Facilitating the Best Strategy Sessions in Your Business
You've been put in charge of facilitating a strategy session. The feeling that the success or failure of the session rests on your shoulders--even if it's not true!--can be stressful for anyone. Whether you've run dozens of strategy sessions and simply want to refine your technique or it's your first time running a strategy session and you're barely sure where to start, this list will help you create the best strategy sessions your business has ever seen.
Start with the End Goal
When you're sitting down to work your way through a strategy session, start by putting the goal out there on the table for everyone to observe. What's your desired end result at the end of the session? When everyone understands the direction you're going, they're able to more efficiently direct their own efforts. This leads to a more effective session for everyone! It's often easier to work backwards than it is to start with a vague question and work your way forwards.
Everyone runs meetings a little bit differently. Some people want to encourage creative exploration and are willing to chase after side topics before coming back to the issue at hand. Others prefer a more straightforward approach. When you start your meeting, make sure you're clear about the expectations you have for the meeting. As adults, you shouldn't have to remind one another to be kind and respectful, but if you expect it to be an issue, it's worth mentioning! Discuss how long the session will last, what you plan to accomplish during the session, and how you'll be facilitating the discussion in order to create a more effective flow.
Set Your Own Opinions Aside
If you want to be the most effective facilitator possible, you have to be able to set your own opinions aside. Assume that everyone else in the session has, at this point, more to say about the topic than you do--and invite them to do exactly that without interruption. While you can certainly issue your own opinion if it's asked for, try to keep it under your hat until it's requested. Remember, as the facilitator, you'll be seen as an authority figure. Others may automatically mimic your opinions instead of coming out with their own, which can be detrimental to the entire strategy session. Instead, ask meaningful questions, guide the discussion, and try to put others in a position to share their ideas.
Give Every Voice Weight
Some personalities are naturally better in large-group discussions than others. Some people will come blasting out of the gate ready and willing to jump in and share everything they know. Others will sit quietly, keeping their opinions to themselves. As the session facilitator, it's your job to be sure that every voice is given equal weight. Consider some of the following strategies:
- Collect input when the session is over. This can be in the form of a survey, a comment, or an email.
- Ask for input by name, especially if you notice that someone has something to say but appears to have been unnoticed by other participants.
- Have private discussions after the session as needed, particularly if you notice that someone seems frustrated or hasn't had a chance to be heard.
- Take votes or opinions from each participant in turn if necessary.
- Encourage communication after the session in whatever form each participant is comfortable with. Email or text may be favorites for individuals who are less outspoken.
Engage Every Member of the Discussion
Everyone who is present for the discussion is important to its success. When you're in the middle of a strategy session, your goal is to gather everyone you need in order to make educated choices and select the best path forward. If some of those people aren't ready to "buy-in," however, they may lack engagement or fail to provide their best ideas. Let every member of your strategy session know that their voice is important and encourage them to go all in. Explain how the results of the session will benefit both the company as a whole and them in particular. Try to identify the needs of the individuals in the session and show them how the plan you're creating will ultimately help meet those needs.
Get It Together
Your job doesn't start when you walk into a room for a strategy session. Before the session begins, make sure you have access to the latest and most relevant information. This may mean bringing specific individuals into the session, having internet access throughout your discussion to check the latest numbers, or doing plenty of research before you begin. The last thing you want is to spend hours on a session, coming up with what you feel is the perfect solution, only to discover the moment you leave the room that your information was outdated, irrelevant, or that you didn't have all the facts! Take the time to gather as much information as possible before heading in for your strategy session. It can also be helpful to let the other participants know what information you expect to be relevant so they can bring the latest research, numbers, or facts with them instead of needing to check later.
Stay It On Track
You started with your end goal. That means that you know exactly what you're hoping to accomplish before your strategy session is over. During the meeting, do your best to keep things on track. While there is a time and place for tangential discussions--and many of them may arise as a result of the information you're covering during the meeting--this isn't it! Instead, redirect the members of the session to other ways to share their grievances or discuss issues that have come to light. Provide forums, email threads, or future meetings to allow free discussion of those concerns and focus on the point of the meeting. If it doesn't help reach the solution, it can wait until later!
Many times, getting all the information together for your strategy session requires you to approach a number of individuals. You want to be sure you have everything and everyone you need, so the invitation list keeps getting longer! Unfortunately, this can be detrimental to meeting your goals by the end of the session. At most, keep your session to six or seven people who will contribute positively to meeting your goal by the end of the session. Don't choose those individuals by the position they hold, either! Instead, create your session list by selecting the people within your organization who are most likely to be able to add real value to the discussion. If the janitor is better placed to offer input than the head of a department, don't be afraid to invite the janitor.
Heading into a strategic planning session can be daunting. By preparing ahead of time, from trimming down your guest list to making sure you have all the necessary information, you'll ensure that you're prepared for success. Once the session begins, stepping back to create an environment of engagement and respect will be sure to set your attendees to creative problem-solving as they develop the plans and processes you're hoping for. Your goal is in sight, and you've chosen exactly the right people to meet it. That means that the sky's the limit for your session.