Since most of our consultants haven’t traveled to see a client since March, we’ve successfully transitioned their planning sessions from in-person to virtual meetings. Having a great virtual planning session requires a little more advanced preparation. However, the extra effort is worth it - our clients have been raving about the additional focus they are able to achieve in the virtual environment. With the right preparation, your next virtual planning session could be your best strategic planning session ever.
Here are some of the benefits we’ve seen of virtual planning:
- Assurance that the session will happen, no matter what. This is very helpful in these times of uncertainty and disruption. Even if stay-at-home orders are reinstated, travel is restricted, or your office or the meeting room you rented must close for unexpected reasons, you can still have critical discussions with your leadership team to keep the company moving forward.
- Higher levels of discipline and focus. We’ve seen that the virtual environment levels the playing field and allows everyone to contribute to the meeting at a higher level. All of the distractions of being in the meeting room together are gone—no more side conversations, overly long coffee breaks, hot or cold temperatures sapping energy from the room, or squinting at small text on projector screens from the back of the room. Everyone can maximize their comfort, minimize their distractions, and engage fully in the conversations.
- Sessions can be shorter and more effective. Many of our clients have chosen to break up the agenda over a couple of half-day sessions. This allows them to focus more completely for a shorter period of time, have time to think about the discussions more deeply before making decisions, and end up with a more complete and thoughtful strategic plan. Scheduling a few half days is usually easier and less disruptive than pulling all your executives away from the business for 2-3 full days.
- Saves travel expenses for facilitators and remote team members. You don’t have to fly everyone in, pay for hotel rooms and meals, and pull people away from family to do a virtual session. You can be flexible in the timing for planning, too, to accommodate different time zones, if needed.
If you are facing a decision between postponing planning, risking an in-person gathering, or testing out a virtual session, give virtual a chance. Now is not the time to skimp on strategic direction—you need to plan for the future (and come up with contingency plans) and have tough conversations with the team especially now.
Here are some tips to prepare for your virtual strategy session:
- Choose the right technology, and test it in advance. Our facilitators use Zoom to host our meetings. Leveraging the Breakout Rooms feature is great for larger teams to have smaller group discussions, and the ability to see all of the participants' faces helps us feel like we’re together. You may also need some kind of virtual whiteboard or other brainstorming tool depending on your agenda. In some sessions, our facilitators pull in another team member to help manage the technology so they can focus on the content of the session. Especially if your team is new to remote technology tools, having a dedicated support person on the line for any technical issues is key.
- Plan the agenda carefully. If you want your virtual session to be shorter and more focused than your in-person meetings, you must carefully plan the agenda to ensure you’ve covered all the key topics and none of the fluff. Plan out enough time for discussions, and sequence the days so that it doesn’t feel disjointed. Think about the right medium for each section of the agenda—will you have a visual aid like a slide, will you be working directly in Rhythm or a spreadsheet, and/or will you be having a discussion in smaller groups? Be sure to include enough breaks for the team, and use a timer to keep everyone accountable for returning from breaks on time.
- Utilize prep work for the team. Once you’ve gotten the agenda nailed down, be sure to let the team know how to best prepare. You want to get them thinking in advance of the meeting so that you maximize the discussion time together. If you need someone on the team to pull budget numbers or do some financial modeling, ask for this early on. If you are going to work on Winning Moves, ask people to submit their top 3 ideas a week before the session. At a minimum, ask for people to come with their results and lessons learned for the quarter that’s ending. Some of our consultants have been using Ideas boards in Rhythm for collecting Start-Stop-Keeps or Google Forms for more detailed prep questions.
- Share ground rules and expectations in advance. If you want everyone on video, let them know ahead of time. If you want people to raise their hands before speaking or use the chat feature to ask questions, communicate that in advance so everyone knows what to expect in the meeting. Cover the ground rules quickly at the beginning of the meeting, too, but if you send them in advance, you won’t need to spend a lot of time on this.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If the thought of running the meeting virtually sounds daunting, let us help you. Our expert facilitators not only have experience running effective virtual meetings, but they also have countless strategic patterns to draw on to help your team navigate your specific business challenges and come up with a plan for success. They can help you pressure-test the plan and decide on a communication strategy for aligning with the rest of the company.
Keep your important planning rhythms in tact, minimize risk for your team, and maximize your return on investment in planning by going virtual for your next session. You might also want to view our related article, Virtual Strategic Planning Meetings: 7 Tips for a Great Strategic Planning Session.
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