When you are facing a vexing challenge, sometimes the best strategy is to get on the phone, gather a brain trust and meet over drinks. These casual and unstructured session will often give you the key understandings that will make the challenge far more manageable. It’s a simple idea with powerful potential.
Whenever I encounter an interesting or particularly vexing problem, I draw together people whose intellect and experience I trust. Over the years I have formed dozens of these ‘mission-impossible brain trusts’. They focus on what I consider important issues – particularly ones that have become a burr under my saddle – if you know what I mean. It helps me sort out complex challenges and keeps me from drinking my own bath water. The quid pro quo for the team members is that they get fresh thinking on challenges that they may not even have recognized. It tends to be a win-win all around!
The format of these sessions was set long ago – I bring a question of substance – lay it out on the table – everybody takes a first swipe at it – then the floor is open. The rules are simple but enforced. There is no such thing as a bad idea or bad place to start. Every idea is considered – we never want to discard a potentially productive line simply because it was poorly stated or initially described from the wrong angle. So, after the initial forays, the group generally gets down to following each of the approaches. Sometimes sub-groups will break out and with really good questions people start swapping chairs.
These groups are much more productive if populated by experienced hands. But the mix needs to include both conservative and explosive thinkers. And, as moderator, one of my jobs is to make sure that the latter does not charge too far ahead of the former. Balanced dialogue that dives deeply into the challenge put before the group is the objective. Sometimes that is a tough goal to achieve but, for the most part, the group helps me move toward it.
A while back I organized a discussion group to focus on an issue that had been bothering me. I suspected that some really heavy lifting might be involved so I assembled a particularly serious group – a kind of mission impossible ‘A’ team. We met for the first time over drinks. There were several current and past CEOs, a VP of Planning, a couple of process consultants and a person who had run a major non-profit. When the group assembled, the question that I placed before them was:
“How do you effectively assure the holistic integration of strategic and tactical planning?”
Everybody’s first cut was fairly predictable. There were mutterings about ‘optimization’ and ‘seamless integration’. Lots of focus on the need to make sure that the strategic and tactical plans meshed – grousing about silos and insular perspectives – and more than one reference to this or that system for planning. But, the longer the group talked, the less useful these approaches seemed.
The group quickly realized that the question was far more complex than any of us (including me) had initially assumed. We also came to see that it was a far more important and subtle question than it had seemed on the surface. This was clearly not a question about what kind of dressing you want on your salad. It was more like asking ‘what kind of a person do you really want to become and why aren’t you becoming that person?’
We came to the conclusion that there was a serious flaw in the way the discussions about planning from a holistic perspective were being framed. Interestingly, the consensus quickly developed that this was not so much a question of inadequate process analysis or design. A suggestion was made and accepted that we should focus on the roles of various ‘visions’ or ‘world views’ in the overall planning process. This required a return to some very basic issues and the evolution of a new vision. But I am getting ahead of my self.
The initial session ended up with an agreement to work the challenge and to tap into our various resource networks. We agreed to adjourn for a week and try to get as many responses as possible prior to the next session.