I recently facilitated an annual planning session for a client. During our debrief after the session, the team shared that it was one of their most productive annual planning sessions. I asked them to share with me what we did differently that worked so well. “Well, first, the outcome is awesome. We all know what we are supposed to do and are totally aligned about what we want to get done this year.” They shared with me that having an outside facilitator made a world of difference as I helped them avoid a number of pitfalls they encountered when they ran their own planning meetings. These pitfalls cost them dearly in time and money, two very precious resources! I distilled our debrief into five pitfalls that having a facilitator helped them avoid.
Here are the top five pitfalls to avoid so you have strong and execution-ready plans coming out of your planning sessions:
1. Prioritizing process over having the right critical discussions.
Stephen Covey once gave me some great advice. He said “When dealing with people, I look to the compass and don’t worry about time, I worry about being effective. When dealing with process, I look to the watch and worry about being efficient.” Planning is a people-oriented event. If one is not careful, it is easy for the facilitator to get tunnel-visioned and fixated on following and completing the process or agenda to the detriment of having and finishing critical discussions that come up during the planning session. These critical discussions are important to collaborate on who does what and what success ultimately looks like. Slow down, have these discussions, and focus on what it takes to execute your initiatives. It is better to finish a portion of your agenda and have the right deep discussions than to be able to check the boxes off on your agenda yet finish with people not feeling strong and committed to the plan.
Facilitators should observe, listen, and work to make sure the right discussions happen and happen completely. Don’t allow the process to become too formulaic. Remain flexible.
I was able to listen and tease out the right discussions so that my client's annual initiatives were fully discussed, and the team was confident that they had selected the right initiatives with the right people and resources dedicated. They felt set up for a successful year.
2. Not addressing the elephant in the room.
If you have an elephant in the room, it needs to be addressed fully or your team will be forced to work around it. This creates tension and freezes the brains in the room. You know what I am talking about. The elephant in the room is that topic or obstacle that we don’t address for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It could be the solution that the boss decided on already, but we all know it's a bad solution that is standing in the way of a better solution. These are the “undiscussables,” but if you avoid them, you will end up with less than optimum solutions. Worse, you will end up with poor outcomes and poor execution.
In our session, when I saw the elephant in the room, instead of avoiding or dismissing the topic, I gently nudged the team to discuss the obstacle instead of avoiding or going around it. We first created a safe environment for discussion, and then invited people into the discussion, providing safety by reminding everyone that we all had the same good intentions. By being patient and repeatedly reminding everyone that we had a safe place for difficult discussions, we were able to address the elephant in the room.
3. Your mind is made up, but your team's is not.
This happens when we are in a hurry, and the leader has already made his or her mind up. Or it seems that way. The topic is brought up with phrases like “This is an easy one…” or “We already know how to do this…” or “The solution is obvious here, I think we should do…” These phrases send the message that the decision has already been made, and we need everyone to fall in line. But what if it's a mistake? What if the team sees something the leader did not? Isn’t that what these planning sessions are for? To discuss the actual execution or the “doing the work”? And even if the solution was a good one, making the assumption that discussion is not necessary can lead to misunderstanding the goal that leads to poor outcomes.
It is important here for us to learn to hold multiple opinions and not jump to the first obvious solution. A good facilitator can help the team listen to and hold multiple solutions before making the final decision. It is crucial to slow down and allow all team members to feel that they have been heard, even if we chose a different idea. In fact, slowing down to allow team members to feel that they have been heard is critical when we choose a different idea or solution. This way, everyone can get aligned on and support the idea chosen, even though it might not be their idea.
4. Running out of time to set clear success criteria for every initiative.
In this planning session, we did not run out of time, and every chosen initiative had clear success criteria agreed upon by the team. But often, the pitfall is to end the meeting without clear success criteria agreed upon for our initiatives. This happens because discussions often run long, and towards the end of the day, our brains are tired. It's the old saying, "the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.” What do most teams do? They gloss over defining success criteria and assume that each owner of the initiatives can figure it out themselves. But what ends up happening instead is that the success criteria just does not get done, and even with the best intentions, we forget what we agreed regarding these important initiatives.
Instead of rushing, agree to the next step of finishing the success criteria for these initiatives at your next weekly meeting. Once you're finished, bring up the four tests. To have a strong execution-ready plan, make sure that your plan passes all four tests. Having clear Red-Yellow-Green (RYG) success criteria is one of the four tests.
5. No clear follow-up actions.
During the planning session, at various times, an action item would be suggested and an owner assigned. We documented every single action item. At the end of our session, we summarized them and every owner committed to doing these action items by an agreed upon date. It is so easy to not summarize these actions and gain commitment from each owner. My clients shared that in previous planning sessions, without a facilitator, they were often too tired to go over the actions. They assumed that everyone captured their actions and would deliver on them as discussed. Everyone has the right intentions. Turning those intentions into action takes process, clarity, and accountability.
We summarized the actions and put them into Rhythm, their trusted system for all actions that need to be done for their plan and team to be successful. Now they felt that their planning session was complete, and they felt confident and empowered to have a great quarter. They ended the meeting excited to achieve their plan for the quarter.
It’s often not what you say or do, but how people feel that determines their actions and ability to succeed. Make sure your team finishes planning sessions inspired and confident to attack the year and quarter. Make sure they feel that they have the confidence to win as a team.
Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images