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Strategic Planning Without Meeting Skills Spells Disaster
by Victoria A. Hoevemeyer

 
   
 
   

Strategic Planning. A term that often sends shivers down the back of the most stalwart executive. Just the terms can be intimidating: strategic intent, white space opportunity, core competencies, and co-evolution.

Today, strategic planning is touted as something in which companies should involve teams of line and staff managers from different disciplines. It advocates bringing customers and suppliers together. It talks about bridging the gaps between business operations. It's about getting people together from different disciplines to look at the entire ecosystem and, as a result, encourages people to think out of the box. It is oriented toward making strategic planning part of each manager's day-to-day world.

Companies are taking the advice of the new-wave strategic planners to heart in implementing the restyled strategic planning methodologies. They are dedicating significant numbers of all levels of employees to the strategic planning process to discover ways to get more out of their operations.

One can't argue with the intent, purpose, and ideals of the re-invented strategic planning process. However, the strong advocacy for cross-functional, multi-level teams, if used by organization as recommended, could hold the potential to destroy the multitude of benefits that could result from the strategic planning process. The primary reason is that, while corporate America has talked about teams for a number of years, most organizations have teams that do not understand the basics of teamwork nor how to effectively conduct meetings. The end result may well be that the teams end up accomplishing the goals of the strategic planning process, but in a longer period of time and with more dysfunctional conflict than is necessary.

If you are going to hop on the strategic planning bandwagon as companies such as Sears, Searle Pharmaceuticals, Philips Electronics, AT&T, and Hewlett-Packard have, you need to consider HOW the team functions in addition to providing it with the new strategic planning skills.

This article is designed to look at one often overlooked aspect to ensuring that your strategic planning effort pays off: effective meeting management.

The cost of ineffective meetings

Too many meetings are poorly run and consume significantly more time than is actually needed to accomplish the necessary tasks. Look at just a few of the statistics:

  • According to the Wall Street Journal, CEO's feel that meetings account for the largest share of unproductive time on the job.
  • Various studies (e.g., Hofstra University, University of Southern California at Los Angeles) report that attendees say that between 30 and 50 percent of time spent in meetings is a waste.
  • Most professionals attend a total of 61.8 meetings per month, each of which last approximately 1 hour.
  • An MCI study found that 73% of meeting attendees have brought other work to meetings and 39% say they have dozed during meetings.
  • In the same study, meeting attendees admitted that they daydream during meetings (91%), miss entire meetings (96%), or miss parts of meetings (95%)

With statistics like these it's no surprise that meetings are getting in the way of meeting organizational priorities and achieving its tactical and strategic goals. Meeting attendees are getting frustrated, distracted, and irritable just thinking about having another meeting to attend. As a result some individuals have advocated the elimination of meetings.

Unfortunately, the reality is that meetings are critical in today's business environment. Business is more complex, it is global, and it is highly competitive. In many instances, the only way to get the best solution to a situation is by involving a number of people at different levels and in different disciplines throughout the organization. Strategic planning is such a situation. In lieu of abdicating meetings, it makes more sense to improve the effectiveness of meetings.

One of the best ways to do this is to provide meeting attendees with meeting skills training. This should include, at the very least:

  • how to develop an effective agenda,
  • how to keep the "minutes" of the meeting,
  • meeting leadership roles and responsibilities,
  • handling "problem people," and
  • team member responsibilities.

Let's look at each one of these.

Agenda

Do team members know, in advance of the meetings, what is on the agenda and what needs to be accomplished with each agenda item? If I don't know what's on the agenda, I have no way of being prepared for the meeting. The chances of having an unproductive meeting start right at this point. People need to know - in advance - what's on the agenda for the meeting.

An effective agenda is specific and planned. Instead of a meeting starting at 8 am and who knows when it's going to end, a specific meeting start and end time are determined based on the contents of the agenda. Components of the agenda are:

  1. Agenda item. The agenda items should be placed in order of priority. This way, if more time than is scheduled is needed for a high priority agenda item, there is no big debate what doesn't get covered. It's simply the last (and least important) item on the agenda. And in case you're thinking about just extending the meeting, forget it. That's the start of going back to ineffective meetings.

  2. Identifying who is responsible for handling each agenda item. Most people have been at a meeting where someone says, "Oh, was I supposed to handle that?!? I didn't know. Ummm... Well... I guess what we need to talk about is..." When responsibility is identified up-front, people can prepare for their part in the meeting, thereby contributing to the effective use of meeting time.

  3. What team members need to do to be prepared to address/discuss the agenda item. You've probably been at a meeting where the meeting leader says something like, "As you all know by reading Report X...." Half of the people frantically search for the report, and the other half have blank looks on their faces, either because they didn't read it ("No one said I had to read it.") or they don't remember getting it. Since people need to understand the content of the report before addressing the agenda item, more time is wasted summarizing the report for people (while those who did read it take a brief nap). When you specify what people need to do to be prepared to discuss each agenda item, there is no excuse for people not being ready to discuss each item.

  4. What team members need to bring with them to discuss the agenda item. The meetings leader says, "If you'll all pull out the memo I sent you last week outlining the results of my discussion with Mr. Zee..." At that point, half of the people get up to go back to their office to get the memo (and check their voice mail and e-mail while they're there). In the meantime, everyone else sits around waiting for those team members to get back. Again, this is a meeting waster. By specifying what team members need to bring with them to the meeting, there is no excuse for having to leave the meeting to get necessary materials.

  5. How much time will be devoted to the agenda item. While sitting in a meeting, virtually everyone has thought, "How many times are we going to go over the same thing. Let's just make a decision and move on!" While some individuals will try to argue that setting a time limit for each agenda item will inhibit discussion, creativity, and spontaneity, this rarely occurs. On the rare occasion that insufficient time has been allotted, the facilitator can present the option of extending the time allotted for the agenda item by a specific number of minutes to finish the discussion. These minutes are usually taken from the last agenda item, rather than adding to the length of the meeting.

  6. The intended goal of the discussion of the agenda item. You've all been to this meeting: It's a one-agenda-item meeting that lasted two hours. As team members leave the room, everyone is asking everyone else, "What did we accomplish?" Congratulations, team leader, you succeeded in wasting two hours of every team member's day (not to mention the other sunk costs of having people sitting in a non-productive meeting for two hours). By specifying the goal of the agenda item, everyone knows what needs to be accomplished and can see, at the end of the allotted time, that it has been accomplished. An added benefit of specifying the intended goal is that it can be used to control the person who tries to take the discussion off the subject at hand. By the facilitator simply saying, "Help me understand how this relates to our goal for this agenda item of ____," the speaker's comments can be redirected (or clarified) to the intended goal.

Obviously, with this kind of detail, the agenda cannot be handed out at the meeting. If you want people to be prepared for a meeting, and to be able to use the assigned time effectively, they must have time to prepare for the meeting. The detailed agenda should be sent out to participants a minimum of three working days before the meeting.

The first reaction to this kind of specificity in an agenda is: "I don't have time to put that much work into an agenda!" The question, in reply, is, "But you have hours and hours of time to waste sitting in an unproductive meeting after unproductive meeting?"

By sending the agenda out ahead of time, people can begin to prepare for the meeting and get their the creativity processes going prior to the meeting rather than during the meeting. They have at least three days to run the creative juices through the mill and come to the meeting with their thoughts and ideas well in order. The ones who will always be against a structured meeting are those whose greatest thrill is hearing themselves speak. However, the structured agenda also allows for control of these individuals by allowing the meeting facilitator to ask the speaker how his/her oration contributes to the accomplishment of the end result desired for the agenda item.

Meeting minutes

Does everyone on the team keep their own notes during the meeting in addition to the meeting secretary taking notes? Keeping the minutes of the meeting has to change, too. The established methodology of having a single person write a record of the meeting on a piece of paper that only their eyes can see is right out of Robert's Rules of Order which dates back to 19th century England.

One could make a good case for saying that the needs of people in business have changed at least a little bit between then and now! So, why are we still using this methodology? The answer is simple: People take notes during meetings so they have an "accurate" record of the meeting. Unfortunately, while a team member is making notes, the person is not an active participant in the meeting. The individual may miss vital information, miss an opportunity to make a contribution, or slow the team down by asking that something be repeated. All of these things work against the overall effectiveness of the team.

Instead of this antiquated process, a recorder should be used whose responsibility it is to record the key points of discussion on a flipchart in front of all the team members. As each piece of flipchart paper is filled, it should be posted on the wall for each member of the team to see. There are multiple advantages in this approach. First, there is no reason for any team member to take notes as all the information is displayed for the team to see. If there is an error or omission, a team member can point it out immediately, ensuring an accurate record of the meeting. Each team member is, therefore, able to concentrate on participating in the discussion on each agenda item. Team members know that they have been "heard" because they can see their point written on the flipchart paper. In addition, if a team member comes in late or must briefly leave the meeting, a quick glance at the posted flipchart sheets enables the individual to quickly catch up with the team without wasting the team's time to update him or her as to what has occurred. Finally, and very applicable to the strategic planning process, anything which needs to be diagrammed out can be done on flipchart paper allowing easy viewing of the process or diagram as the team discusses related issues on the agenda.

Meeting leadership

Is your team leader wearing too many hats? The leadership of an effective team needs to be different from that which we commonly see. Generally the team leader runs the meeting. That requires that the team leader split his or her attention four ways: being an active team member, addressing process issues, addressing content issues, and handling "problem people" situations. This kind of division of attention almost always results in something getting shorted. In most meetings that is usually the process and the "people problem" issues. Again, we are looking at a situation that means delays in the team accomplishing its goals.

The ideal situation is that there are multiple people throughout the organization who are trained as facilitators. A facilitator is neutral third-party who is responsible for addressing the process and people issues during a team meeting. This frees the team leader up to be an active team member and to handle the content of the meeting. The team leader and facilitator work in harmony, both playing key roles in ensuring that the meeting stays on time and accomplishes what needs to be accomplished. These trained facilitators would then be responsible, as part of their job, for facilitating various meetings throughout the organization. An alternative is to have each team member trained as a facilitator and have each of the team members facilitate a meeting. This is a less desirable solution, as the facilitator is a neutral person. It means taking an active team member and putting him or her into a noncontributory role during a particular meeting.

People issues

Are there "problem people" on your team? Think about your team meetings. Do you have whisperers who impair your ability to concentrate on the meeting? Does your team's know-it-all constantly disrupt the meeting with his or her "expert advice"? Is there someone who is constantly interrupting others and getting away with that behavior? Does a team member get away with speaking for other people (as in, "What Joan is trying to say is...)? Do you have a member who pops in an out of the meeting?

If you have these kinds of problems on an ongoing basis, you are wasting precious time by allowing individuals to get away with these dysfunctional meeting robbing behaviors. These kinds of behaviors should be properly addressed so that they team is able to concentrate on it's business rather than being sidetracked by unacceptable behaviors. This requires training and practice to become a skilled observer of "people problems" and an effective solver of those problems. But unless they are addressed, they will continue to destroy the team and limit its overall accomplishments.

Team member responsibilities

Do team members feel that their "role" on the team is simply to show up at most of the meetings? Team members rarely think of themselves as having more responsibility than simply being a team member. This could not be further from the truth. Each team member is responsible for a number of things:

  1. Being at the meeting on time and every time. Of course, emergencies do occur. Even in an emergency, though, the person should have the common decency to contact someone else on the team (or ask a co-worker to) to let the team know that the member will not be at the meeting.

  2. Ensuring that the facilitator remains neutral. While a good facilitator strives to be a neutral servant to the team, there are times when he or she may, unwittingly, get involved in the content of the meeting and voice an opinion. In many situations, this is not a problem as the comment, idea, or suggestion is helpful to the team. However, in situations where the involvement in unwarranted, it is each team member's responsibility to "check" the facilitator.

  3. Ensuring that the key points are recorded on the flipchart accurately. Even though team members are not taking notes, an accurate record of the meeting must exist. That means paying attention to what is recorded to make sure that it is accurate and that all key points are noted.

  4. Being an active participant in the meeting. The meeting is not an opportunity for a team member to catch up on her or her reading, doodling, sleeping, gossiping, or anything else other than attending to the business of the team.

  5. Keeping an open mind. An entire team will rarely see eye-to-eye on a given subject. We are all too different people, with different experiences and frames of references. These are the things that can make a team great as well as destroy it. When team members keep an open mind, and blend complimentary ideas from each other, they are most likely to come up with the best - and most creative - solution to the problem.

  6. Not being defensive when their idea is criticized. Once an idea is thrown out, it is no longer the property of the individual - the team owns it.

  7. Treating other team members with respect. If everyone follows the Golden Rule, no more need be said.

  8. Completing tasks the individual volunteered to do or was assigned to do on time and in a quality manner. Taking on a task is a commitment to the team that should not be taken any more lightly than a commitment to your child to pick him or her up after school.

  9. Actively listening to other members on the team.

Summary

For many organizations, strategic planning is the logical next step in its development. The "fat" has been cut from the organization and it has been restructured or reorganized to be more effective. Now it is time to begin the process of strategic planning to focus in on customer service, increased revenue and profit, developing new products, expanding existing business, and developing new markets. But it can only be accomplished with effective teams who possess the knowledge and skills to conduct effective meetings that drive - rather than hinder - the strategic planning process.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Vicki Hoevemeyer, owner of Delta Consulting in Palatine, Illinois, has over 20 years experience as both an internal and external organizational development consultant. Ms. Hoevemeyer's organizational development experience includes the provision of interventions such as the development of performance management systems, conducting management assimilations, conducting employee surveys, coaching, creating employee development plans, creating succession plans, developing competency models, and facilitating team building. She also designs, develops and facilitates management/leadership development programs. She has provided services to transportation, retail, healthcare, education, building materials, and light and heavy manufacturing organizations in California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Illinois.

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2005 by Vicki Hoevemeyer. All rights reserved.

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