Your conventional meeting etiquette – sitting, talking, politely listening – may be getting in the way of your team advancing its strategic goals.
A substantial body of research suggests that physically enacting difficult ideas can be a more effective way to bring them to life and encourage discussion.
- British cognitive scientist Andy Clark has shown that thinking doesn’t happen only in our minds but “when we crisscross the boundaries of brain, body and world.”
- Angela Leung and colleagues at Singapore Management University have examined the effects of physical actions—such as working on puzzles while standing outside a large box versus sitting inside the box—that have distinct benefits for creativity.
- Psychologist Garold Stasser and sociologist Laurie Taylor found that the physical positioning of group members has a significant impact on communication and can lead to better outcomes.
Walking the Line
Executives, especially senior ones, can be skeptical of unconventional approaches to meetings. That’s why it’s important that “getting physical” exercises are thoughtfully designed and structured, as well as grounded in behavioral and group dynamics research.
One such exercise–which we call Walk the Line—specifically helps leaders see the degree of disagreement and take steps, literally, toward becoming more unified.
A case in point is our work in helping the executive leadership of the $12 billion telecom company Swisscom achieve a breakthrough their own misalignment around growth strategy, as detailed in our Harvard Business Review feature.
In the meeting room, to facilitate conversation in a concrete way, we laid down a thick strip of tape on the floor five meters long, curved into a semi-circle.
For the 10-member Swisscom leadership team, the tape was marked with the 2025 performance aspiration numbers each person had reported on in the survey, ranging from 2% decline in performance on one end all the way up to +30% on the other.
Everyone was then asked to stand on their mark on the tape.
We instructed each member to argue with the person to his right in an attempt to convince the person to jump to a “more optimistic” number. Then we had each member turn to the left, to convince the person to become “more realistic” about the future.
The arguments in both directions were loud, uncomfortable and filled with moments of surprise, anger, sadness and fear, but once they aired all their views, they shuffled around as stronger visions about future growth opportunities gradually won out.
A consensus emerged that Swisscom couldn’t achieve its full potential through efficiency improvements alone or through growth-focused innovation alone. It needed to do both.
The breakthrough happened when it became clear that digital technologies could fundamentally improve the cost structure, freeing up substantial capital for new-growth areas as well as quality improvements and differentiation in the core.
Building on a new consensus
With those consensus insights, members repositioned themselves a final time, “walking the line” in one direction or another. After all the arguments played out, everyone was surprised to be standing near the same point: a double-digit performance increase by 2025.
It was a shockingly optimistic view of the future, but it was informed by detailed discussions of numerous potential innovations and acquisitions that could close the growth gap.
One member who had started at the lower end of the line came an especially long
way, and it was an emotional experience to get there. “It was a moment of joy and relief,” he said.
The exercise indicated that a strong alignment was possible. Crossing boundaries from brain to body opened up their thinking. Walking the line and moving physically indeed activated more productive discussion and led to a consensus for action.
Watch delegates at our 2018 Munich CEO summit participate in a “walk the line” exercise to predict Germany’s chances of advancing in the World Cup.