Off-Sites That Work II

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AT THE MEETING – This is the second and final installment. (You’ll find Part I, “Preparing for the Meeting,” in our January issue.)


Structuring an off-site isn’t the same as staging it. Unlike, say, board meetings, which can be as formal and stylized as Kabuki theater, strategic off-sites should be designed to induce genuine engagement, not ritualistic agreement. The issues are too important to be glossed over. Rich Products launched a recent company off-site with a single piece of paper that read, “When friends argue, truth happens.” To help the truth along, the meeting designer must pay attention to the quality of the conversation and the momentum of the discussion.

The quality of the conversation. Executives, regardless of their experience and professionalism, are influenced not only by rational data but also by underlying political and emotional factors. Managing those invisible currents is critical if you want to make real progress. At the outset, we advise the meeting owner to downplay his authority. Expressing a strong opinion early in a discussion is the fastest way to shut down the conversation. The more important the subject being considered, the greater the need for patience. The leader may, at times, have to break a logjam in the conversation, but if people expect the boss to wrap up every discussion with a final decision, they will merely tee up critical issues and wait to be told the answers.

It’s important to understand the subtext of any issue up for discussion and its broad ramifications for the future of particular functions and individuals’ careers. That’s why the card sort exercise worked so well at Experian: When opinions are presented as data, as opposed to one person’s likes or dislikes, topics are depersonalized and participants are better able to steer through political minefields safely. (For another exercise that encourages candor and helps break down hierarchy, see the sidebar “Getting Past the Politics.”)

Politics isn’t the only barrier to high-quality strategic discussions; the difficulty of moving from data to analysis can be equally problematic. As anyone who’s been anesthetized by a hundred PowerPoint slides at a strategy off-site can testify, too many companies wrongly believe that strategy conversations follow naturally from copious data. Having the right data is crucial, of course—that’s why the premeeting work is essential—but raw data alone aren’t enough. The meeting leader needs a process to move the conversation along toward the objectives. He might rely on breakout exercises, for instance, designed to cut through analysis paralysis. And there are myriad other, perhaps less-familiar, techniques.

USERS, a unit of Fiserv that provides services and technology to credit unions, employed a gambling metaphor to stimulate thinking about where revenues were likely to come from in the next year. The nine members of the executive team were asked to place poker chips on betting grids bearing various potential sources of revenue for the major product lines: existing customers, new customers, acquisitions, and the like. Using chips in various denominations that totaled the company’s revenue target for the coming year, each participant placed his or her bets privately, in order not to influence the others.

The results were then tabulated to determine the low, the high, the mean, and the standard deviations of the predictions for each revenue source. Where there was nearly unanimous agreement, the executives wasted little time in conversation. But where there were outliers or there was significant disagreement, team members defended their choices and presented counterarguments. The conversation was animated, even impassioned at times, but not rancorous, and the team covered a lot of ground efficiently and thoroughly. When people placed their individual bets again, the chips fell more uniformly, and a significant number migrated to a previous outlier, thanks to a persuasive argument by its backer.

“I was skeptical that the exercise was too simplistic,” says USERS’ president, John Schooler. “But its simplicity turned out to be the beauty of it. It helped us reach an extraordinary level of consensus on what the business should look like in a year and gave us a macro number that we could use as a springboard for getting to the details of how we were going to grow.”

The top management team at Monster sped up the conversation by using a different group exercise. The meeting’s leader put up all 142 pages of the premeeting fact book on the wall of a converted barn, in the form of a mosaic. Team members placed green Post-its on the pages they agreed with, red Post-its where they disagreed, yellow Post-its where more data were required, and colored dots to indicate low or high importance. Instead of wallowing in data and hundreds of PowerPoint slides, the executives moved quickly into a discussion of the issues of highest importance with the most disagreement, guided by the vivid visual evidence.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t so much assimilating data as making sure it doesn’t limit your thinking. When, for example, Monster found itself facing new, aggressive competitors and noticed cash-rich Google looming on the horizon, its executives recognized that they had to prepare for a changed world. To bring structure to a potentially limitless conversation about possible futures, Monster’s executives employed a technique called war-gaming—a refinement of scenario planning that plots competitors’ likely moves and countermoves, given specific changes in the strategic environment.

War-gaming requires executives to question basic assumptions and construct stories that accommodate factors absent in traditional business forecasting: radical discontinuities in markets, complex sequences of events, and qualitative as well as quantitative perspectives. The best results come from considering the most extreme scenarios. Working from the current state to the extremes, Monster’s executives engaged in valuable discussion about the intermediate points. Having pushed the envelope of what could happen, they were better able to think through the entire range of possibilities and avoid unfocused and unconnected speculation. By compelling team members to spin scenarios that were credible but not necessarily obvious, Monster’s war-gaming exercise generated an extremely high-quality strategy conversation leading to initiatives that reflected a more sophisticated understanding of the company’s competitors.

A final note: Be prepared to inject the time frame into the discussion. “Long-term” can mean ten years to one executive, ten quarters to another. Because people’s natural time horizons differ, any topic—a decision, a direction, the impact of competition—needs to be qualified by the time frame established in the premeeting work.

The momentum of the discussion. Discussions, especially animated ones, tend to take nonlinear paths, jumping from one topic to the next. It’s the responsibility of the meeting owner to stick to the agenda using the predetermined frameworks, exercises, and breakout sessions to keep the conversation on course.

Meeting designers can also help propel the off-site forward by continuing to quantify opinions during the session through various forms of voting, both public (like the Post-it exercise) and private—such as an anonymous keypad-voting system we used with Maritz, a marketing services firm. After a review of customer survey and market-place data, participants were asked to vote anonymously, on a scale of one to ten, on how well the company responds to customers. People on the front lines, who talk daily with customers and bear the brunt of their complaints, scored the company lower; the tech people, satisfied that they had world-class technology to service customers, scored the firm much higher. As the executives from each of those functions saw the differences and jointly addressed them, they began to arrive at a common view.

The purpose of voting and similar exercises for quantifying opinion is not to enforce unanimity or even majority rule. It is to push the conversation forward and ensure that the issues, no matter how contentious, get the thorough airing they deserve.

The meeting designer is also responsible for embedding decision points into the structure of the meeting—being careful that not all of the decisions reached end up merely reflecting the CEO’s preordained conclusions. Investing hours in a passionate discussion without reaching a conclusion can dissipate the energy needed to carry on the work. If a particular strategy conversation has evoked the passion and engagement it should, closing that discussion is all the more important. Often, closure is best achieved iteratively, as USERS did by following up the poker chip exercise with discussion and another round of betting. Successive exercises or votes may even be taken weeks apart in subsequent meetings after participants have had time to digest the arguments or gather more data.

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