Secrets of a Successful Strategy Meeting
Yesterday I wrote about the “hidden” secrets of meetings. I called it “Better Meetings: Three Hidden Secrets.”
Then I only listed two of those secrets. Was I:
- Holding out on you, keeping one secret for the classes I teach?
- Mathematically incompetent?
- Spreading the article out over two days, of which this is the second?
The right answer is “None of the above.” The first draft had two secrets related to not-all-time-is-equally-valuable, but in the rewrite I combined them and forgot to change the heading.
Still, lest I be accused of false advertising, I’ll offer #3 here in response to a comment by Paul Easton. What are the secrets to leading better strategy meetings?
Recall from yesterday that a “strategy” meeting is a discussion rather than one person informing others, and it involves all the attendees rather than just a few. Strategy meetings range from brainstorming to group problem solving, from building a case strategy to nailing down department budgets to compensation-and-promotion leveling.
Somewhat surprising, the secrets to running an effective budget meeting and a high-value brainstorming session are pretty similar. (By budget meeting, I don’t mean setting a bottom-up project budget, where each task leader tells what their part will cost and you add it up to get at least a preliminary budget, but rather where there is a fixed pie and the players in the room are negotiating for pieces of that pie. These are common and often contentious in business settings.)
Here’s what you need to make these work, based on many years of participating in, leading, and facilitating1 such meetings.
1. The Right People in the Room
This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted in meetings where it was clear that a required player was missing. If you hold the meeting anyway, you’ll usually have to redo much of the work later.
In some organizations, however, absence implies consent. If someone misses a meeting, they send an empowered substitute or empower the attendees to make decisions in their absence. (There may be limits on such decisions — e.g., “you can commit up to $10,000 at this meeting without me.”)
If you are leading the meeting and a required player is missing, you need to understand what your organizational culture (and the missing attendee’s ego) allows. If you know in advance the person will miss, go have the meeting before the meeting: meet with her separately, get her input and concerns, and scope out the limits of your empowerment. Ask her to send an empowered delegate. And if you know you can’t get stuff done in the meeting without her (or will have to hold the same meeting over again), go on to other topics or send everyone back to their desks to get real work done.
2. An Understanding of the Cultural Ground Rules
Every organizational culture has ground rules, such as the absence issues discussed above. You need to know these. Some are explicit, some are implicit.
For example, how does your culture handle people who don’t speak up in meetings, either because they’re uncomfortable or because they’re passive-aggressive? Going around the room asking for input works in some arenas but not others, for example.
Can multiple people speak at once? (Multiple conversations and interruptions are an east-coast style I had to learn to get rid of when I moved to Seattle… and then find the right balance at west-coast-but-Type-A Microsoft.)
What about laptops and smartphones? Allowed or not? Tolerated or not?
One size does not fit all. Understand your culture. And if you’re working with a client, understand the client’s culture. (Ask your client’s secretary or administrative assistant. You’d be amazed at how well they understand these issues.)
3. A Goal
Strategy meetings need a goal, which should be expressed in the meeting invitation when possible. They do not necessarily need a written agenda (beyond the goal or maybe an expanded description of the goal). Everyone in the room should agree on the desired outcome.
You won’t always reach the desired outcome, even with the right people in the room. Sometimes you’ll discover you’re missing information that cannot be developed during the meeting. Sometimes you’ll run out of time (see below). Sometimes you won’t reach agreement. These are all okay and do not represent failure, unless (a) they happen repeatedly or (b) you allow the meeting to be sidetracked or hijacked (see Parking Lot, below).
4. A Clock
Meetings need a scheduled length and a clock so you can track how you’re doing against that length. That said, certain critical meetings may go “until they’re done”; I’ve been in budget meetings, for example, where we all agreed we weren’t leaving the room (except for, well, you know) until we had a budget. Even in those meetings, we were aware of the clock ticking, and it provided pressure to focus on the big, strategic items and do quick horse-trading on the small stuff.
5. A Facilitator
Meetings don’t run themselves. Someone has to track action items and decisions, play time cop, and occasionally speak up to prevent bullying, re-engage distracted participants, or move items to the Parking Lot.
The facilitator can be the leader, an attendee, or a neutral party.
- Leader: It’s common for the leader to facilitate. It’s also a poor idea for a strategy meeting, because it’s hard to facilitate and participate/engage fully at the same time.2
- Attendee: It’s hard for an attendee to facilitate a strategy meeting except in special circumstances. For example, our budget meetings were often facilitated by our business managers over the years, even though they were also participants. Likewise, compensation/leveling meetings were often facilitated by our HR reps, even though they were participants as well. It seems to work best when the attendee has both specialized knowledge and no ax to grind — i.e., the business managers didn’t have their own budgets (beyond covering their salary) and the HR folks weren’t themselves being reviewed.
- Neutral: A neutral facilitator has no ax to grind and is not (usually) a business peer of the attendees. The facilitator doesn’t have to be a true outsider, though it’s valuable to engage one if you have a contentious situation or a long and complex meeting goal. (Bring in a consultant, get HR’s help, etc.) Often our meetings were facilitated by an administrative assistant who was empowered to take on the role; it worked quite well.
6. A Scribe
Someone needs to write down the following:
- What decisions were made.
- What action items were assigned to whom and due when.
- What the next steps/follow-up are.
That list does not include meeting minutes, which are relatively useless (except for specialized meetings, such as board meetings) and rarely read. Rather, capture the important stuff, and circulate it immediately after the meeting.
It’s even better when the scribe notes this information “publicly” so that the attendees can see it as it’s typed. That way, there’s no disagreement afterward over what was agreed to.
Often meetings have PowerPoint slides not for presentation but simply to keep everyone on the same page. For example, we might provide 50 pages of detailed budget data in a handout (paper or electronic) for each attendee. The facilitator would project the page under discussion not because anyone could read the tiny type but to make it easy for everyone to be sure what page we were discussing.
If you are projecting, project the notes as the scribe records them. For example, with PowerPoint decks, we’d usually hit Escape to exit presentation mode and go to the last page to record action items and decisions as they were made. Today, I’d probably record these items in OneNote rather than PowerPoint, but I’d still project it.
7. A Parking Lot
If someone is hijacking the meeting, either intentionally or accidentally, agree to put the off-topic or over-discussed item in a Parking Lot.
The Parking Lot is a space on which to write down any ideas on which discussion has been suspended for the present. It can be projected, an easel page, or a corner of the whiteboard. The critical factor is that it must be visible to everyone in the room, a shared reminder of unfinished business.
At the end of the meeting or as the allotted time runs down, the leader or facilitator should run through the Parking Lot list and determine how to dispose of the items. Some may need further meetings with different people in the room. Others may have been resolved or obviated in passing. And if there’s an item where you’ve put something on the list to quiet a blowhard, say to him, “Walk with me back to my office and let’s talk about X”; you’ll address his concerns or at least hear him out without tying up the whole meeting.