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A Simple Nuance That Produces Great Strategy Discussions

A champion of innovation, cross-disciplinary study, and learning-by-doing, Roger Martin is the leading proponent of Integrative Thinking—a bold new approach to the business problems emerging in the global economy. The former dean of the Rotman School of Management, he now holds the Premier’s Chair in Productivity and Competitiveness, and serves as Academic Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes about the benefits of collaboration for The Harvard Business Review, below:

All too often strategy meetings devolve into pitched battles over who is right and who is wrong about the company’s future direction. How can you reshape the discussion to produce collaboration rather than discord?

The key is to switch the fundamental question you consider from what is true to what would have to be true.

What is true provokes arguments, causes proponents of a possibility to dig in, and minimizes the collaborative exploration of ideas. Let’s imagine you put forward a possibility for a strategic direction and, upon hearing the idea, I focus on what I think is true. With this mindset, it is quite likely that I won’t be confident that your idea is valid and I’ll probably start by saying something like “I don’t think that will work,” words that will instantly turn the meeting into a battlefield. When I then raise an alternative strategic direction, you, smarting at my treatment of your idea, will be equally dismissive of me. And so on, back and forth.

If instead we can focus from the outset on what would have to be true, the conversation can head in the direction of collaboration and mutual exploration of ideas. How? If an idea or possibility strikes you as less than compelling, resist the urge to declare it “not true.” Instead, ask yourself, what would have to be true for me to feel that is a great option? If you identify the features that would have to be true, you can explore whether those really hold true and learn something about that possibility. The process of exploration may well help you modify and enhance the best idea currently in your head.

In addition, taking this approach will likely have the effect of convincing other members of the team to explore your option in similar fashion – and they will build on yours just as you have built on theirs. It does take two to tango in life and if you refuse to battle from the outset, it is likely that those around you will avoid that behavior too.

It is not as though no deaths occur in this process. But the ideas kill themselves rather than get killed by someone. When everybody comes to agreement as to what would have to be true for an option to be a great choice, the group can determine what tests it would have to conduct to determine whether those things hold true or not. Note that the tests are not any one person’s tests but rather those of the group as a whole.

When the group carries out those tests, they will either confirm the validity of the idea or the test results will show the option to be wanting. In the latter case, the option is killed by its own failure to hold up to the tests, not by the arguments of one member of the team. This is a productive process, one that builds group cohesion and collaboration — and keeps the battleground at bay.

By Roger Martin/Harvard Business Review/May, 2014