Large, theatrical meetings are a waste of time

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Most organizations spend a huge amount of time and effort in business review meetings. Some of these relate to key projects, others to sales, and some to the overall performance of the company or unit. In all cases the purpose is to create a dialogue between executives and managers about how the company or project is performing against its strategic objectives, where there might be gaps, and what is needed to fill those gaps.

When done well, business reviews are powerful tools. Without them, initiatives can get off track, projects that should have been canceled continue to consume resources, poor performance goes unnoticed and uncorrected, great people go undetected, and you are surprised by problems that should have been addressed much earlier.

Unfortunately, many business valuation meetings are more show than substance and become what I call “business valuation theater”. Here’s just one example: A few years ago I worked with the CEO of a diversified manufacturing company. Each business unit prepared for quarterly reviews several weeks a year, in which the managers presented current performance figures, highlighted anomalies in the figures, provided explanations and described their measures to restart. When the CEO or CFO asked a question, the managers responded to show that they were in complete command of the business.

But the CEO and CFO were not impressed. While most companies were doing well, there were worrying signs for the future: an aging customer base, changing macroeconomic conditions, new competitors entering their markets, and insufficient development and innovation of new products. The reviews never seemed to have time to address these issues, and questions about them were almost always dismissed with a description of how the company had already dealt with them.

In my experience, this is not an isolated case. Many business reviews tend to have real conversation, important questions, or follow-up action. So how can companies stop wasting hours of valuable time preparing to look back on the past and instead have conversations that will help prepare for the future?

Why do we use Business Review Theater?

The first step is to understand the root of the problem. There are two basic reasons why business criticism is so widespread.

The first is due to the failure of senior executives to set an appropriate agenda for the review meetings. Of course, if no instructions are given, managers will focus on areas where things are going well or try to review every aspect of the business.

Second, business unit or project managers fear that the reviews will reveal imperfections in their actions that make them look bad or that could expose them to control or interference by management. This fear is exacerbated when executives in the past embarrassed people with gotcha-like questions or berated them in front of their colleagues for doing something wrong.

To encourage more productive business reviews, you need to address both of these problems. From my work with hundreds of companies over the years, here are three important steps you can take.

Focus on the future

To create a more fruitful agenda, structure the review session around specific, actionable topics that can improve future performance. The word “looking back” implies looking back, and in fact, knowing what happened in the last month or quarter is important in order to learn from it. But this information can be sent in advance so that the discussion can focus on it Why Things have happened a certain way in the past and what, if anything, should be done differently in the future. To help identify these critical issues, senior executives, as the intended audience, need to be actively involved in setting the agenda and focusing on the priority issues that really need to be discussed.

Take, for example, the project scorecards that Nuance uses for speech recognition software in its ratings. CEO Mark Benjamin demands that the scorecards highlight not only current performance, but also progress on three strategic questions: How do we increase scalability? How do we use our cloud usage? How do we invest too much in opportunities that can become turning points for the company’s growth? His teams can then use the assessments as work sessions to improve current performance while answering these critical questions.

The same shift in focus also made a big difference to an international aid organization I worked with. Frustrated with the request to only review projects that were fully realized, the board created a forum for reviewing projects that were in the early idea stage and insisted that the subordinate staff and managers overseeing the projects gave the presentations. This gave the board the opportunity to contribute ideas and guidelines for future projects instead of ritually stamping projects that had already been formed.

Depending on the desired focus, also take into account the invitation list for your reviews. Participants should be suitable for their purpose and chosen not just for their status or title, but because they can make a real difference in taking the project or business to the next level.

Create a safe space for robust dialogue

To overcome participants’ fear of appearing inadequate, you need to make them feel like they are free to express themselves, come up with ideas, and challenge one another. To create such a safe space, you have to find a balance between being too passive on the one hand and being too critical on the other.

As a leader, when you act like a passive member of the audience, you get a performance. At a pharmaceutical company I worked with, top executives, many of whom were scientists themselves, had to learn how to be tougher on team members by looking at the data and getting the group to ask challenging questions what the how meant to move forward – instead of accepting everything that was presented.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you take over, dominate the conversation, put people down, and act like the smartest person in the room, you get an accomplishment too – but with actors (managers) on guard and reluctant to enter into dialogue or address difficult questions for which they don’t have ready-made answers. At the aid organization I was working with, the board of directors started brainstorming meetings with the staff. It took multiple sessions for staff to feel comfortable in a group they were more used to making judgments, but over time they learned that combining their technical expertise with the political acumen of the board led to more viable projects.

One way to find this balance is to ask questions, not just express opinions. One production CEO we worked with was used to being the hierarchical boss and liked it when everyone submitted to her authority. But acting that way discouraged their people from having a real conversation about what to do. As she learned to ask questions, managers began to open up to her thinking, resulting in much more robust dialogue, problem solving, and learning.

Check your reviews

The third step in avoiding business criticism is to regularly evaluate and adjust the process yourself.

For example, at Augury, a fast-growing IOT machine health company, Keren Rubin, Head of Human Resources and Culture, is involved in organizing many business reviews. True to the company’s agile philosophy of “Build, Measure, Learn”, it collects it after every data exchange in order to find out what worked and what could be improved. When one of Augury’s executives invited 40 people for a quarterly sales review that had too many slides, too much data, and too little time, Rubin worked with that executive to refine the scope of the review, pre-publish materials, and participants , formulate key questions to be addressed and redesign the process so that the next review becomes a much more constructive dialogue.

There is no one right way to conduct a business or project evaluation. But once yours have gotten into staged performances, it may be time to take a different approach. These simple changes can turn your project reviews into problem-solving forums that focus on changing the future, not just warming up the past.

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