We’ve all been there: sitting in a strategic meeting, perhaps a strategic planning retreat or brainstorming session, and then it happens. The Great Derail.
Attendees go way off-topic, and get everyone else lost in the process.
Or delve into the weeds, and pull everyone down as if they were in quicksand.
They become the Debbie-Downer-Negative-Nelly, and create a vacuum of negative energy in the room.
Or use The Most Dangerous Words in Business, and say things like, “That won’t work at our firm” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it!”
The naysayers may hold their tongues, and create the faux appearance of unity; that is, until they preside over the “Meeting After the Meeting” and effectively undo everything that had been accomplished.
And these challenges don’t just relate to strategic planning meetings – they can occur in just about any meeting – including project meetings with your clients.
Meetings typically have a pretty high Suck Factor. Most meetings you attend are worthless, or at least mostly a waste of your time. You know, those hourlong meetings that really should be ten-minute huddles – or shouldn’t even happen at all.
It is because our lives seem to be an endless parade of time-wasting, energy-draining, life-sucking meetings that we bring baggage to strategic conversations.
See Developing Strategy: Should You Have an External Facilitator?
But perhaps you’ve been in some great strategic planning meetings, where everyone was energized and fed off of one another. Participants with divergent ideas didn’t attack one-another – they collaborated to create a stronger outcome. Attendees left happy and pumped-up, not miffed and upset. What made those meeting so much more successful?
That is, the attitude of every single attendee. They need to want to be there. And be fully-committed to the topic at hand. They need to be prepared. And be okay with stepping outside of their comfort zone, without fear of looking stupid.
When I facilitate strategic sessions, I usually begin with Ground Rules.
These are not my own creations, but rather recommendations heard and lessons learned over many years, sitting in many strategic sessions – some facilitated, some not – with for-profit companies and non-profit organizations alike.
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There’s a ton of ideas out there for meeting Ground Rules, and many overlap. These are the ones I’ve found to be most important for holding a successful strategic meeting.
1 – Mental Presence is Required
Attendees are there for a reason. Their opinion is important. So they must be fully present – and not just physically. Checking emails, reviewing documents, texting … these all signal that the topic of the meeting is unimportant to them and they’d rather be somewhere else.
Oblige them. Their actions are disruptive to everyone else, and when that behavior is tolerated, it creates the impression that the topics being discussed are really not that important.
2 – Everyone Has a Voice
Each attendee has a role to play. They have unique experiences and training that can add great value to the discussion. Sometimes attendees are too timid to speak up. They don’t want to embarrass themselves. Or “overstep” and anger their boss. Perhaps they feel a bit of “imposter syndrome,” like they don’t belong there.
Encourage their participation, even if it means directly asking for their thoughts. And if their opinion really doesn’t matter, why were they invited?
3 – There Are No Bad Questions or Stupid Ideas
The greatest innovations have resulted from “stupid ideas.” Imagine the first person that said “What if we could put humans on the moon?” Or, “What if everyone had a phone they could take with them, no matter where they go?”
The benefit of those “out there” questions and ideas is that they help other attendees to think bigger and break the shackles that stifle creativity. In fact, “What’s the craziest way we could solve this?” is a great question to stimulate creative thinking. Encourage attendees to think big.
An equally thought-provoking question involves actively soliciting the “stupid idea”: “What’s the worst possible solution?” When you look at things from the other side, sometimes the best ideas become visible.
And of course, don’t forget about the what-if questions, like “What if we had an unlimited budget to do this?”
4 – Avoid “But,” Try “Yes, and…”
Strategy meetings have far too many buts. Not butts in chairs, but rather those interruptive “But” comments that are the verbal equivalent of a brick wall. An attendee has a new idea, a creative thought, and as they’re sharing it another attendee responds with “But…” It’s negative and off-putting. It immediately tells the speaker “I don’t agree with you.”
Removing “But” from your vocabulary is difficult, but important.
I love those meetings where people catch themselves saying “But,” and immediately pause and say, “Let me rephrase that” or the other participants call out someone for saying “But.” (Usually done playfully, bringing a bit of levity to the conversation.)
Be aware of what you say. Build on ideas, don’t slap them down. You’ve probably heard that a good replacement is, “Yes, and…” which allows you to make your point without building that verbal wall.
5 – Attack Problems, Not People
Have you ever felt like you put an idea out there and were attacked for it? Or that attendees “picked” on you because of your connection with a problem being discussed? For instance, when a business development director is in a meeting and someone says, “Well, we clearly don’t have the right people doing business development!”
You need to be aware of your words at all times, and be sure you are attacking the issue, problem, or challenge. So perhaps, “We clearly don’t have enough people involved with developing new business to grow” is a better way to make the point.
The first comes across as an attack on a person. The second focuses on the real issue.
6 – Active Listening is Required
One of the soft skills I teach is active listening, which increasingly seems to be a lost art.
You’ve probably heard the statistic that the average human attention span is eight seconds; the average goldfish attention span is nine seconds. And while that may be pushing things a bit too far, it does reinforce the fact that our minds are fickle, always seeking stimulation from the next big thing. In a meeting environment, that often means thinking about what you are going to say next. Or, even worse, daydreaming.
So instead of focusing on the speaker, you miss part of the discussion.
When my son was in kindergarten, he came home one day and said, “Hocus-pocus, everybody focus,” which is apparently what his teacher said whenever she felt that she was losing the attention of her students.
Sometimes you need a little bit of hocus-pocus to bring you back.
7 – Mutual Respect Will Promote Creative Thinking
Strategic meetings need to be safe environments. And the way you create that safety is by respecting one-another. Then everyone will feel more comfortable sharing new ideas without fear of belittlement. Likewise, sometimes showing a bit of vulnerability will help demonstrate a point or make others feel at ease.
Imagine that: talking about a personal failure in front of others!
Those lessons learned from failure can help other participants understand what didn’t work and why it didn’t work. And hey, we all know that the world’s greatest innovators failed many, many times.
When there is mutual respect, the level of comfort skyrockets and promotes creativity, innovative thinking, and problem-solving.
8 – It’s Okay to Disagree
The worst thing that can happen in a strategic meeting is having everyone agree. With everything. All. Meeting. Long.
Remember, everyone has their own unique experiences and training. Everyone has their own ideas and viewpoints. Often, these ideas conflict with the ideas of other attendees. And this is what we want. Taking divergent, even opposing ideas and synthesizing them can lead to brilliant new concepts and approaches.
A room of “Yes Men” is a recipe for strategery, so embrace differing viewpoints. Don’t be a jerk about it, of course, but ask the other person what led to their opinion. Dig deeper. Respect that they have a right to their opinion. And then determine where you can find points of alignment and opportunity.
Consider the saying that there’s not really two sides to every story: there’s three. Your side. My side. And the truth! In strategic meetings, this “truth” may very well be a new idea that comes from having diverging opinions.
9 – It’s Not Okay to Not Speak Up
Yes, the double-negative is intentional!
We’ve established that Everyone Has a Voice, and It’s Okay to Disagree. And yet, some people harbor contrary opinions but choose to not share them for one reason or another. This is not acceptable.
Again, every person is in that strategic meeting for a reason. If they don’t speak up, even though they have a strong opinion (or idea), they are doing a disservice to everyone else in that meeting.
And on the back-end, if they had a chance to speak up and chose to remain silent, they have no right to disagree with the consensus solution or plan. And they shouldn’t be invited to the next strategy meeting, because they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain!
10 – Off-Topic Comments Will be “Parked”
Whether you love the “Parking Lot” or not, there must be a recognition that any strategic meeting has a purpose (and hopefully a strong agenda).
Comments or ideas not related to that purpose don’t belong in the meeting. They may be incredibly important and valid, but not in that particular environment.
Recognize the validity, capture the comment (a “Parking Lot” can be a whiteboard – or simply a note on your phone), and return the discussion to the matter at hand.
Be sure that someone circles back around – at another time – to address the comment or concern.
11 – The Weeds Should Be Avoided
It is crazy-easy to get mired in the weeds. And there’s no law that says that strategic meetings have to be at 50,000 feet. It’s more than okay to go to 5,000 feet, because after all the dreaming, brainstorming, and ideation, the rubber has to meet the road. There needs to be alignment about next steps, and at least the beginnings of a plan or strategy must start to take shape.
However, the meeting can’t be allowed to descend to 5 feet. That level of detail will come in time, but it’s certainly not strategy.
Yet some people feel far more comfortable with the weeds – the tactics – than they do with strategy. So maybe they don’t belong in a strategy meeting: they can be part of the implementation team.
Everyone has a role and value to offer; perhaps theirs is elsewhere.
12 – At the End of the Day, Unity is Critical
Some strategy meetings last an hour. Others last a day or two. Or even happen once a week or month or quarter until solutions are developed and plans written, reviewed, and approved.
Regardless of when the final decisions occur, every attendee must commit to honor the agreements that are made.
The “Meetings After the Meeting” simply cannot take place. They undermine everything that was accomplished, sow seeds of doubt, and create distrust.
I once sat in what seemed to be a positive strategic planning retreat, then overheard the second-highest-ranking executive – literally walking out the door – say, “This will never work.”
Boom. Mic drop. Strategic planning failure. Money down the drain. Disengaged employees.
I’ve been on boards of directors where I was on the “losing” side of an issue, and the majority of directors voted to move in a different direction. And that’s okay. After the decision was made, I fully supported it. Unity is critical. Lack of unity is destructive.
So there you have it – 12 Ground Rules for Successful Strategic Meetings. Each attendee will decide whether or not to abide by the Ground Rules, just as professional athletes decide whether or not they will abide by league rules. Suspension usually awaits those that don’t. And maybe that philosophy should carry over to your strategic meetings.
No, this isn’t a recommendation to fire someone because they didn’t follow the Ground Rules. (However, if they undermine the process and decisions, perhaps it is worth considering.) But don’t invite them to future strategy meetings – even if they have a “title” that suggests they should be there.
And herein lies one of the challenges that firms face with effective strategic meetings. Too many people receive invitations because of their title, not because of the value they can contribute. So you end up with people who should be there – who want to be there – not getting an invite, and others that really have no interest in being there being obligated to attend.
This brings me to the Bonus Rule 13 (let’s call it a Butcher’s Dozen), but it is only for the highest ranking executives in attendance:
13 – Don’t Pull Out Your Executive Card
I witnessed a productive brainstorming session not just hit a brick wall, but literally implode, all because the chief executive wasn’t interested in the opinions of his team.
Well, he was interested in the “opinions” as long as they reinforced his. He took any other opinions – that had nothing to do with him, by the way – as an affront to his leadership. Even so, it was shocking when he went nuclear and stating the following:
“How about his? I’m the president. What I say goes. End of story.”
This really happened. Can you imagine being in that session? The light oxygen of creativity was sucked out of the room and replaced with thick smog of frustration and fear, where nothing was clear, ideas weren’t shared, and everyone was looking for an excuse to escape.
Executives, your opinions are incredibly important and valuable. But you hired these people for a reason. They are subject matter experts in their fields.
Let them ideate. And brainstorm. Let them explore unchartered territory. Allow them them thrive. Give them the opportunity to learn.
Encourage them. Compliment them. Build on their ideas.
Don’t destroy them, because the attitude you exhibit is a lesson learned that may never be forgotten, creating an unattractive workplace.
Certainly there are budget issues, personnel limitations, laws and codes, and myriad other reality checks that will have to come into play.
And you can’t wait until the implementation phase to address them.
Let the strategic conversations happen organically. See how your team reacts and what potential limitations they identify. Some people may surprise you – and help you determine if you truly have the right people in the right seats!
What are some of your favorite Ground Rules for effective strategic meetings? Although I’ve continually used “strategic” to refer to these meetings, the reality is that most – all? – meetings could benefit from these Ground Rules.
Looking for a facilitator for your next strategic meeting? Need help crafting an effective agenda to drive meaningful conversations? Contact Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at email@example.com or 717.891.1393 to discuss your needs and how aecumen can help! Subscribe to our blog in the footer below to receive the latest AEC marketing and business development intelligence as soon as it is published!
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Great post, and I’m loving the video/vlog element too Scott!
Thanks so much, Josh! Old dog learning new tricks! 🙂