You spend a huge amount of time in meetings; make it time well spent. I’m in the midst of a series on better meetings. I started with how to split different topics into weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings. Then I dove in with detailed instructions on running great weekly and monthly meetings. Today, I’m onto the quarterly meetings—what I call the Strategic Directions meetings.
Strategic Directions Meetings
I’m not fussed about exactly how often you do it, but between 2 and 6 times per year, your leadership team needs to lift your eyes to the horizon and re-evaluate your strategy. This should be a long meeting that provides ample time to meander. For simplicity, I’ll assume it’s a quarterly full-day format. (I often pair this day with one on team effectiveness, which makes a nice two-day offsite with a dinner in between.)
This meeting should have a very different feel from the weekly meetings (where you’re managing the operations) or the monthly meeting (where you’re improving the operations). The Strategic Directions meeting is more about where you’re going and less about your progress in getting there.
The objectives of your quarterly Strategic Directions meetings should be:
- highlight changes in the external environment and their potential impact on your organization;
- monitor longer-term performance indicators and proactively identify issues and opportunities;
- generate new insights about how to achieve your vision and/or goals; and
- develop action plans for issues requiring further investigation.
Preparing for Success
As with the monthly Business Builder meeting, it’s critical to prepare for the Strategic Directions meeting so that the time in the meeting is focused on high value discussions. In contrast to the Business Builder meeting, the quarterly meeting is less about decisions and actions and more about expanding the team’s thinking. To that end, pre-reads should be thought provoking, often emphasizing information from external sources or internal metrics that aren’t examined frequently. Here’s one I wrote for HRB.org that might be of interest. The Status Quo is Risky Too.
Mindset Shifter (30-60 minutes)
Where possible, start the meeting by blowing people’s minds. Find something fascinating, inspiring, or perspective altering that will shake them up and change the tone of the conversation*. TED talks, futurists, articles about disruptors, customer panels, it doesn’t matter how you do it, but you want to create a sense that the status quo might not be good enough. If you use consultants, they are a great source of interesting white papers as brain food.
External Environment (60 minutes)
Once everyone is sitting up and paying attention, use an interactive exercise to solicit different perspectives on what’s going on in the outside world. Cover off topics such as societal shifts, industry issues, consumer demands, technological advances, political, economic, or regulatory changes, etc. Do a complete version at least once a year and then zero-in on a couple of areas in your other Strategic Directions meetings.
To keep the ideas flowing, don’t stop and assess the impact of each trend. Instead, get a rapid-fire, brainstorming feeling going where the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible.
Leading Indicators (30 minutes)
Once you’ve assessed the external environment, you can turn your attention to your business. Where possible, evaluate leading indicators of the business’ health. Have your margins been declining? Is your supply chain performance worrisome? How well are you driving organic growth? What are customers saying about you? Ultimately, you’re trying to determine whether your current trajectory is sustainable and whether it’s steep enough.
Insights and Imperatives (120 minutes)
Now you need to determine which of the issues are significant enough to cause you to change your strategy. You’ve got all the fodder you need for a SWOT. Ask each team member to select the external trends they think create the greatest: 1) opportunities or; 2) threats and the internal issues that are the greatest; 3) strengths; and 4) weaknesses.
Once you’ve charted everyone’s ideas, ask the question “how does our strategy need to change based on our current trajectory and the changes in our environment?” The goal is to come up with new insights and the translate those into imperatives for your business. An example would be: “We’re losing market share in our high priced products to a new competitor. We can’t afford to lose those high margin products.”
Strategic Initiatives (120 minutes)
Once you are clear on the imperatives (e.g., defend the high end), then you can start thinking about activities, projects, and plans to move the needle. The idea is not to build a full-fledged plan in the room (you don’t have the information you need). You just want to generate ideas, define them, and identify a champion to do further research and come back to you with a recommendation. You will likely generate many more ideas than you can reasonably do, so be sure to winnow the initial list down before leaving the room.
Meeting Wrap-up (30 minutes)
If you’ve read the whole series, you’re noticing a theme. I’m obsessed with good meeting wrap up. That’s especially important in the Strategic Directions meetings because the conversation can cover a lot more ground and be much less tangible. Before you run out of time, review and summarize the action items, owners, and follow-up plan.
The communication out of the Strategic Directions meeting is particularly important, so get aligned on what is ready to be shared and what isn’t and then come up with a plan for how you’ll get the message out.
*Just for fun, I googled “mind blowing ideas that will change the way we….” I got the following results on the first page.
I learned a lot. Including the fact that there is no agreement on whether it’s “mind blowing,” “mind-blowing,” or “mindblowing.”