Eric de Groot is a well known and respected meeting designer at MindMeeting and co-author of Into the Heart of Meetings (our favorite book on Meeting Design).
In this article he explains what strategic meetings are and what challenges they bring.
"My profession is meeting designer so I regularly hear my clients talk about meetings they consider strategic. The reasons why they get labelled that way may vary and are sometimes unclear. For ‘strategic’ is a broad notion. It is up to us as designers to provide clarity. I distinguish three different types of strategic meetings and the first step is to uncover which of the three we are looking at. Below you find their characteristics, with some design-related observations.
Type 1: An internal meeting, hammering out or adjusting the strategy. The participants are usually several layers of top management, the internal strategists and, of course, the Management Board. From my designer perspective, the main question to ask is whether the meeting requires any information or insights from the people on the ‘shop floor’. This happens more often than you would initially expect. If so, this input becomes part of the design process, normally in the preparation stage. Next, the meeting will need to engage participants actively, offering a lot of interaction: getting participants to work on specific tasks or questions, encouraging them to colour outside the pre-established lines and listening to one another very carefully. Conversations may go all over the place, without losing the real world out of sight, though. The final stage of the programme needs to produce reflections and conclusions. This is when participants give the final meaning to the thoughts developed. At the end, the Board tells everyone sharply how and when decisions will be made and about what (and possibly about what not!).
In Type 1, it is common for the Board to have so much to share that the meeting starts to resemble Type 2. This goes at the expense of a healthy dialogue between participants and the result is poor outcomes. A good Type 1 strategic meeting features much horizontal conversation and little vertical information sharing. Board members demonstrate a broad understanding of relevant issues and a helicopter view. They perform efficiently and once they are done, they essentially listen.
Type 2: A meeting that serves the purpose of disseminating the strategy internally. This type targets the people who need to execute the strategy. As a designer, the one thing you need to know very precisely is: who are the participants? This is because turning a strategy into operations means two totally different things for people on the floor over and against higher management echelons. The first group needs to zoom in on the essential question: “What do I need to do?” While for the second, that question is: “Where is my support needed the most?”
Does the client have the courage to state boldly what the strategy - which by definition addresses the long-term – boils down to practically, in day-to-day life? If so, the effectiveness of Type 2 shoots up. If, in addition, they are capable of engaging the participants with their vision, the meeting is bound to achieve blockbuster success. As a designer, it puts me in the position to obtain the max.
Type 3: A crucial meeting, involving external stakeholders like clients, partners, experts, etc.
It is strategic because it plays an essential role in carrying out the strategy. In fact, strategy includes the way organizations ‘move’ in the world outside in order to achieve its goals. Almost inevitably, that includes holding meetings. Meetings that need to succeed for the strategy to succeed are often labeled strategic. The design of this type requires maximum clarity and specificity for the goals in the strategy. How will the client’s meeting goals contribute to achieving the strategy? Have these goals been formulated in SMART terms? Who will do what after the meeting, as a result of the meeting? How will we measure success?
The clearer the (formulation of) the goals, the greater the chance the meeting will become a success. Any hesitation or ambiguity on the goals translates straight away into poorer meeting outcomes.
Clients struggle hardest with Type 1. The model of having a good conversation works for relatively small groups, but how to do this effectively in the presence of the entire group of top managers is a long shot. In general, I observe that clients try to pull it off creating a mix: they offer a bit of conversation, add a dash of information and don’t forget a sound dose of marketing the strategy. The main reason for this is that clients have difficulty imagining how you can meaningfully co-create the strategy with a large group of people. In fact, that is exactly why you need a professional like a meeting designer. For meeting designers do know how to do this. It is their job!
Whenever a poorly designed type 1 meeting produces meagre outcomes, the Board’s gut reaction tends to be: “Participants needed more information to produce sound results.” As a result, in the next meeting, they include even more one-way, top-down communications, providing that additional information. That creates a costly vicious circle, with the meeting adding little value, other than having a good time together and listening attentively to the Board’s ideas. Sure, in this scenario, the Board feels heard and important, but the results are minimal. That is bad news for the organization, but good news for us, the meeting designers. It means work to do!"
Eric de Groot