Strategy Talk: How to organize strategy meetings that work*

Reading time: 6 Minutes

11 Nov
11/11/2015
Foto del profilo di Markus Venzin

by Markus Venzin

SDA Professor of Strategic and Entrepreneurial Management

On a scale from 1 (not at all) to 10 (very much), how satisfied are you with your strategy meetings?

My feeling is that most managers are reasonably good at running meetings that are concerned with operational, short-term issues. But when they are called to organize a strategy workshop, many of them miserably fail.

There are of course many different types of strategy workshops, each of which can be subject to different types of problem. Here is a selection of them:

  • Visioning exercise: a group (often large and diverse) meets and discusses strategy - often in broad terms (e.g. what should our company be in 5 years’ time?)
  • Formal an annual planning meetings: such meetings are part of the strategic planning process, e.g. where a business unit or division presents its proposed strategy to the corporate center;
  • Ad-hoc strategy meetings: these are meetings to decide on a strategic response to a specific issue (e.g., market entry strategy of division A to country B) --- often a follow up to a "deep-dive" investigation by a task force;
  • Strategy-SmallBoard meetings: in these meetings a firm seeks approval for the corporate strategic plan or a specific strategic decision and investment (e.g. acquisition  of company A)

But whatever the type of meeting and however clear their objectives are, difficulties seem to arise in the process of making them purposeful and effective.

Solving strategy workshop flaws

Let’s look at the FHCs (Frequently Heard Complaints) about strategy workshops that start out as visioning exercises and some ideas to address them:

  • FHC #1:We start the workshop with the intention to talk about strategic issues, but soon discuss operational issues
    Suggestion: Separate strategy meetings from operational meetings by time and space. It is very hard to switch to issues that are not urgent but have a high impact if you are pressured by day-to-day issues.
  • FHC #2: “We tried to tackle too many issues
    Suggestion: concentrate on a few “must-win-battles” that are identified through a visioning exercise (“imagine the company in 5-10 years from now") and prioritized through an urgency/impact matrix.
  • FHC #3: “Our discussions are tainted by political games around slicing the pie
    Suggestion: Make clear that the objective is to enlarge the pie and manage power games by identifying a moderator, assigning individual or group tasks, or by creating conversational rules. Especially conversational rules can change the dynamics of strategy workshops. Such rules can be simple like “be in time” or “turn off your phones” but they may also include “respect individual opinions” or “don’t intimidate others”.
  • FHC #4: “I didn’t understand much of what has been said
    Suggestion: stable teams that frequently meet face-to-face create a common language for strategy. Make a test: write down your 10 most often used key concepts like “relevant market share”, “strategic clients” or “core technology” and ask your management team to define individually what “relevant”, “strategic” and “core” means. The variety of interpretations will most likely surprise you.
  • FHC #5: “We seem to discuss always the same issues
    Suggestion: strategy meetings should be decision-oriented. By distributing pre-readings that are categorized into: “for information”, “for discussion” and “for decision”, everyone knows what is going to happen in the meeting. Too often, “discussions start with a decision” – so make sure to stick with well-prepared and discussed decisions once they are taken.

strategy meeting

  • FHC #6: “We didn’t have enough information to make decisions
    Suggestion: if you still feel that you have not enough information to make a decision, it may be because your management team is composed of too many generalists that are close to “knowing little about everything” and you need some functional specialists that are close to “knowing everything about something”. Also, management team members should involve their teams in preparing the strategy workshop to make sure decisions are based on a broader set of experiences and to facilitate strategy execution.
  • FHC #7: “We just engaged in a brainstorming exercise
    Suggestion: Brainstorming is a creativity methodology that can be applied for 5 to 10 minutes. By inviting to a brainstorming session on the company’s future, you signal that you did not have enough time to properly prepare for it.
  • FHC #8: “Too many people are invited
    Suggestion: Reduce the core strategy team to 5 to 8 people. If your management team is larger, work with sub-groups. The formal, annual strategy process usually involves several teams: a core team that meets weekly (i.e., CEO with direct reports), a management committee of up to 25 people that meets on a quarterly basis (i.e., core team plus managers representing the second dimension of the matrix organization) and a senior management meeting that meets once a year (i.e., top 100 – 200 of the firm).
  • strategy-1FHC #9: “There is little communication between our strategy exercise and the budget as well as our individual goals"
    Suggestion: the broad vision that depicts the company in its markets in 5 – 10 years from now should be translated into 3 year financial plans before the budgeting process. These mid-term plans build the basis for next years’ financial ambitions which in turn are used to construct individual goals and bonus schemes.
  • FHC #10: “The next steps are not clear
    Suggestion: Make sure somebody is taking notes and codifying the workshop results. Ideally, decisions are taken during the workshops, but there will be most likely some issues that need further analysis. As a closing exercise of the workshop, create a strategy project portfolio with project leaders, goals and timelines. Fix another strategy meeting in 6 to 8 weeks during which decisions are made concerning these issue.

It's all about making good conversations

This is only a selection of complaints that frustrated managers have in mind when leaving strategy meetings. I encourage you to systematically collect feedback after the strategy workshops. That’s how you develop what I call one of the last sources of sustainable competitive advantage: the capability to have good conversations about the future that lead to sound strategic decisions.

*I would like to thank Robert Grant for his thoughts about the main types of strategy conversations

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Quick Test #3: Can subsidiary managers express in a few words what the shared vision of the firm is? Firms that operate across borders find it often more difficult to engage local managers around a shared vision. To create multinationality advantage, the management team at headquarters needs to find ways to co-develop an effective vision, mission and strategy together with the local units or at least to communicate them appropriately. In other words, the multinational firm needs to create vertical alignment (see "Strategy Talk: How to organize strategy meetings that work"). […]

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