In observance of the Thanksgiving break, there will be no Word on the Street next Monday. Our next issue will be published on Monday, December 4.
Special Disaster Edition
Seven Ways to Screw Up Your Strategy Meetings
Since 1995, I’ve facilitated over 450 strategic planning meetings for AE and environmental leadership teams—in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the E.U. This is not to say that I’m any good at actually facilitating meetings. But rather it’s a statistic to provide some context for the rest of this article.
I’ve seen what works—and what doesn’t—to make a great strategy meeting. What do I mean by “great”? Your team is fully engaged in strategic decision-making. They enter the meetings informed. There is minimal wasted time. The conversations are meaningful and—if necessary—tough and replete with conflict. There are debates and arguments. At the end of the session your team is spent, exhausted. They’ve left nothing unsaid. They emerge more united and stronger as a team. And you leave the sessions with a written plan for the future.
So, with that, here are seven ways to royally screw up your strategy meetings:
1. Choose a remote location for your strategy meetings
You know, one that’s high in the mountains, or on the outermost island of an archipelago, or in the middle of the desert. That will be a great place for your team to “get away from it all” and “leave the office behind” and “focus on the future.” Yeah, maybe it will, but probably not. What it definitely will do is waste at least two days of everyone’s time traveling to and from meetings (But your team has plenty of time to waste, right?), increase the probability that one or more of your team will arrive late (“Eduardo’s cable car is stuck above the deepest of the three crevasses we traversed to arrive at this bespoke mountain-top planning yurt, and it doesn’t look like a rescue team will reach him for at least a couple of hours, but let’s get going without him. I’ll ask him to Teams in.”), and create some happy memories (“I honestly didn’t think that swimming with stingrays could be so much fun, or dangerous for that matter. But Katie was such a good sport about it. And I hear she could be back at work as early as next spring.”).
2. Or equally painful, choose a non-business venue
Historic and cultural venues are wonderful. To visit that is. They’re wonderful to visit. NOT to run strategy meetings. In fact, there is a proven 100% correlation between sub-optimal planning meetings and historic/cultural venues. I’ve run strategy sessions at historic Shaker villages and plantations, museums, art galleries (modern, eclectic, and private), football stadiums (professional and college), and various zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums (aquaria?), castles (Thank you, Belgium!), and boat houses. They always sound like a great idea—to one person only. And that person is either the CEO or, more likely, the CEO’s chief of staff, who happens to be a “sustaining member” of said museum. Or who heard (from a friend in a book club) that the gallery downtown was a “great space for meeting.” Or whose wife is one of the team boosters and “can get us a good deal.” But they’re never a good deal—because they never meet your needs. There’s no reliable Wi-Fi. Or on-site AV capabilities. So, someone always has to lug a screen and projector from the office at 6:30 A.M., only to find that there are either no extension cords at the castle or they forgot “the clicker” or both. For multi-day strategy sessions, on-site accommodations—if they exist—are dated and not designed for business professionals. And don’t get me going about the restrooms. There’s a reason business hotels and conference centers exist.
3. Weekend at Bernie’s II
Deservedly got 13% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. It stunk. And so will your weekend strategy meetings. Sure, you’ll “maximize the utilization” of your team by having them do their day jobs during the week and then sequester them (Where better than at a botanical garden?) for one or two days of strategy sessions. But, unlike you, they’ve got a life. With responsibilities. And while they are more than likely 100% committed to the firm (Otherwise, why would they be on the strategy team?), they also have a spouse or partner and kids (or pets) who need them on the weekend. So, while you’re focused on maximizing utilization, you’re also ramping up the resentment and angst of your team, which doesn’t translate to an engaging, successful strategy meeting. Oh, and after your team wraps up on Sunday evening, they feel lousy that they have to get back to real work on Monday. And as a bonus, your team now refers to you as “Scrooge.”
4. Same as it ever was
The path of least resistance to the worst strategic decisions is to (a) assume that the current economic and social environment will prevail (When has that never been true?) and (b) that your firm will keep selling the same services to the same clients in the future. Throw in a self-aggrandizing SWOT assessment, and you end up with a strategic plan to double in size in five years. Job done, let’s head to the bar. Not so fast. Status quo bias is a cognitive bias based on emotion. (They were also a terrific bunch of English rock and rollers in the ’70s.) And it’s the enemy of great strategic planning meetings. The best way to overcome it is to make sure that everyone on the team has access to research and materials that objectively assess how the world around the firm may change in the future, how clients may evolve, and how the firm itself looks different. Powerful strategic planning meetings are the result of blending data (“there will be zero growth in our market for the next five years”) with emotion (“we do not accept zero growth; as a team and shareholders we demand growth, and so, in a zero-growth market we will take market share from our competition, and here is how we will do that”). When you do this, your vision is one that marries what you need to change to be viable with what you want to change to self-actualize.
5. Agree to disagree about the vision and move on
Don’t worry. That won’t cause problems down the road. At least not for the group of principals who decide to peel off and form your biggest competitor overnight. Visioning sounds low risk. (“It’s so far off in the distance, it’s meaningless! Who can predict the future?! No action items! Let’s head out to see how the Shakers made bread.”) But it’s not. And lack of alignment around vision is the reason most firms fragment and fail. You’re not going to get agreement or consensus on every single element of your vision. But you want to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and the hard discussions are mined in its creation. Oftentimes the crucial conversations around this topic go WAY longer than 5 P.M. Which is not ideal when the aquarium you’re having your meeting in shuts down right then for penguin feeding.
6. Focus on word-smithing the mission statement
It will be time well spent. This is especially true for a large group…of engineers. Start the day with the real wordy version that captures every service that your firm offers now (along with every market that you serve and every office that you have—if you still have ’em). After two to three hours of that, the “brutalist” school members of your team will take the floor and, in their best Hemingway impersonations, root out all adverbs and adjectives until your mission statement could be applicable to any firm in any service industry (and some other industries, too). Once you’ve gone through that cycle, it will be time for lunch. As you leave the meetings at the boathouse down by the river to trudge through the surprisingly heavy rain the one mile to the “lunch facility,” you start to get a sense of dread that you may not get to all of the action items that you need to. Then you slip on the mud.
7. Don’t bother with an action plan. It always takes care of itself
Action planning boils down to who is going to do what by when and how. Very blocky, very tackley. Not very strategic or high-minded. Not visionary at all. No flowery, aspirational language. No stirring statements to save the world. When you actually write down the action items that come out of strategic planning, they are almost always disappointingly dull. Mundane steps to be slogged through to get to where your firm needs to go. In reality, they are the red-headed stepchild of strategy meetings. Everyone is fired up and engaged when it comes to visioning and missioning and strategery-ing. By the time you get to the end of the day and it’s time for folks to raise their hand and lay claim to putting an initiative in motion, a strange silence descends on the room. The aversion to accountability is palpable. The avoidance of eye contact replaces the eagerness to voice opinions about new markets or services. And so, many teams don’t write down action items, nor do they set up a system of reporting on progress. Because they are either exhausted or nobody wants to do the “executing”—they all want to do the planning.
Don’t screw up your strategic planning. Do your research on your markets, your competitors, and the industry, and make sure your team has ample time to review ahead of meetings. Meet in a convenient location whose mission is to provide your team with every resource that you need to run a successful meeting. Have an agenda and follow it. Move from big picture to specifics. Make sure everyone has the right mindset. (Focus on the entirety of the firm rather than their individual piece of it.) Pro tip: Have everyone attending read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni before coming together. Good luck!
To connect with Mick Morrissey, email him at [email protected] or text/call at 508.380.1868.