Good meetings gone bad
October 2, 2006
The two words strategic planning provokes reactions anywhere from sheer exuberance to ducking for cover. In many organizations, strategic planning has a bad reputation because it’s so easy to step into one of the many planning pitfalls. To start with, holding effective meetings is tough. Add to that a topic that requires a lot of brainpower mixed with personal agendas and you have a recipe for disaster. That’s why so many strategic planning meetings are unsuccessful. Since many businesses are planning their strategic planning meetings right now (and if you are not, you should be), here are the eight ways to ruin yours.
The old cliche too many cooks spoil the broth couldn’t be closer to the truth. While it’s imperative that key employees have a voice in planning, not everyone has to literally be at the meeting table. Too many people in the room can lead to chaos and confusion, resulting in a strategic plan by committee instead of through educated decisions and leadership. Groups of 10 to 15 are the ideal size for strategic planning meetings. If you have more people than that, you can always break up into small teams.
Neglecting to conduct any research before the meeting
If you neglect to conduct research before the meeting, you get into your session and realize you don’t have information you need in order to make sound strategic decisions. The only way to have a solid strategic plan is to incorporate information about your external environment and your internal operations. Some research is better than none. So if you find yourself in a pinch the day before or the day of the meeting, do what you can to get data about your customers needs, your competitors actions, and your employees opinions.
Holding an annual retreat
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Huh? Isn’t this section about holding strategic planning meetings and therefore retreats? Yes, it is. But one common thought process in strategic planning is that you have to hold a retreat. Setting aside a couple of days in an off-site location where everyone gathers in their sweatshirt and jeans drinking cocoa is a typical vision of a strategic planning meeting. Oftentimes a retreat is an annual event and all strategic decision making is reserved for that occasion.
Strategic planning should be a habit, not an event. Hold your strategy meetings regularly (more than once a year) to realize enhanced performance. With that said, annual retreats are OK, but make sure that they aren’t your only meetings of the year.
Getting through the agenda no matter what
Strategic planning is hard work. It takes a lot of mental energy to pull all the pieces of the puzzle together, see the future, make strategic decisions, and organize it usefully. At every strategic planning meeting I’ve facilitated, people are mentally exhausted by the end. Getting through the agenda is usually what it takes to have a completed plan. However, sometimes it’s just not possible to get it all done.
Do have an agenda so everyone knows the structure of the day, but don’t be so rigid that you stick to it no matter what. Try some of these tips to help the mood stay light throughout the day: Loosen up a little bit. Have some fun. Interject some games and downtime. Take breaks and switch gears from time to time.
Assuming everyone thinks like you
Of course everyone thinks like you do, right? As a good leader, you know that’s not the case. Unfortunately sometimes you forget what’s obvious, and end up structuring a meeting based on your own preferences. In reality, it’s pretty hard to step into other people’s shoes and ways of thinking. But in strategic planning, you want everyone in the room engaged. To get everyone engaged, make sure to secure a comfortable environment. People feel the most comfortable when they’re operating in their own thinking preference.
Ignoring the elephant in the room
Would you like to see a strategic planning meeting go down in flames, or any meeting for that matter? Forge ahead, even though you know you have some staff issues. If any key staff member is upset or has an outstanding problem, your strategic planning meeting may likely be disrupted. That person may sit in the meeting like a brooding elephant and finally blow his top and get the meeting off course.
The best way to handle staff concerns is to have a one-on-one discussion with every person who will be attending the strategic planning session. Give your employee the opportunity to voice issues or concerns privately. Make sure that you clarify that your intent is to clear up any problems that may inhibit his or her full participation during the strategy session.
Ending on a low note
You did it! You successfully made it all the way through your meeting. You accomplished everything you intended. You have the key pieces of your strategic plan in place. You’re feeling great. Everyone is slowly packing up their stuff and heading out the door, but you sense a feeling of exhaustion and maybe a little anxiety. You’re wondering why.
What just happened is you unintentionally ended your strategic planning meeting on a low note. In most cases, you have more to cover in your meeting than you have time for. You end up rushing the last part of the meeting to get it all done. I recommend, no matter where you are in your agenda, structuring the last half-hour to end on a high note by getting everyone excited about the new strategic direction.
Overlooking life after the meeting
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in planning for the meeting and the meeting itself, that follow-up is often overlooked. Committing time and resources to implementing the plan is almost more important than the plan itself. Don’t underestimate how much effort it takes to execute your plan. Here are a few tips:
Within a week after your strategic planning meeting, send out a timeline that contains the next steps and deadlines for completing the plan. Make sure to communicate this timeline to everyone in your organization so your employees know what is happening with the strategic planning process.
Send out the strategic plan on the deadline you set, regardless if it is complete or not. As with the previous tip, you reinforce the importance of the plan.
Post a visible result of the planning session in a common area. Items to post include your mission, vision, and values statements or a poster of your strategic plan.
Do not, under any circumstance, cancel the next meeting in your planning or implementation process. As the leader, you are responsible for setting the example that the strategic plan is important. Canceling a meeting signifies it is not important. After all, execution is arguably more important than the planning itself.
Here’s to holding your most successful strategic planning meeting ever. And, as a postscript, with a little tweaking these tongue-in-cheek tips can help you make all meetings more effective something everyone would appreciate.
Erica Olsen (Erica@m3planning.com) is a principal of M3 Planning, a strategic planning firm in Reno. Her company runs MyStrategicPlan.com, a web-based strategic planning system for small and medium businesses. She is also the author of the upcoming book Strategic Planning For Dummies.