When Meetings Aren’t (Completely) Meetings

This series has been longer and slightly more circuitous (or at least more detailed) than I originally anticipated. It started with a thought exercise: How do we have meetings that allow for effective strategic decisions when we can’t bring everyone together in the same room? The reasons for that, of course, may vary: today, it’s a pandemic; tomorrow, it may simply be the result of practical distance. Whether we are as willing to travel as much—or feel the need to—going forward is a significant possibility.

A side question in exploring this was: Is it possible to design a meeting approach remotely that can be more effective than meetings in person? This is where we went down more than a few rabbit holes of exploration. While we value face-to-face interactions because they are allow for more nuanced understandings, the lived reality often falls short. Despite our best intentions, actual meetings aren’t necessarily as awesome as we would like. Distractions abound and outcomes aren’t often as considered and comprehensive as they should be.

An early conclusion in this discussion was that success in facilitating remotely wasn’t simply a product of taking in-person approaches and moving them online. Deconstructing the meeting process—and the way that decisions do and do not occur within it—has led to some interesting and useful discoveries about how to rethink meeting interactions. A significant part of that rethinking involves questioning whether we need to even consider meetings as meetings. At the very least, they may not ultimately involve just one meeting.

Framing the problem as “arriving at a strategic decision” guides us to a different result than “having a meeting.” It forces a re-examination of what we do, why we do it and how we get to an outcome and result that actually looks meaningful. It also redefines the outcome that we think we are working towards. While in the past meetings have occurred, it doesn’t mean that decisions were arrived at; sometimes decisions were simply allowed to happen or unopposed (if only as a result of sheer exhaustion). Getting to a decision is quite potentially a different process.

To explore what this might look like, a case study is quite possibly useful. Imagine you are facilitating a strategic conversation with the executive team of an organization. In response to market and societal shifts, they are seeing changing demands for their services. Their core values have always been an intimate understanding of their customers, built up and sustained through developing deep connections. Respect for tradition has long been held as a core value, and their reputation is the product of long-standing personal relationships between representatives and their clients.

A shift in approach is being advocated by some members of the executive team that would move from in-person to on-line delivery of core services. This includes automating of many currently manual administrative processes, as well as using technology to support customer acquisition, primary sales and core service delivery for most routine transactions. Decision support to guide less-routine transactions is also being considered. This represents a radical shift for the organization in terms of approach, and is one that is not universally supported. There is concern that embracing too much automation too quickly will undermine the reputation and core values of the organization, driving away existing clients while not necessarily attracting new ones.

This is a significant strategic question to explore. It’s not an unusual one in the abstract, although the particulars of each organization will vary. There is no clear cut answer, and there are opportunities and risks associated with making the move, just as there are to maintaining the current status quo. More importantly, though, this is not a binary choice. What is being proposed is one solution, based upon an executive’s—or a consultant’s—interpretation of the problem. A variety of alternative choices exist between “do nothing” and “do everything.” This is one of the reasons why these kinds of decisions are so difficult to successfully address.

If we were to adopt a traditional approach, deliberations around such a question would be dealt with in a two- or three-day strategic retreat. Probably two days, because people are busy. The vagaries of travel schedules would mean that there would be significant pressure to wrap things up by “no later than 3pm” so that people can catch their flights. Add a slightly later start on the first day, a couple of additional important items that the executive wants to address while everyone is together, and the meeting might—if you are lucky—get ten hours of focussed discussion over those two days.

Within that period, the full cycle of the decision process would need to fit: information exploration, option generation and decision finalization. There would be advance work, of course. The sponsoring executive would produce some form of proposal (most likely a PowerPoint presentation, perhaps backed up by a consultant’s report). Related readings would be provided, and perhaps some case studies of other organizations who had undertaken a similar journey. If my experience is any guide, one or two meeting participants might have extensively reviewed the materials, and the vast majority glanced through them on the flight to the meeting.

What might that meeting look like in reality? If we consider the essential building blocks, you would probably wind up with three or four chunks of meeting, neatly divided into the half-days of the planned meeting schedule. The first morning, you would explore the proposal on the table. This might start with a guest speaker to bolster credibility and provide background, build to a presentation by the sponsoring executive, and result in some general discussion of what was presented. For the second afternoon, there would be an exploration of the options available and some more detailed discussion of their implications. The following morning would theoretically be about synthesizing and examining the impacts of the choices, but might pragmatically look more like further exploration of options in response to the influence of different factions within the meeting room. An attempt to wrap up after lunch of the second day might produce a commitment to move forward, but more likely would result in a resolution that “we need more time to look at this.”

The consequence is that another meeting might finally be scheduled in two or three month’s time. Followed by another. And another. What is thoeretically a concrete decision based upon specific choices and options evolves into a more amorphous building of understanding and incremental acceptance of changes. At some point in the future, the organization finds itself with slightly new and different capabilities that have emerged, with potentially no conscious decision having been arrived at to take those actions or make those moves.

Please understand that I am in no way being cynical here. What I have described in the previous paragraphs I have seen unfold in countless organizations amongst innumerable executive teams. Decisions are awkward and difficult, positions are challenging to move, people are complicated and their schedules are intense, and meetings are artificial constructs in time that pretend to force choices that often don’t actually occur. Decision as process becomes on-going exploration, and decision as recognized event never occurs.

So how might we do this differently? And what might different actually look like, if we were to integrate the various ramblings and considerations of the last few weeks? Our first presumption is that we are doing this online. Whether by circumstances or choice, we are not bringing people together to have this conversation. That seems risky all on its own; there is an inherent desire to see people’s faces, to exchange eye contact and see the nods, when taking on decisions of this consequence. But this is the exercise, and this is how we are approaching this conversation.

Secondly, we need to accept that there will not be one single meeting, per se. There will be numerous interactions, and they will be separated in time, space and thought. There isn’t a need to have a single, contiguous conversation. Online, that would be impractical and demanding to even try. But trying to do so actually undermines our purpose and intent.

Third, not all explorations are going to necessarily happen with everyone present. Specifically, there will be aspects of this decision that are explored by the larger group. But there will also be discussions in smaller groups, around specific choices. There will also be a significant amount of personal work done individually. That is an important change to acknowledge, and it’s one that many—particularly at an executive level—are used to doing. For those used to living and thinking in the moment of the meeting, this is going to feel unquestionably like more work.

We are going to work through the same three stages of decision making. In keeping with the explorations to date, we’re probably going to break those up a good deal more than we practically do in meetings. The intent is to get not just to a decision, but to something that is materially better and more considered than what we see in our normal meeting interactions.

We begin with information exploration. This might still start with an invited speaker; perhaps, though, it will include more than one. There are considerations of strategy, of technology, of market demographics and customer expectations as well as of implementation and change management to explore. What this might look like, then, could involve not one but several guest speakers. Clarifying questions can be followed up with a separate discussion a day or two later. Individual participants can be charged with brainstorming what is known and what needs to be known. A group conversation can then meaningfully identify questions to be answered and additional information to be pursued.

Once the landscape has been appropriately mapped and a basis of understanding is arrived at, this might then lead to the stage of option generation. This can include both individual and group discussion of options. Small-group sessions might explore particularly viable alternatives, and then sharing the results with the larger group. Promising options can be further analyzed and assessed to understand impacts, opportunities, risks and implementation considerations.

At the point where there is a preferred option—and the potential for a decision to proceed with—the stage of decision making actually becomes possible. This is still not necessarily a given outcome, but it is a conversation that should either lead to that outcome or a clear choice to stop or proceed with some other alternative. This might start with individual considerations of the choice as it has evolved and any particular expectations or constraints that are needed. Testing readiness to proceed to a decision is a valuable test of where the group is at. Formalization of the decision as an actual choice would be a final group step.

What I’ve done here is explore and expand on what theoretically happens in formal decision making. This may seem pedantic or obvious. It is actually not so. In many instances, the steps I’ve outlined are glossed over, ignored or taken for granted. They don’t get the weight and consideration that they should, and they aren’t explored and understood by the group in any formal way. Moreover, what I’ve outlined involves a great deal more individual activity and follow up; this arguably should also occur, but I don’t need to belabour the degree to which it gets short shrift. Building in the expectation that it will be discussed creates incentive and expectation for doing the work and being prepared for the conversation.

The total number of interactions here is much higher than in a two-day strategic retreat. The total expended time—particularly if we factor in allowances for preparation, travel and follow-up—actually isn’t that different. The elapsed time is longer, unquestionably, but could be a compressed couple of weeks or a more leisurely month or two. It’s still much faster than having to take time to schedule another in-person workshop after the first one doesn’t fully deliver on expectations.

Decision making online is different. It can happen in a more punctuated but less intense fashion. It doesn’t require the same investment of concentrated focus, but at the same time it build in more time for contemplation, reflection and deliberation. Rather than carving out days to have a discussion, it can be built into the normal flow of interactions. The result is not just a process, but potentially a result, that is far superior to what our more traditional approaches might deliver.

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