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Conversations That Foster Change

Get active not passive, and invite emotion to the table, says a best-selling business writer


by Kara Baskin

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If you’ve partaken of one too many deadly corporate summits, you may yearn to leave that world and strike out on your own. Truth is, running your own venture means running meetings too. But now you're the boss, and your personal worth is on the line, so you're motivated to make those meetings really count. We asked best-selling writer and Deloitte consultant Chris Ertel, co-author of Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change, to reimagine meetings as experiences that galvanize leaders and make things happen.

How can entrepreneurs relate to Moments of Impact?

Well, the ‘herding cats’ factor is less than in a big company, but the business challenges are similar, whether you have a huge team or a team of two or three. For the book, we profiled Neil Grimmer. He started Plum Organics, a baby food company, in 2007. Plum was the first to import a resealable pouch technology from Japan. They rolled it out in the Bay Area and sold about $1 million the first year. By 2011, they’d gotten up to about $40 million in sales. He was beginning to get on the radar screen of big guys like Gerber. He wanted to know where he was headed. Luckily he had a solid board of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. He asked them to war game. Instead of meeting with a bunch of slides, each board member was paired with a Plum employee and took on the role of one of Plum’s major competitors. He said, “Go do research, come back, and kill my company.” It was a bit unorthodox, and it showed him where his weaknesses were.

Why did this approach work?

Grimmer, an artist by trade, was engaging people in active—not passive—learning. He engaged people psychologically.

What's a small business owner who lacks a team of seasoned venture capitalists to do?

Run a focus group with possible customers. We call this “participatory design.” Let’s say you’re starting a toy shop in your neighborhood. Pay people for an hour or two of their time, feed them, and ask them what they want. Engage your stakeholders in the design process. Start unpacking precise user cases: When might you go to the toy store? Why? Narrow down four or so clear scenarios that would make them visit, and use their responses to anticipate their needs.

How would you go about opening a business?

I’d do some light scenario planning with a bunch of friends who have knowledge of the business. Let’s say I love Korean tacos but opening a restaurant would be too big, unless I could prove the concept with a food truck. I’d invite eight or so friends over. It’s important to get people together who are different in ways that are meaningful to the kind of audience I’d want to attract. We’d think of all the reasons my truck could be a success. Together we’d create three or so blowout success stories—as specifically as possible. What’s the truck’s name? The aesthetic? What differentiates the food?

Why are typical management approaches so detrimental to creativity?

Managers often ask people to check their emotional selves at the door, but this is a bad idea. Engaging them through activities allows people to look at things in a non-linear way. They can connect the dots and see the big picture, as opposed to looking at strategic issues one at a time. In business, we’re always doing bullet-point thinking, then we just want the bottom line. But the bottom line doesn’t have any logic to it. You have to see the whole puzzle.

What makes corporate life so hard?

It asks a lot of you. It asks you to constantly compromise, and not everybody is up for that. The biggest challenge is personality: You need to be aggressively self-promoting and willing to bend at the same time. It’s a difficult dilemma for many people to manage. There’s a saying about successful leaders: “They have strong ideas, loosely held.” They can articulate and advocate, but they can walk it back too, if need be. Many people are just too strong-willed or too go-along-to-get-along to do it.

  See also: Want To Finally, Actually Live Your Dream? Start Here.

Photo Credits:

Pit stop with team: Fuse/Getty

Pit stop with coach: Alan Thorton/The Image Bank/Getty