How to Facilitate a Strategic Conversation, NOT Brainstorming

Posted by Kristin Arnold on January 14, 2020

New year, new decade, and teams are having strategic conversations about the future of the business.  These are important discussions about your industry, the market, your products and services, your target customer(s) and personas, operational efficiencies, governmental regulations…and the list goes on!

Strategic Facilitation is NOT Brainstorming

These types of strategic conversations cannot be facilitated like a traditional brainstorming session where the facilitator poses a specific question and the participants go around the room offering creative ideas until they are exhausted.  The goal of a traditional brainstorming session is to aim for quantity, not quality.  The evaluation of those ideas comes after the brainstorming session has ended.

Strategic conversations meander.  The question posed by the leader, facilitator, or team member is so strategic that it needs to be discussed, dissected, and deliberated. The participants want an open, free-flowing discussion, with minimal direction from the facilitator.  Rather, the facilitator holds the container in which the conversation can organically occur, diverge and converge.  Yet, at the end, the facilitator has magically made some sense of the conversation!  (I had one client who shared that they told their overbearing facilitator to sit down.  He was getting in the way vs. helping them shape the conversation.)

How to Facilitate a Strategic Conversation

These types of conversations are much more challenging to facilitate. Record the discussion so all can keep track of where you’ve been.  So here’s how I facilitate a strategic conversation:

Prep:  I use the largest blank wall of the room as my canvas: I hang/tape several blank pieces of flipchart paper on the wall at eye level, usually two or three pages deep and four to five pages wide.  Have two dark-colored flipchart markers ready (I like to alternate colors between ideas) as well as a few colors to highlight ideas.

Tee Up the Topic:  State the topic you want the team to discuss.  For example, what products and services should we be offering our customers three years from now?

Let the Team Talk:  As they discuss the topic, listen closely and capture key ideas and thoughts on the flipchart for all to see. As you write the ideas down, think about relationships between ideas.  If you can, “categorize” them using the different flipcharts for each category within the discussion.

Keep the Conversation Moving: Make sure each person on the team weighs in.  Ask questions for clarification.  Probe further until the discussion feels like it is done.

Ask for Final Ideas: Just check with the group that they are done chatting about this topic before you move to the next step.  If needing further discussion and/or creativity, you might want to “park” the discussion and come back to it later.

Identify Key Themes: From the discussion, ask the team for key themes or takeaways from the discussion.  Write these down on a brand new flipchart.  Note:  If you have categorized their ideas – you’ve made it much easier for them to do this!

Next Steps: From these key themes, decide what to do next.  The categories might be your strategic initiatives and the team moves into action planning.  Or the team prioritizes the most important theme and has another discussion about implementing the top idea.  Or these are all great ideas and need to be sequenced in order of implementation.

Notice, this becomes an iterative process where you tee up a topic, discuss and organize (either categorize, prioritize or sequence) the information so that the team can use that information strategically.


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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