Dedicated in-person strategic ‘away-day’ meetings have long been a regular event in the diary for Board members or senior staff at many organisations. Sadly, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has made such meetings difficult over the last year, so leaders have had to get used to doing things virtually. If you’re planning to hold a virtual strategy meeting soon, here are some suggested ‘must-do’s, which I hope might be helpful to you.
In-person strategy meetings can’t really be beaten for allowing their natural conversation flow and easier team atmosphere, but leaders can still achieve effective strategic conversations online. And we should remember too that online meetings do offer some obvious advantages like zero travel costs for participants. So, in future, organisations are very likely to use a combination of both in-person and online meetings for their strategy-making and, indeed, more individual meetings are likely to be hybrid in-style, where participants are split between some attending in-person and some remotely online.
For virtual strategy meetings to work well, managers need to adapt, of course, to the different nature of online conversation. But, at the same time, it’s also worth trying to adapt in some ways to how strategy itself is best handled to suit today’s more uncertain, fast-moving and complex world.
Firstly, strategy nowadays is best treated less as a ‘multi-year’, detailed plan and more as a broad ‘strategic framework’ that can guide and steer an organisation forward flexibly – with such a framework typically including long-term purpose, mission, key company values/beliefs, and a few specific, longer-term goals. Secondly, leaders can then use such a framework to focus on choosing and managing an ‘agile’ cycle of short-term (I suggest six-monthly) actions, experiments and projects, seeking rapid feedback from the marketplace before the next period. Thirdly, strategy nowadays typically needs to put less emphasis on numbers and a bit more on exploring ‘soft’ data e.g. qualitative feedback from customers, connections between events, trends, implications of events, and, of course, creative ideas.
Also, strategy – to encourage rich thinking and combat individual bias – needs not only a decent level of ‘cognitive diversity’ in the senior team (boardroom) but also a good level of ‘collective intelligence’ from extensive involvement of many stakeholders. Indeed, strategy today can often be about finding opportunities across an organisation’s wider marketplace (‘ecosystem’) and working collaboratively with other organisations. This more ‘open’, participatory approach to strategy also, of course, makes wider ‘buy-in’ and support for defined strategy much easier.
Another vital point is that, given today’s fast-moving world, strategy is no longer something that a Board or senior team should look at just once a year or occasionally. Instead, strategy needs to be seen as an active, ongoing process, ideally with your top team setting some dedicated time for an area of strategic discusion at every regular meeting (alongside operational or routine governance topics) – supported in-between, of course, by required research, detailed thinking, further analysis, planning or other tasks by various colleagues.
So, what are some good tips for running a virtual strategy meeting? Well, the foundation of such a meeting remains similar to what is best for an effective in-person meeting, including: clear objectives, a well-structured agenda, a relevant group of attendees, advance reading, and good facilitation. But there are several practices specific to virtual meetings that I’d recommend, including the following:
- Keep virtual strategy meetings short: Holding strategic discussions online can, of course, be tiring. So, best in your strategy process to hold a few more, separate meetings compared to traditional in-person planning and also try and keep each individual meeting to no longer than about 3-4 hours maximum (or half a day). If your Board is used to an annual one (or two) day ‘awayday’, best instead to divide that up into a set of short meetings over one or two weeks. An overall work plan needs, of course, to be prepared across the meetings and the supporting tasks in-between. Don’t be too rigid, though, as strategy is heavily an iterative process, where ideas or views can evolve or change along the way.
2. Ensure all attendees are familiar with the technology ahead of time: Although traditional conference ‘dial-ins’ are still possible, the expected standard nowadays is to use a modern video conferencing tool (like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GotoMeeting, Slack, or Webex), as they can make people feel like they’re all at the ‘same meeting’. But an absolute ‘must’ is to ensure all participants try out the technology before the meeting and check they are comfortable with the major features. Nothing kills the opening of a meeting like a 10-minute delay because someone can’t connect!
3. Ensure the right size and composition of the group: A common mistake, in my experience, with away-days is that organisations invite too many participants. In a virtual setting it is even more tempting – and easier – to do so! Managing a strategic conversation online is much more challenging, so try to keep numbers down to a minimum – no more than about 8 or 9 people if you want to really ensure everyone is going to be fully engaged. And, of course, make sure those are the right people best suited to the purpose of the meeting in question: if someone is only needed really for a specific part of the agenda, get them to join later for that item only.
4. Create a team feeling from the start, if not beforehand: As with any group endeavour, it’s very helpful if the people know each other to some extent, as this will encourage trust and greater openness. Where participants don’t know each other – or they come together only infrequently – be sure to set aside a little time at the very start for some informal ‘social’ chat or have the facilitator use a suitable ‘ice-breaker’ technique. After this informal exchange, the facilitator should turn to confirming the overall aims and agenda of the meeting and check everyone is clear and allow for any queries to be answered: this step helps for everyone to see themselves as a group that has a joint task to work on.
5. Appoint a facilitator and assign any other roles: A virtual strategy meeting needs a suitably competent person to act as facilitator – ideally an independent, external professional, especially if the meeting is going to run for several hours or involve a lot of creative thinking or open discussion (a virtual meeting is much more challenging than an in-person meeting for a CEO or Chair to both facilitate and contribute input to). For any individual segment in a meeting, although it’s possible, best to avoid having two co-facilitators, so there is no confusion. Beyond the facilitation task, decide who – if not the facilitator – is to handle tasks around the technology, for example monitoring the chat function, splitting participants into break-out groups, handling any voting, and resolving any technical issues that occur.
6. Minimise presentations, maximise discussion: The only thing worse than a long presentation in-person is a long presentation during a virtual meeting! So, circulate detailed or long documents for participants to read ahead of the meeting. Ensure all papers are well-structured and sections and paragraphs precisely numbered/labelled so that participants can all locate a particular section quickly on the day, if needed (shared document tools or virtual portals e.g. Sharepoint and Google-Docs can be very helpful here). If someone does need to present, limit to a few pages only and use screen-sharing to show the material, so everyone can easily follow along.
7. Make sure all faces are clearly visible: To get close to the feel of an in-person meeting, it is best if the faces of everyone participating can be seen altogether on-screen (and throughout all sessions). The facilitator also needs this in order to be able to maintain a roving eye across everyone and ‘control’ discussion. To help everyone’s visibility, ensure all participants have enough light on them, get everyone to sit close to their webcam and ask them to look into the camera lens when speaking (this helps enhance eye contact and enables participants to read each other’s facial expressions better). Also, ask everyone to keep their on-screen backgrounds free from distractions and movement as much as possible at all times.
8. Define some basic rules of meeting etiquette: Like any away-day, there’s a need for some basic rules of suitable behaviour. Typical ones used for an in-person meeting still apply – for example, don’t be rude or offensive, don’t interrupt others until they have made their point, make points succinctly, and return from breaks on time. Others need to be more specific to virtual meetings – including, typically: ”mute’ when not speaking, stay on-video throughout, ‘raise hand’ if want to speak and wait for the facilitator, and how the facilitator may ‘cut-off’ a person if they act unreasonably!
9. Use well-planned sessions and a facilitation style that balances engagement with control: As it’s not easy in a virtual setting for a facilitator to redesign a meeting ‘on the fly’, all agenda sessions should be carefully planned ahead and precise time-slots set. Try and vary the format, interaction approach and content style of on-screen materials across segment sessions, so things don’t get boring. On the day, in each agenda segment, the facilitator should at the start ensure all are clear on what is intended and during discussion he/she should regularly summarise points made. During all sessions the facilitator should also keep a constant eye across all participants to check everyone looks engaged. To reinforce everyone’s engagement, a good approach is for the facilitator to ‘call-out’ each person in turn to give their view before a decision is finalised, rather than have a ‘free for all’. To balance the control need, a facilitation style that is collegiate as well as warm and frendly is normally best online.
10. Use break-out groups and other technology tools to boost engagement: To further help to keep up participants’ interest and engagement, be sure to make good use of some of the interactive tools that most video conference platforms come with. In particular, I’d recommend some use of small, virtual ‘break-out’ groups – best to divide up participants in advance (less distruption on the day), give a precise question or issue to discuss, and don’t let them run on too long). Another, very useful tool is the ‘chat function’ whereby participants can send short messages either to the whole group or directly to the facilitator: this tool can be helpful, for example, to support a brainstorming session. Examples of other tools include virtual white-boards and voting buttons, but I would advise not using too many different interactive tools, as more complexity risks confusing some participants, technical glitches or extra delay.
11. Take frequent breaks: Because sitting and concentrating in front of a screen for any length of time is physically demanding, be sure to divide up your meeting with regular breaks. I’d recommend at least a 10-minute ‘pit-stop’ break every 60-75 minutes or so and a longer (45-60 minute) break after two and a half hours. Encourage people at each break to get up out of their chair and have a stretch or walk around the room.
12. In hybrid meetings, give extra attention to the remote participants: If your meeting has some people together in a conference room and some attending virtually, the facilitator should stay a bit more mindful about the remote individuals, to ensure they feel equally involved. Some specific tactics I would suggest: firstly, at the very start of the meeting when everyone gives some initial remarks and then each time there is a ’round-robin’ sharing of views as a group, go first to the remote participants; secondly, the facilitator should maintain a constant, sweeping eye on both groups of participants, particularly calling out any remote person who looks distracted or concerned to speak; thirdly, emphasize to all participants that they should follow the meeting etiquette of raising their hand to the facilitator if they want to speak (rather than blurt out or interrupt a colleague speaking); and fourthly, the meeting should, of course, try and avoid any long presentations or speeches where a person in the conference room makes heavy use of a traditional flipchart or other off-line materials: far better for participants to view on their laptop screens together electronic documents that have been pre-circulated (using a suitable document sharing tool or portal).
Written by Mike P. Owen, CEO & Principal Consultant at The Owen Morris Partnership – a consultancy practice based in the centre of the UK specialising in strategic and management facilitation. If you have a project we can help with, please do not hesitate to contact us at: email@example.com or telephone us at the office (00 44 1886 881092).
Above is copyright of Owen Morris Partnership, 2021.