The Devil Named Meetings

I love Chris Stapleton and his soulful, down-on-his-luck country songs. I can imagine a life filled with whisky, smoky bars, and life on the road but... Let's be real. His days are so different than mine. So just for fun on this pre-holiday, throw-away workday, I adjusted the lyrics below to better reflect my reality as a federal meeting facilitator.

This was done with a lot of love and respect for Chris and my cherished clients-- and apparently because I have nothing better to do.  You can buy the real song and sing along here.

Big hugs and Happy Thanksgiving!

what are you talking about?

No, really. It's an honest question. What are you talking about?

I came across The Good Men Project during a typical click to click to click browsing session. I was curious to learn what was meant by "good men" and why the hell this too had to have the "project" bit at the end. (I think PMI's relentless marketing is to blame for the runaway use of this term for anything and everything people want to say, do, or explore on the Internet. Time for a universal find and replace!)

Anyway, I got sucked in and spent a good hour or so clicking around trying to understand what good men are talking about. Scanning the site, I saw stuff on social and family issues, professional challenges, and personal values. This are thoughts on how to raise good children, achieve work/life balance, and improve relationships.

I was surprised. I guess not surprised that men were talking about these things (after all there are men's opinions all over the place) but previously unaware that they were swapping views within a circle of other men.

Prior to coming across this site, I'd imagined that most man-to-man conversations (outside of work or direct father to son type stuff) were focused on sports, maybe a little politics, and on the one slow sports day each year, you might get a a calendar review that went something like, "I went to X, then ate Y, then sat in traffic back to X."

To my knowledge, no such site exists for women. In fact, women have been trying to un-have the conversation about what makes a "good woman" for more than 50 years now.

It made me wonder what people are talking about within their circles of same-ness.  For me? I have a pretty good handle on running conversations among federal management consultants (procurement is broken), working moms (there's never enough time), and half-assed vegans (green smoothies count, right?)

Reflecting on what people are talking about with others they view most similar to them (in life stage, circumstance, interests, race, religion, and so on) provides a lot of insights into their worries and priorities. Understanding these ongoing conversations is important-- not so that we can parachute in to solve them-- but so that we can better understand each other, be more empathetic, and more helpful when the opportunity presents itself.

It's sometimes difficult to answer the question-- what's on your mind? To get to the same place we might instead ask, what are you talking about?

Planning to plan? Answer these 9 questions first

A client asked me this morning to review and comment on his organization’s strategic plan template.  A template?  Wait, what? After a bit of (polite) questioning, I learned that this client's organization director is asking several sub-units to draft strategic plans. Once completed, these plans will be rolled up into a master strategic plan.  

I wanted to respond with something helpful but the thoughts racing through my mind went something like... "You can’t template a strategic plan. I mean, sure, there are a handful of broad headers that you could type up but to what end?  Creating a template would exacerbate one of the biggest problems with our typical approaches to strategic planning. And that problem is more focus on the end document than the process of discovery, team building, creative thinking, and cross-discipline input.

Back to my client... he elaborated that he was looking for some thought-provoking questions to include in an annotated outline. The outline would be the basis of a strategic planning meeting agenda and would be during the session to facilitate discussion. Sigh.  Ok, that makes sense.  Based on his request, I jotted down some basic strategic planning guidelines and the kind of questions you should be asking of your team.

Bottom up planning is different and worth trying for organizations really needing or wanting buy-in. It’s not fast or neat or clean but you will get a pretty good sense of what gets people interested and excited about the mission.

Before doing “save as” and creating your spanking new strategic plan file, set some time parameters.  As arbitrary as they might seem, establishing short but reasonable boundaries around the effort is tremendously helpful to participants.  Without sideboards, strategic planning can and will go on forever and eventually be crushed under its own weight  So, I’d suggest that you set a deadline of about a week-- 2 max.  Seriously. You (meaning all the participants in your organization) really do not need more time. Simple and clear beats perfect and polished.



Ok, here you go...

Problem Statement

  1. What are two problems we're trying to solve?  (Sit back and enjoy the range of answers. Giving everyone 2 helps them focus and provides a little wiggle room)
  2. How do other comparable organizations describe the same or similar problem? (Include for a quick compare and contrast exercise.)

Current State and Desired End State

  1. Briefly describe where the organization stands today in the face of this problem.
  2. In an ideal world, where would you be and by when?  Answering this question can and will consume most of the discussion. You can only include this question if there is a pretty good sense of the options. If the problem is truly unsolved, additional research and exploration is needed. A good meeting but just one step back. Another thing... Personally, I recommend that you keep the goals modest and the timelines relatively near-term.  Multi-year strategic plans have very limited practical value.

Stakeholders and Customers

  1. Who or what is impacted by the problem? Try to name the biggies and cut people off before you get too far past 6-8.
  2. Within the organization, who owns the biggest pieces of trying to solve this? (Good list for pulling in future reviewers and collaborators)
  3. Who are you trying to please, support, engage, or help?  These are your customers (even if you’re not “selling” anything.) Spend most of the time you have talking about this group then take another pass through your decisions and tweak from the customer’s point of view.
  4. Besides you, who outside of the organization cares about this outcome?

Opportunities and Limitations

  1. What events can you reasonable anticipate in the set time frame that you want to take advantage of or avoid.  Keep it short and snappy.
  2. So what’s the path?
  3. Given all the thoughts above, provide some sense of the range of options considered.  Which path best takes advantage of all of the resources at your disposal? This is your strategic path.  Write this down—on paper if that’s easiest.

Evaluation Points

  1. What logical evaluation points along the path exist?  Mark these roughly on your calendar and commit to a quick (less than 1 meeting) evaluation of how you’re doing.

Have fun with it.  To me, one of the most commonly missed opportunities with strategic planning is that we all take it too seriously and limit input to only the coolest kids in the office.  Lame.  Instead, even the most modest effort to make it interesting, take some guesses, accept some risk, and integrate as many viewpoints as possible will make this different from the last time.

Oh and encourage participants/contributors not to get too hung up on the language and meaning of strategic.  I’d say that a plan is strategic if it reflects multiple viewpoints and illuminates a path forward-- given the best information available at the time.  A project plan would follow and describe the step-by-step once this approach is finalized.

Follow through or else

Color Grid: Spring 2   by Allison Long Hardy

Color Grid: Spring 2 by Allison Long Hardy

Strategic plans are like dust bunnies. They have a cute name but are an annoying reminder that there is something else we should be doing. They're amassed from the fur, fluff, and fuzz floating around and tend to reproduce in dark corners. Strategic plans are often the end goal of a long process with at least a meeting or two scheduled along the way.

Strategic planning meetings can be great but have limitations. Done well, they...

  • Get everyone on the same basis of understanding around the problem to be solved
  • Lay the foundation for some near-term decisions the leadership team will ultimately have final say on
  • Energize a team in a rut

Sadly, the initial interest and excitement generated during the meeting can flip to disappointment quickly after. The problem usually isn't in the meeting itself, it's the follow through. To avoid frustration and reduce the risk of long-term eye-rolling, there are two choices.

  1. Plan, schedule, and market the meeting as a team building exercise. Then when good strategic thinking happens and written down in the minutes, the team is delighted.
  2. Build follow through into the process at the beginning. Schedule a least post-meeting sessions to bring closure to the plan and, more importantly, get a few (2-3) of the priority actions rolling.  Then, get a meeting on the calendar for one year out as a reminder to all that the plan will be revisited, progress reviewed, and actions refined for the next year.

3 tips for experiential board meetings

We look forward to board meetings like we do putting gas in the car. Getting together is obviously critical in order to run but you know you're going to bump into some questionable characters and afterwards have an intense desire to wash your hands.

Who would look forward to prepping for weeks in advance to entertain an bunch of well-meaning but ultimately bored and distracted know-it-alls? In the non-profit world, boards provide strategic guidance, raise funds, and make connections. In the for-profit world, it's pretty much the same-- except that a many are actually paid to be there.  So that helps, I guess.

Either way, the issue we face when preparing for and engaging our boards is an issue of disconnected judgement. The organization's mission is clear. The board's purpose is clear. Unfortunately though, they're together so infrequently and rarely ever during a normal day that both sides lack sufficient understanding to really help each other help the organization.

What to do?

Commit to at least one experiential portion during the annual or semi-annual meeting. These sessions should be...

Hippo  by Martin Pool

Hippo by Martin Pool

  • At least 1/2 a day (4 hours) with a bit of time at the end to talk casually about what they did or saw
  • Mimic normal day-to-day challenges to the greatest degree possible.  Obviously, most staff or patients or tourists or clients will behave differently when there is someone unfamiliar lurking about. Even so, get the board involved with whatever you develop and deliver at the most fundamental level.
  • Split board members up (so that they don't just talk to each other) and pair them with your most passionate staff.  Focus on pairing board members with sparky, interesting people who embody the mission. With this approach, you might not pick your highest performers or even someone doing everything by the book. However, the benefit is that the board member will be exposed to an impassioned person who will naturally seize that opportunity to reinforce why the work is so important. They'll also see the strengths, weaknesses, and risks up close.