– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

After the strategic planning meeting

Last week I had written about some of my experiences with strategic planning meetings – the pro’s and con’s, what can go wrong and how to avoid some of the problems. However, the process is not over the moment the meeting ends and everybody leaves the room. Even if the meeting was considered a great success, without equally good follow-up it won’t deliver the best results.

To nobodies surprise – meeting minutes are important. The question is, however, which form and which extent they should take. Again, there is no one right answer. I think it depends on the complexity of the meeting, on top management’s preferences and even on the culture of the company. The minutes can be everything from a one-page summary of the key findings and decisions up to a fairly detailed report which covers all major points of discussion. I personally prefer the more detailed version. You can still reduce it to some sort of management summary afterwards and there are some advantages of extensive notes:

  • It is often helpful to be able to reconstruct the reasons and arguments that led to a particular decision of conclusion later on – for people who where at the meeting and also for those who weren’t.
  • I often found these discussions highly interesting and full of valuable information, e.g. about markets, technologies, competitors and so on. If these details are taken down, the minutes (or parts thereof) are a nice means of spreading such information throughout the company.
  • It may be helpful for the preparation of the next strategy meeting. Nobody will remember all aspects of a strategy discussion after a year or longer. Last years minutes can help to reveal issues that were heavily questioned or remained undecided. These areas might deserve a more careful preparation the next time.

Normally, more or less tasks will be assigned during strategy meetings. These tasks can be very diverse. I have seen almost everything from the task to analyse a particular strategic option in more detail to some fairly operative things like to drill down and to explain some figures or to work out a particular process in more detail. Ideally, these tasks will be assigned to a particular person or team and will come with a due date. It is no need to mention that all tasks should be part of the minutes. However, it becomes a bit unclear what follows afterwards. In an ideal world, everybody will know what to do, will fulfil his tasks and will distribute the results as necessary. Since the world is not perfect, I found it beneficial to implement some sort of follow up for the tasks:

The first step is to compile all tasks into one extensive list which can be sorted as needed, e.g. by topic, by due date, by status. Then the tasks should be arranged by responsible person and everybody who was assigned a task gets a complete list of his/her particular tasks, including due dates. This may look like a bit of red tape and not everybody will need it. But there are some good reasons. First, you cannot always be sure that everybody who was assigned a task was present at the strategy meeting or did receive the meeting minutes or did identify the task for him in the minutes. Moreover, it also is a bit of a support tool for the responsible persons. Their personal list of tasks assures them that they have the correct and complete knowledge of what they are expected to do. Thus there is no need for them to work through extensive minutes and to hope that they really identified all their tasks from it.

Now that everybody is well informed it is advisable to keep track of the results. This is best done by status requests. Again, the frequency and the way of doing this depend on the situation. The objective here is to follow the progress as closely as necessary while bothering the people which should actually do something as less as possible with report writing (which can be perceived as unproductive and bureaucratic):

  • If most tasks are short term and time-critical, the status should be collected monthly.
  • With more medium to long term tasks the frequency can be longer, for instance every three months. This is also advisable if there is a high number of tasks. It is probably ineffective (and not motivating) if people are requested to report about ten issues every month.
  • A limited number of tasks can be followed up in a fairly informal way. It may be enough to ask for a brief info by mail or even in a phone call.
  • If there is a large number of tasks, there is probably no other way then to send out standardised status requests.

It is easy to collect a pile of status reports. Their value, however, depends on what is done with them. The most straightforward thing to do would be to compile a nice list with all tasks and their latest status and to forward all that to the top management team. In smaller and less complex organizations this may work out fine. Top management will probably figure out potential problems and initiate some actions. The more effective way is, however, to give somebody not only the task to collect all status reports, but the authority to critically question them. Ideally this should be somebody from the strategy team who is able to understand the meaning and the objectives behind all those tasks, and to see the interrelations. This person should also evaluate if the results achieved so far meet the original objective of the task. This is especially important in cases when the responsible person doesn’t agree with the objective of his particular task. More than often I got status reports in which people explained in great detail why it doesn’t make sense to follow this task at all.
Hence, somebody from the strategy team should compile a summary about how far the organization has come since the strategy meeting:

  • what has been achieved
  • if the results so far led to the expected outcomes
  • where there are problems and which of them are critical
  • what could be done about the problems
  • issues for which new findings and developments require new decisions. and so on

The status list would only be an attachment for this.

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