Strategic Conversation: A Design Tool for Collaboration

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By Lauren Chapman

Design is a culture of collaboration—but what happens when different values, or different visions, clash? Imagine two large institutions, collaborating on a project. One company has a strict, conventional culture, while the other is very relaxed and organic. How can the two come together, working towards a shared vision? This is where strategic conversation can be used as a design tool.

Strategic conversation is the use of visual and verbal prompts to facilitate brainstorming, discussion, and decision-making. Conversation is a form of narrative—communicating a story from one person to another, but with a back and forth discussion that pushes the narrative forward. Transformation happens when a person tells their story, listens to others, and a decision or change of opinion occurs. Strategic conversation is a way of exchanging ideas, and thinking together, which can lead to cultural change within organizations.

If stakeholders from various areas of each company are involved in carefully designed and facilitated conversations, the stakeholders can verbalize the real issues and come to an eventual understanding. Collectively, through activities using visual models and prompts to promote discussion, the participants create a joint vision for their future goals, and they can strategically plan out actions to get there.

Finding a balance between sharing and listening within conversation is key to gaining understanding and building relationships. For example, I interned at Second Road, a business-consulting firm in Sydney, Australia, which utilizes design thinking to shape organizational transformations. Utilizing heuristics to structure strategic conversations, the firm helped companies find a shared framework of problems and solutions, empowering clients with new tools and new ways of thinking.

When conversation is used as a design tool, it also creates an ownership over the solution. If a design firm works with a client through conversations to create the solution together, the client is more likely to follow the solution because it played a vital role in putting the solution together. Not only is ownership a result of strategic conversation, it is also a way of fostering discussions of values, past events, and visions of the future.

Being an individual in a social environment is important to the definition of values, whether they are company or personal values. In “Branzi’s Dilemma: Design in Contemporary Culture,” Richard Buchanan writes:

The pluralism of individual perspectives is essential to ensure that the exploration does not become entrapped in a single ideology. Design is the most vivid domain for this cultural activity in the contemporary world, because it deals with concrete and objective results whose consequences affect us all.

As design grows and moves into new fields, strategic conversations with clients, companies, and between team members will have a critical role for shared understanding, and new innovative ways of thinking.