Thursday, April 17, 2008

Innovating the Synthesis Conversation

We just finished a fantastic two-day-and-a-bit DesignShop for 56 participants overlooking the Saronic Gulf in Greece. At the post-event Sponsor Meeting the CEO, though extremely happy with the outcomes and the process, said how much he hated the synthesis conversation. Since the topic of our event was Innovation, Collaboration, and Customer Centricity, it seems that we have some re-thinking to do. I happen to think that the conversation was successful – the participants got what they needed from it and, though I can’t prove it, I believe that the results would have been superficial had we avoided it. Nevertheless, his unhappiness merits serious attention; not just for this client, but in general.

At our last event two months ago the synthesis conversation, for only the second time in my career as a facilitator, failed. The Chairman (boss of yesterday’s CEO), despite coaching and assurances, stood up five minutes in and hijacked the discussion. We recovered, sort of, but the experience was unpleasant. Preparing for this event, the sponsors pleaded not to have one and I offered to try a different approach – to stay outside of the circle and to drive the conversation by suggesting pre-selected buckets of work and using their reaction to drive the discussion.

That’s exactly how I did it and though there was room for improvement (perhaps we should have set the chairs in a tight arc rather than a circle) we had great participation, genuinely substantive discussion, sincerity, and, I thought, the seeds of intent. The rest of the Act day was outstanding, full of energy, outstanding quantity and quality of work, recognized insights, and an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and achievement on the part of virtually all the participants, including the sponsors.

Although this is one of the best sponsor teams I have ever worked with, one of the sponsors stands head and shoulders above the others in his thoughtfulness, intelligence, and his sincere effort to (successfully!) understand what it is we do and why we do it. This sponsor’s observations on the success and the importance of the synthesis conversation were right on target. Nevertheless, the CEO insisted and therefore I insist on re-thinking the formula we tend to follow.

(I often find that CEOs in particular love the synthesis conversation. They tell me that they hear things they’ve never heard before. This CEO, on the other hand, is so much more plugged in to his people, so much more approachable, that he would be much less likely to need this open channel.)

Prior to the First Draft module, I sent the participants outdoors to tables with snacks and drinks, but with virtually no assignment. I merely asked them to discuss our themes and to discuss barriers and enablers. In case it helped them structure their discussion, I showed them the Creative Process Model, but didn’t insist they use it. Most importantly, I didn’t ask them to produce anything or even to conclude anything. Their task was merely to talk and, more importantly, to listen. The First Draft itself was outstanding and I believe that this semi-Synthesis module accounted for at least part of this success.

I understand that some of my colleagues (Kenneth? Fons?) starts the synthesis conversation by asking “What is the work we have to do today?” as do I, but then leaves them to their own devices. I don’t think that, from a participant’s perspective, this is fundamentally different from my more hands-on approach. I suspect that this approach is even ‘heavier’ than mine, though it might produce even a greater sense of ownership and intent. It is precisely this heaviness that my CEO wants to avoid. The pre- First Draft chat (we called it Coffee House and served them drinks and sweets at their tables, which we set up outdoors) was a study in lightness. Could that be the direction to look? Could we innovate by doing less? Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma suggests that stripping things away is usually a good way to innovate.

On the other hand, this is such a fundamentally healthy organization – and so unusual in its sanity – that intent isn’t to be found in looking each other in the eye and finally feel that they are being listened to. It can be found in the work itself.

Though I disagree with the CEO’s conviction that the Synthesis Conversation was un-necessary, indeed, damaging, I am forced to see it is a formulaic approach that needs to be innovated. We do it this way because it tends to work. But that’s not a good enough reason. I’m sure we can do better.