Making good strategic decisions is a challenging exercise. The quality of the decisions we make depends in part upon the quality of the information available when making the decision. It also depends upon the degree to which we evaluate, consider and pay attention to that information. It would be easy to think that the quality of information would go up in an online meeting setting (after all, the internet is right there at your finger tips). For a variety of reasons, it doesn’t quite work this way.
In last week’s article, we explored a number of building blocks of meetings. Reading across the list, we can synthesize and summarize them as representing three essential stages of decision: information exploration, option generation and decision finalization. This week, we explore the process of information generation in more detail: figuring out what we know—and can know—to support a decision.
One of the challenges in making strategic decisions is injecting information into the process. Even for significant and critical decisions, there can often be a tendency to limit consideration to the information “already in the room.” That often means relying on the knowledge that already exists with the meeting participants.
The most significant implication of this is that strategic decisions tend to range into the unknown, uncertain and complex. That means that oftentimes there is not a great deal known (and sometimes there is not a great deal knowable) about significant factors that influence the decision. Probabilities, consequences and implications are frequently unclear. Cause and effect linkages of what might happen and how circumstances could play out aren’t known (and in some instances are too complex and dynamic to even be predicted).
What complexity of circumstances does is render a lot of known information as guesses, hypotheses and rough analogies to similar situations. If the strategic decision being faced is unique and outside of the realm of participant experience, this is even more challenging. Our current pandemic is a good illustration of this: we have not seen a global outbreak of infectious disease on this scale in more than a century. The consequences is that our analogies are poor and inadequate, and our expertise is limited.
Another challenge of managing with just the information available in the room is how groups actually apply it. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier article, one of the expected benefits of groups is their diversity of insight, experience and expertise. The more diverse and varied the group, the greater the perspectives and therefore theoretically the greater quality of decisions that result. The key word in that last sentence is “theoretically.” For all that diversity is theoretically valued and sought, when people come together they actually tend to not do a very good job of leveraging that diversity.
The way that groups approach situations where there is diverse expertise runs exactly contrary to expectations. Rather than working to understand the differences and viewpoints that exist around the table, groups instead look for common ground. To a certain extent, this is an essential by-product of human relations: we like people who are like us. That means that our natural tendency is to focus on what we have in common with others, rather than exploring and highlighting our differences.
The consequence is that diverse groups focus on the lowest common denominator. They look for opinions that are common, and information that is known to all. Diverse viewpoints and alternative perspectives are often actively discouraged. Rather than being seen as offering valuable insight, contrary views can be dismissed as problematic, difficult, argumentative or unhelpful. Moreover, the tendency is to attach those labels to the person offering the views, rather than simply labelling the information being provided that way. People learn—often very quickly—not to rock the boat or disagree to vehemently. In online groups where the tendency is to minimize discussion and exploration, and maximize speed towards resolution, this is even more problematic.
If what we are seeking is better decisions, and those decisions are predicated on having better information, we need to work to counter both of these tendencies. We need strategies to encourage our meeting participants to open up and seek and value new information and insights. We also need to encourage diverse participants to explore and appreciate differences in viewpoints, and to invite contrary perspectives and observations into the discussion. In particular, we need strategies of being able to do this in online, virtual conversations.
Given that these are two separate challenges, we’ll deal with them as such, and then explore how they might combine together into a virtual meeting approach that could work.
Expanding the search for information is an interesting challenge. As we’ve already identified, first there needs to be an interest in doing so. Separately, we need a strategy to bring the information into the room in a way that is effective for the group. Most importantly, we need the group to be able to explore that information, to sift through its meaning, and to make sense of what it has to offer to their current decision making circumstances.
Bringing information into the room should, at least in theory, be relatively easy. Identify the information gaps, go collect meaningful and relevant insights, and then report back. In working to design effective meetings, however, that isn’t necessarily quite so easy. To have an impact on the decision making process, information needs to be available, it has to be credible and it needs to be digestible by the participants. They need to be able to make sense of the information, and do something meaningful with it.
There are a few different strategies for bringing new insights into the meeting room. One, obviously, is that the facilitator simply goes out, does the research, identifies what is meaningful and useful, and reports back. Certainly, I’ve done this before, and inevitably it is something I will likely do again. But for the most part, it’s a strategy that I tend to avoid. The risk—and it is a significant one at the best of times—is that this puts the facilitator in even more of an expert guidance role. The group is abdicating a great deal of influence and authority in the decision to the facilitator. My tendency is to limit this occurring to those instances where I have genuine expertise and insight to offer.
Another alternative is to have participants themselves conduct further research. This certainly creates a strong sense of ownership within the group to what is presented and discussed. It also puts a significant onus for the work on to the meeting participants to get done. That can be valuable in building commitment to the results of the decision making process. It is also contingent on the availability, aptitude and research competence of the decision maker.
A third strategy is to bring the expertise into the room directly. This comes in a couple of different forms, although most usually it is through identifying and securing the participation of a subject matter expert. Through a combination of presentation, discussion and questioning, new insights and understanding is ideally gained. This can also be accomplished more indirectly through the use of videos and published presentations. It can even include bringing in primary sources, whether articles, research or books. All of this makes authorship—and associated credibility—of the information clear, and allows participants more influence in making their own meaning of the sources that are available.
It is important to again acknowledge influence here. The facilitator is often the one to identify the subject matter expert or to secure the primary sources. They may guide the questioning of the expert in the room, and will almost certainly lead the discussion and exploration of what that information means. It is unavoidable that you will have significant opportunities to shape the exploration of the decision. What is important is recognizing that this is true, and attempting to be transparent as possible about it.
Exploration of meaning is a second and separate stage of the process of information gathering. It is a next order of meaning, in that the insights result from the work of participants and the discussion of the group. It is insight that is generated in the room, based upon what participants know and the insights and information that they gain through the decision journey.
It is in exploring insights and generating meaning that online meetings can—done well—actual out-perform their in-person counterparts. Very often, this process is of necessity compressed in time—information gathering, meaning making and actual decision are done in real time, at the same time, because we have already gone to the expense of bringing everyone together. Subject matter experts can be expensive and in demand, and so the tendency is to make use of them while you have them; discussion, questions and insight gets compressed into a single conversation.
You don’t have to do it this way when you are facilitating meetings online. You have the opportunity to build in time for reflection. You can take pauses between meeting stages to gather information, to consider different viewpoints and to let ideas soak in and coalesce into new insights.
Working with a subject matter expert, for example, might be a multi-stage discussion. You could start the group off with relevant readings: articles, reports or book chapters that will provide grounding and background for what the expert will discuss. Follow that up with a presentation, and an immediate question-and-answer session to clarify meaning and address specific points of understanding. Build in a follow-on discussion with the group later in the day—or on a subsequent day—to explore what individual perspectives were gained, and not just where there is common ground but where there are differences. Shape that discussion to identify follow-on questions that the group would like to pose to the subject matter expert, and plan a follow-up discussion to explore them and gain additional insights. Conduct a final discussion with the group to explore the perspectives gained, the understanding that has developed, the differences in viewpoint that have emerged or remain unresolved, and the tensions and uncertainties that exist in moving towards a decision.
On the surface, this might sound excessively structured and formal. To some degree, perhaps, it is—if only because we are separating and giving explicit recognition to each stage and step of the process. More importantly, we are separating each step in time, and we are doing so deliberately. The benefit of doing this is that it provides time for participants to review, reflect and contemplate. It allows their unconscious minds to noodle and ponder in between conversations. What that often leads to is better insights and understanding, and a greater number of insights generated from a greater variety of perspectives. In other words, we are generating richer, deeper and broader perspectives than one in-person meeting can often allow.
The irony of this approach is that it is also arguably faster and more cost effective. While the elapsed time is longer, the actual time spent in discussion will be similar or even slightly less. What is gone, however, is the expense of bringing everyone physically together for a single session to have one intense conversation with a great deal riding on it. Instead, there are multiple opportunities to explore, evaluate and to ensure broad participation from everyone involved.
What is important to recognize here is that the process of developing information and insight is very similar to more traditional meeting structures. We are still talking about bringing articles, experts, presentations and reports into the room, often in a way that feels very similar to how we might do so in-person. What’s different is the process of exploring, sifting through and asking questions about the ideas and material, and exploring its relevance to the conversation at hand. While it might be inefficient to allow for consideration and contemplation in a face-to-face session, periodic online discussions make that not just possible but also cost effective. Even better, shorter and more frequent discussions actually help with managing and maintaining attention of participants in a way that marathon meetings cannot hope to replicate.