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Thoughts from the Field – Issue #24 - Three Assumptions that Paralyze Strategic Meetings

By Gordon Blocker - April 2015

Virtually every executive team faces the important hurdle of running effective strategic meetings. These meetings, where teams discuss critical issues affecting long-term success, can serve as important inflection points for a team to advance the organization’s goals – or be seen as a huge waste of time that erodes the credibility of the leadership. It all depends on how well they are executed.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve consulted with thousands of teams who have experienced success as they implement Table Group models for effective meetings, including: (a) Daily Check-in Meetings to stay real-time on administrative movements, (b) Weekly Tactical Meetings to knock out issues that move the business forward, and (c) Ad Hoc Topical Meetings for strategic topics and discussions, and (d) Quarterly Off-sites for development and team cohesion (all covered in Patrick Lencioni’s books Death By Meeting and The Advantage).

If a team willingly commits to improving their meetings and uses this model, great things can happen. However, teams often struggle with strategic meetings because they can create a log-jam for progress. Some teams try to cram strategic issues into Weekly Tactical Meetings. This leads to three-hour lock-downs or, worse, careless, half-baked decisions. Others pack these discussions into two-day retreats that devolve into exhausting marathons that bring little clarity and closure. Sound familiar? As a solution, organizations can implement Ad Hoc Topical Meetings, which are meant for discussing, analyzing, brainstorming, and deciding upon critical strategic issues.

When strategic topics come up, it is important to keep a ‘parking lot’ of these issues instead of impulsively trying to resolve everything on the fly. And discussion of these issues must be well planned, including identification of relevant people, processes, and resources. There are a couple of simple ways to spot strategic issues. They can take one to two hours to discuss and they generally answer why and what questions.

Tactical issues, on the other hand, can be resolved in about 15 minutes and they answer questions that start with who, how, when, where.

To lead effective Topical Meetings, we must correct three assumptions about them.

Assumption #1: We know what the problem is.

Fact: The focus of the meeting must be properly defined.

How often do you hear something vague in a meeting like, “what are we going to do about our drop in revenue?” What follows is an unproductive or unfocused conversation during which everyone sits around the table assuming they have defined the issue in the same way or even that they know what the issue is.

A little clarity is in order. The team needs to define the issue: Is it a question to answer? A problem to solve? A decision to make? Does someone need to research the issue before discussing it further? One healthy team I work with debates these definitions at length before taking any further steps. And then, to make things crystal clear, they place a singular question on the whiteboard to align around the correct problem they are trying to solve. This makes it apparent what’s at stake.

Assumption #2: The entire leadership team must attend every topical meeting.

Fact: Topical meetings can be assigned to a select subset of the leadership team and other participants.

One thing that gives executives heart palpitations is the assumption that every meeting has to be a full team meeting. Just this week I had a call from a client whose CTO ended up in 20 hours of Topical Meetings in one week. While it’s important for all team members to attend most meetings, there are some strategic issues that can be handled on an ad hoc basis without requiring all hands on deck. However, this does not give a license for the leadership team to avoid tough issues. And, buy-in is critical. If a sub-team holds a Topical Meeting, it’s really important that they report back to the full team for commitment and closure.

For a sub-team to get started, the leadership team can assign a point person or subject matter expert (SME) from the leadership team to drive the effort. This SME can prepare materials to brief relevant team members. Outside contributors or experts may be invited as well.

Taking this approach can relieve executives who would otherwise flirt with burn-out by trying to attend every meeting. This helped in the case of my CTO client. When we asked the team leader to identify the SME and a short list of participants, everyone’s involvement was refined and progress was accelerated on the strategic issues.

Assumption #3: We know what the expected outcomes are.

Fact: Clarify the decision-making structure and outcomes of the conversation.

Before a select group tackles a strategic issue, they need to know how to define success. Topical Meetings are for debate and finding clarity. But, what is the goal of the conversation? Is the team brainstorming? Making a recommendation? Making a final decision? And who’s responsible for the decision? Clarity around these questions is an important ingredient to successful meetings.

The decision-making piece is key: on the one hand, a leader may choose to give significant decision-making power to others. It may be an issue that requires such domain expertise that it’s best for the decision to lie with the SME or assigned group. Or it may be something that affects the meeting’s participants so much that the leader wants to let them decide their own fate.

On the other hand, the leader may want only a strong recommendation to aid their thinking in making the decision. The team absolutely needs to know which decision making model is in use.

Now, imagine two teams and think about the one you’d rather join.

One team is continuously slowed by a list of problems that create a bottleneck. They mindlessly wade through a muddled mix of tactical and strategic topics. Or they try to throw everything into one meeting creating a tasteless stew of important questions, excruciating details, and long-term decisions. Not ideal.

The other team separates strategic issues from tactical ones and gives each their due. They wisely manage a host of issues that get resolved and lead to execution and results. The strategic issues are properly defined, assigned to the right people who know the outcomesneeded to move things forward. The sense of commitment is palpable. And there’s no reason this can’t be your team.