Moments of Impact: A book review by Bob Morris

Moments of ImpactMoments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change
Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon
Simon & Schuster (2014)

How to replace “time-sucking, energy-depleting meetings and workshops with high engagement strategic conversations”

There are times when all of us find ourselves involved in especially important, usually complicated, and perhaps even unsetting situations, situations that have serious implications and possible consequences. An offsite strategy retreat, for example, or an onsite meeting to formulate a budget, or a free-wheeling brainstorming session to generate ideas to develop, answers to questions or solutions to problems. These and other situations have strategic significance and require careful preparation for what Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon characterize as “moments of impact.”

They cite an excellent example in 2012 when Neil Grimmer, co-founder and CEO of Plum Organics (a baby food company launched in 2007), believed that his company had reached an inflection point. The details are best revealed in the book but, for present purposes, I can reveal that teams were assigned to complete a war-gaming exercise that would recommend a course of action based on the teams’ research. They produced a plan that would enable Plum to dominate the organic baby-food market by capturing “both the higher and lower ends with a one-two punch, using separate brands but the same supply chain and distribution networks.” There are value business lessons to be learned from this mini-case study.

It is possible but highly unlikely that a traditional approach would have succeeded. According to Keith Sawyer, “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” as the two Plum Groups did. As Ertel and Solomon explain, “A strategic conversation doesn’t feel like a regular or a brainstorming session. It is its own distinct type: an interactive strategic problem-soling session that engages participants not just analytically but creatively and emotionally.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Ertel and Solomon’s coverage.

o Welcome to “VUCA World” (Pages 8-10)
Note: VUCA refers to an environment of non-stop vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
o What Moments of Impact Will Deliver (15-16)
o Lessons from the Godfather of Strategic Conversations: Pierre Wack (19-23)
o The Five Core Principles of a Well-Designed Strategic Conversation (26-29)
o Key Differences Between a Well-Organized Meeting and a Well-Designed Strategic Conversation (33)
o The Three Types of Strategic Conversations (41-52)
o The Picture in the Puzzle Box (80-81)
o Four Framing Pitfalls (81)
o Frames That Propel the Conversation Forward (96-98)
o Get a “Shell Space” That Works & Next, Make It Your Own (101-106)
Note: One of the best is Room 20 at MIT, generally characterized as “utilitarian” and “Spartan.”
o An Agenda Is Not an Experience (118-120)
o The Emotional Design of Strategic Conversations (127-128)
o Memorable Experiences Can Trigger the Desire to Act (137-138)
o Designing Strategic Conversations as Moments of Impact (163-164)
o Creative Adaptation Beats Creative Destruction (166-167)
o Starter Kit (173-232)

I commend Ertel and Solomon on their skillful presentation of material that focuses on various key practices: Define Your Purpose, Engage Multiple Perspectives, Frame the Issues, and Make It and Experience. In this instance and indeed throughout the book, they identify a “what” and then devote most of their attention to explaining “how” and “why.”

In a concluding chapter, “Make Your Moment,” they suggest several key points to be kept in mind:

o Start with a “ripe” issue (i.e. one about which there is a sense of urgency)
o Fight for the time necessary to do it right (but never waste time)
o Lead with empathy for everyone involved
o Put all the core principles to work
o Simplify, simplify, simplify (channeling Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.”)
o Start small, then build
o Prep like hell (channeling Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”)
o No kamikaze missions! (“Never lead a strategic conversations where the basic conditions for success aren’t met.”)

When concluding their brilliant book, Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon observe, “Designing great strategic conversations is challenging and rewarding work that can also be fun. Most important, it’s one way that just one way that one person can have an outsize impact on the future of an organization — and beyond. So go ahead, make [begin italics] your [end italics] moment. And when you do, don’t be too surprised that you’re pushing on an open door.”

I agree while presuming to add that it’s nice to know that, meanwhile, you are also well-prepared to open a door that is closed and locked…or to find another.

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