” The question we are struggling with is this: What is going to happen?

Continuing, I told them,

Underneath our conversation about events – answering the what-is-going-to-happen question – are two other conversations. They are, “What am I feeling?” and “Who am I?”

Some of you might be feeling frustrated and maybe even angry. Your feelings are legitimate. Your feelings are influenced by the deeper “Who am I?” conversation going on inside each of us. Each person in this room comes to this strategy-development workshop with their own life experience and expectations.

My words of advice turned out to be helpful in building patience.  The board members were a little more open about acknowledging the difficulties that they faced. Too, my remarks made it safer to express their feelings. One Board member told me afterwards, “Yes, I am feeling frustrated, because I am a Marine and as a Marine we like to be physically advancing towards our targets.”

Amygdala Hijack: Extreme Emotion Can Block Good Thinking

Our brains have a near constant tension underway between the higher-order conceptualization that takes place in the pre-frontal cortex, and the more primitive Amygdala and basal ganglia (which are the sources of anxiety and habits).  First degree murder is a crime where the murder is committed by premeditation; it is the pre-frontal cortex in action. Second degree murder is one where the passions have taken over. I’ve heard this called “Amygdala hijack.”  I’m sure you recognize this statement as common,

He was too angry to think straight!

Strategic thinking is done best when people are calm and reflective. Detachment, the ability to step back for patterns and perspective, is essential.

Frustration is common in group strategy work, especially for those who have not had much prior exposure. If not managed well, frustration quickly expresses itself as anger. Anger takes over, and people become too angry to think straight. Furthermore, the anger is ameliorated by assignment of blame to others.  The unrecognized story goes something like this: there must be a reason that I am feeling this way, and someone who is causing it. When I assign blame I have resolved the ambiguity so I feel a bit more comfortable.

Strategy as a Difficult Conversation

These next paragraphs will give you some of the theory that further explains my comments to the strategy team.

Strategy meetings can be difficult, in large part because strategy development is an inherently ambiguous undertaking.  People, generally speaking, don’t like ambiguity and often avoid it. Hence, people avoid the difficult thinking work of strategy and gravitate towards concrete concepts and tasks.

The challenge for the strategic thinker can be overcome by recognizing that “difficult meetings” usually mean managing “difficult conversations.” A difficult conversation is one where the stakes are high, people need to work together, the potential for mistakes in communication is high, and the consequences of not dealing with those mistakes can start an unproductive blame game.

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone and coauthors presents a model for dealing with those disagreements that can destroy a collaboration. The book explains that any difficult conversation is actually composed of three layered sub conversations:

  • The conversation about “What happened?” When we look back on an incident, we often can’t agree on the facts of what happened. For our purposes of discussing strategy, I restate Stone’s first question for as this, “What is going to happen?” The practical question is one that will be contentious: can we agree on what should or will happen?
  • The conversation about, “What am I feeling?” People may not actually talk about the question, but feelings nevertheless will influence the conversation.
  • The conversation about, “Who am I?”

Another Example: How One Powerful Emotion Destroyed a Strategic Initiative?

I remember vividly a situation in a Division-level strategy session designed to meet the CEO’s challenge to double the size of its revenues. I was working with a small core group of people that could only meet for an hour or two every week. After several meetings, the group had decided that the brand identity was the Division’s core competency, making it the best possible lever for creating growth.

Donna was a member of that group. She was a 25-year veteran of the organization who understood all of the numbers that drove the business model. I had met her a year earlier and found her to be a very pleasant and capable person.

Due to the ongoing pressures of running the business in its busy season, we had to take a three-week hiatus from strategy work. When we returned to resume discussions, we tried to regain momentum on the question of “what do we do next?” I reminded them that they had determined that their core competency and we were now at the point of figuring out how to best apply that core competency to gain competitive advantage.

Donna did something that surprised everyone. She outbursted in anger: “YOU MEAN WE FORGOT!” What was she angry about? To forget is human; the group collectively forgot something that was important. Her anger was directed in a general kind of way at herself, her colleagues, the strategic planning process, and at me.

Here is an explanation: Donna’s anger was a boiling over of frustration, because the management team had not yet decided the answer to the question, “what is going to happen?”

Continuing with the story, she quickly regained her composure and we carried on with the meeting. However, the meeting that day was the last time the Division made a serious attempt to devise a growth strategy. The group found reasons stayed operationally focused and never changed its mediocre business model. The CEO accepted the excuse that “we are busy” and “we’re trying.”

I followed up with the Divisions’ President several times as it became clear that “operational business” was going to prevail over “strategic impact” (my words, not his). During one conversation, he mentioned that “people got angry when the work on strategy.” Years later, I recognize that he was subtly blaming the advisor (me) for Donna’s outburst and the discomfort that everyone felt. Now, perhaps I should have sent out an email beforehand reminding people of the past accomplishments. That error of omission was a mistake, and mistakes are inevitable in difficult conversations. As I mentioned earlier, people are human.

The entire nature of difficult conversations is that they involve people and their subjective stories and views:

Stakes are high; information is incomplete; mistakes will be made; emotions trump reasoning; we don’t really know the inner person; we have varying levels of emotional intelligence; it’s comforting to blame others, people avoid ambiguity; the status quo is powerful

In order to think and act strategically, we have to recognize an ongoing and never-ending challenge:  We can’t deny our emotions nor our identities. We can’t deny the impact of the emotions nor disregard the identities of other strategic actors. We somehow have to find a way to “vent” the emotion and carry on with strategic thinking in a calm way (that is, let the prefrontal cortex do its work).

This story continues a lesson on the destructive effects of ambiguity. It needs to be recognized. To deny its presence is to return to the status quo.

A final lesson in this story has to do with memory.  The group had made a breakthrough: it had determined a strategic insight around the use of its brand as a leverageable core competency. That breakthrough was documented (but people didn’t review the document or pause to refresh their memory).

Who Am I?

Recapping this article: strategy involves difficult conversations, and difficult conversations are actually composed of three subconversations. The first subconversation is about events (what will happen?) but it can get disrupted by the second one (what am if feeling?) when frustration is unmanaged and spills into anger or ambiguity avoidance.

The third subconversation question (i.e., Who am I?) is the most sensitive and nuanced of the three.  Each individual has a life story that defines their sense of self. Their story may be helpful to strategic thinking, or it may get in the way. If the story is a mismatch, we increase the impact of difficult conversations becoming unproductive conversations.

To illustrate, I’ll return to the Marine mentioned at the opening of the article. Marines proudly declare, “One you are a Marine, you are always a Marine.” This Marine had not been on active duty for several years. Regardless the “I am a Marine” story was central to his self view. Every time I met him, he mentioned he was a Marine. Every email from him mentioned he was a Marine. He repeatedly explained that Marines are people who take action (with the implication that conversation and thinking was not action). In his prior experience, someone else would tell him what was important, and he would respond with urgency. Marines are people who have the purpose of the Corps deeply engrained into them.

Here is the mismatch: In this strategic situation, we were trying to figure out what was important to the civilian organization he was now serving. This involved identifying the strategic questions to act upon. We wanted this Marine to think like a General, not a Sargent. The strategic planning situation involved the purpose of the organization, a discussion that Marines don’t need to conduct. His remembrance of military strategy didn’t match his experience with civilian strategy, so he judged the effort appeared as irrelevant and wasteful. To his credit, he resigned from the strategy work because of his discomfort with the situation.

Competency in Managing Frustration

Frustration resembles the emotions of fear and anxiety.  One cause of frustration is that the individual “feels like things are out of control.” Organizational process are bounded and controlled, and provide a sense of safety and predictability for the individual.  Both Donna and the Marine had spent most of their career in process-oriented organizations. They were both outside of their comfort zones and their amygdala hijacked their ability to make worthwhile contributions to strategy discussions.

So, strategic thinking competency is not just a competency of processing information in a rational way. It is also a competency of managing one’s emotions. It is a competency that involves managing frustration: perhaps it is the strong mindedness to persevere and complete the tasks of strategy.

I’ll close with a story about “Hell Week,” the final excruciating training that US Navy SEALs must pass to graduate from SEAL school. I recall reading an instructor explaining,

“Everyone knows that Hell Week will be the most brutal physical test they will ever experience. The individuals who will graduate are those who keep their focus on the task immediately in front of them. Those who quit are those who allow the discomfort to dominate their attention.

How do you handle difficult conversations that involve strategy development? Do you agree that one aspect of strategic thinking is to recognize and manage emotions?

3 thoughts on “Strategic Planning is a “Difficult Conversation”

  1. Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone and coauthors presents a model for dealing them.

    Is the above missing a word?

    Interesting post about a Very real life problem and opportunity, would like to chat about this one

    Has Jim Devine worked out Region 14 Conf detail with you yet?

    John Sent from my iPad


  2. “Underneath our conversation about events – answering the what-is-going-to-happen question – are two other conversations. They are, “What am I feeling?” and “Who am I?”

    Some of you might be feeling frustrated and maybe even angry. Your feelings are legitimate. Your feelings are influenced by the deeper “Who am I?” conversation going on inside each of us. Each person in this room comes to this strategy-development workshop with their own life experience and expectations.”

    This is so true and helps me understand some of the challenges I’ve encountered when trying to facilitate requirements workshops as a business analyst. People feel very uncomfortable and emotional when trying to understand the unknown and rush to make decisions (often poorly) before everything has been properly considered

    • Thanks for your comment, Tom.
      Part of the reason that people react is that they are facing ambiguity, and ambiguity provokes anxiety. Part of the unrecognized who-am-i subconversation is this: “I’m a person who is anxious because of the present ambiguous situation.” One common response to ambiguity is to resolve it by suggesting a solution. Thus, arguing over solutions is the dominant part of the conversation, rather than surfacing the real issues facing the organization. It affects both strategy work and project requirements work.

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