Sometimes big meetings aren’t the best thing to have. Sometimes big questions thoughtfully considered are.
One of my favorite e-newsletters comes from Creative Facilitation. This week their newsletter described the problem of “Big Meeting Syndrome”.
We need to be careful of what we call big meeting syndrome. A difficult challenge is identified, so the organisation decides to hold a Big Meeting to resolve it. As it’s so big, it has to be set months ahead so the right people can all come. An important venue is hired and expectations start to build. As the meeting becomes bigger and more important, it also becomes more expensive – and so does the anxiety that it might fail. That anxiety adds to the stress and pressure to prove something useful happens.
Meanwhile, in the whole period leading to the meeting, all sorts of smaller experiments that might lead to incremental progress on the goal are suspended: “We need to have the Big Meeting before we do that.”
Several years ago, I met with two senior managers in a large public agency. They wanted to speak with me about plans for a big meeting to get stakeholder input on a new initiative. They provided background, I asked a few questions, and they provided thoughtful answers. After about 20 minutes of our conversation, the managers paused and looked at each other with a silent “uh-oh”. Then they looked at me. One of them said, “I don’t think we’re ready for this.”
After a moment of silence, the conversation shifted to the steps they really wanted to take to prepare themselves for getting stakeholder buy-in for the initiative. I left the meeting feeling that the three of us had dodged a bullet.
More recently a large public agency decided to hold a big meeting and hired a group of us facilitators to help them get stakeholder input on resource planning. The stakeholders showed a lot of enthusiasm and generated a lot of input. But in the aftermath, some of the agency’s board members criticized the meeting and meeting planners and things came to a halt. It appeared that the board, which included new members, had been divided on how to proceed with the big meeting.
Organizations often hold big meetings for strategic planning purposes. These meetings have become ubiquitous. I’ve had special training in strategic planning and have facilitated several big meetings that included all the customary elements of the process. Some have been energetic and fun. Some have been highly productive. But I’ve also experienced strategic planning fatigue and I think others have too. Sometimes the big strategic planning meeting is not the right process for the situation, or it’s not the right time for the process. Sometimes it’s time to learn something by taking other actions outside of a big meeting.
In the Harvard Business Review article The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning, Henry Mintzberg describes “strategy making” as a learning process.
We think in order to act, to be sure, but we also act in order to think. We try things, and those experiments that work converge gradually into viable patterns that become strategies. This is the very essence of strategy making as a learning process.
In the same article, Mintzberg offers his perspective on the role of planners:
They have critical roles to play alongside line managers, but not as conventionally conceived. They should work in the spirit of what I like to call a “soft analyst,” whose intent is to pose the right questions rather than to find the right answers. That way, complex issues get opened up to thoughtful consideration instead of being closed down prematurely by snap decisions.
Facilitators offer something of value to clients when they pose questions that help clients pause and think through what they really need now.
Here are three questions to pose before planning a big meeting.
1. Why this meeting now?
This question seeks to illuminate our motivations for having the big meeting. These motivations get obscured as the planning process gets underway and consumes our thoughts and actions. The question prompts us to reconsider, oh yeah, what got us to jump on the planning train? Sometimes I learn that a person of authority called the “all aboard” and everyone just had to follow. That’s OK. It’s helpful to keep in mind whatever prompted the big meeting because this awareness can help manage our expectations and reduce our anxiety.
2. What do you want to learn in the big meeting about the issue we face?
This question seeks to make the things that we seek to get from the big meeting explicit and personal. It also helps uncover assumptions about the big meeting that everyone may not yet understand.
3. What smaller incremental steps could we take now to learn these things?
I love parallel processes. Even if the big meeting must go on, what could be done in parallel to the planning process that might help us? What could be done instead of the big meeting? What we do and learn now might take some pressure off the idea of a big meeting or the big meeting itself.
Taking the time to pause and consider a few big questions before planning a big meeting can reduce big meeting stress and save costly big meeting outlays. Want someone to work alongside you? Contact Flow Facilitation today and let’s talk.