My colleague Mary Abbazia has a saying when discussing who should be invited to a plan development meeting.  “Invite anyone who can mess your plan up later!” she says.  Who hasn’t had a plan derailed or delayed in a late stage by someone who should have been involved from the beginning? 

But avoiding messes later aren’t the only reason to invite cross-functional participants into the creation of your plan.  Execution of the plan, which requires collaboration across multiple functions, is always enhanced when those functions are in on the important development discussions.

This all underscores the vast importance of plan development workshops – which for our purposes we will simply define as any multiple-person meeting meant to generate, select and agree on strategies.  The goal is to build a great plan that also is bought-into by all important stakeholders.  Since my colleagues and I have been facilitating successful workshops together for over 25 years, this blog and the next two after it will provide our best advice for achieving this goal. 

Tip #1:  The Power of The Cross-Functional Leader Endorsement

You did all the right things to get your cross-functional peers to the meeting; you invited participants early, reminded them often and even had food delivered. But a rash of “last minute emergencies” led to the room being less than half full, and several key functions were completely unrepresented.  To add insult to injury, the missing functions might have complained later that they weren’t consulted in the building of the plan! This happens more often than you would believe. 

Clearly, getting people to actually attend is the first step to an effective workshop.  We’ve found that going to each cross-functional executive and getting them to invite their people to the event works wonders in getting everyone in your workshop room.  But why would execs take their time to do this? 

Every company we know of has had high-profile cases where poor execution, due to the lack of buy-in by key functions, led to painfully poor results.  You aren’t being negative by bringing this up when you approach the functional executive, you are just trying to make sure this never happens again.

You can ghost-write the email for these executives, complete with all of the details to make things “turnkey”.  And we’ve found if you can just get one leader to actually send the email, you can use the competitive nature of the rest of the leadership team to get the rest to do the same.  “So and so has already alerted his team with a similar email.”  Try it, and you will overcome the one factor that kills the chances of workshop success before it starts:  poor attendance.

Tip #2:  The Wisdom of Scheduling Breakout Discussions

“We like to have everyone involved in all of the discussions,” says the cross-functional team member who tends to dominate every decision process.  Don’t get us wrong, we believe in collaboration, but this particular person is taking you down the opposite path.  Every time we’ve seen multi-team strategy discussions being conducted in groups of greater than 8 people, 80 percent of the participants become disengaged; the other 20 percent of the group controls the dialogue. 

Better to have the agenda broken up into many smaller group breakout discussions, each coming to a hypothesized conclusion that is then discussed with the broader group.  Yes, the dominant personalities will still be vocal in the debrief.  But, by this time, everyone has had a chance to “touch the ball” in the breakout discussions. 

We usually see quieter voices speak up in the debrief after they’ve been in a spirited breakout discussion, and the whole decision-making process becomes more inclusive.  This is key to the eventual excellent follow through and execution of the plan.

Tip #3:  The Secret to a Brisk Workshop Pace

“Let’s spend the first 2-1/2 hours of the 4-hour workshop presenting all of the plan inputs to the team.”  No!  Otherwise known as “death by PowerPoint,” this is a mistake that many workshop facilitators make.

There are so many ways to get inputs into participants brains than a mind-numbing, one-way presentation.  Instead, if a pre-read is possible, it should be provided.  Someone on each breakout team will have read it and can get the team going.  Or, perhaps a pre-session webinar of 30-45 minutes can provide some key background?  Or maybe you can seed each breakout team with an expert who can quickly cover the inputs and give the smaller team the confidence to start discussing the plan topic.

Even if none of this is possible, facilitators can break up the input/research content so that there is a cadence of no more than 15 minutes of one-way presentation of plan inputs before a 30-minute breakout session.  If you don’t pay attention to this, you will lose engagement.  It’s a fact that attention spans are not what they used to be, and workshop leaders must deal with this. One of our most sacred facilitation rules – no more than 15 minutes of lecture before a hands-on activity ensues – may be the biggest reason that our participants tell us they can’t believe how fast our multi-day workshops fly by. 

To summarize part 1 of this 3-part series, running effective workshops requires more than just a well-designed agenda.  It demands a mixture of getting the right people to the meeting, getting everyone involved in discussions and keeping the whole session moving along at a brisk-enough pace. The magic lies in the interplay of these elements, creating an environment where participants don’t just listen but actively contribute and, ultimately, fully support the strategy.  Stay tuned for part 2 of this series in 2 weeks.

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