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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Heads Up, Sleeves Up

Scrapping the three-day vision meeting in favor of a three-hour strategy huddle

Published: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 13:08

The constant rapid changes in today’s business climate demands on-the-fly gear shifting for teams and business units. Few can afford to wait until next year’s three-day strategic off-site meeting, a model fast becoming a relic of more halcyon days.

So how do you quickly and nimbly get everyone on board to create collective mindshare and emotional investment in charting a path for the foreseeable future?

I like short and simple things, so here’s a technique I use regularly to get folks off the three-day vision meeting and onto a three-hour vision meeting.

I did this with the executive team of a Pacific Northwest homebuilder, at the height of its success at the beginning of 2008. We all know what transpired later in the year. To this day, the CEO maintains that this “pre-mortem” exercise enabled them to weather the multiyear downturn and emerge in a position to not only survive but also thrive.

The reason is simple: I had them paint a perfect disaster, then simply reverse it. When disaster did indeed strike, they had already internalized a backup.

The first part of the activity is  “heads up,” and meant to draw out the dream of the team. The second part of the meeting is “sleeves up,” and intended to focus energy on a real-world strategy that achieves the dream. The exercise is designed to be fast-paced, highly interactive, and visually oriented.

Here’s the flow:

Warm-up: “I see” (15 minutes)
If you’re the leader or facilitator, open with something like this: “Vision is essential. We can’t advance in any direction without it.” To illustrate the point, have folks stand up and lift one leg off the floor, and hold it there for 10 seconds. State: “That’s easy, right? But now try it with your eyes closed.” Watch everyone struggle. It’s pretty tough to do!

Next have people try this exercise:

Step 1. Answer the question: “What do I really want?” Describe what you see as the ideal in your mind’s eye, using a statement that begins with, “I see...” (For example: I see our department setting the benchmark of effectiveness and efficiency in all our operations to promote the stability needed to realize the highest levels of productivity, performance, and profitability.)

Step 2. Create a statement of the end state using the future perfect tense. (For example: Standardized work processes, policies, procedures and tools will be supported by the diligent administration of quality control and management, enabling internal operations to function at peak efficiency levels.)

Step 3. Sketch what you have just described verbally. Don’t worry about artistry; just draw it out as best you can. Avoid using words, but an occasional one-word exclamatory (e.g., victory!) is OK. Fill up the whole page. Use different colors of pen and pencil to make it vivid. Use symbols and icons whenever possible. Stick figures are OK!

Now that the right brain is nice and warm, launch into the meeting proper.

Visioneering: Our company RIP (30 minutes)
The goal of this activity is to get to the big picture, bringing the future to the present so that it can be addressed. The traditional approach is to write a success story for the media some number of years or months in the future. But a better way, albeit unconventional, is to draft a detailed corporate post-mortem. The outcome is a much more realistically and vividly portrayed picture of the company’s current state. What would the clinical evidence say about your team’s demise? What would the cause of death be?

Removing obstacles (45 minutes)
Understanding what the goal or vision isn’t is often more important than what it is because it outlines the restraining forces and obstacles. And the reality is that restraining forces always rule. For most people, painting the disaster scene provides more readily accessible mental images because they’ve seen them before at some point in their experience. When the roadblocks appear in the future, they are more easily recognized and effectively addressed.

Make a master list of all the items identified in the obituary, the company “killers.” Over to the right, list the countermeasures. What is the opposite of the ailment? How will each obstacle be overcome or avoided? These now become the critical success factors that form the framework of the future vision.

Goal-setting (30 minutes)
For each success factor, list a key objective, a measurable goal. Use the list you just developed to spark a discussion of the major goals. Combine ideas, wordsmith, refine, remove—whatever is needed to arrive at what the group agrees is a comprehensive list of goals incorporating all the critical ideas from the visioning exercise.

Prioritizing (30 minutes)
Nothing sophisticated here: Have each individual write down what he believes the three most important goals are. Then go down the list, simply asking for a show of hands indicating how many chose the item as No. 1. Tally the hash marks to identify the top five.

Project-forming (30 minutes)
Now turn the top five priorities into key projects, assigning a champion and putting thought into who does what by when. Don’t turn this into exhaustive and detailed logistics planning.

Not only can you hone the visualization skills of your team with this practical exercise, but you also avoid what too often becomes an enormous waste of time and money.

First published Jan. 29, 2014, on the Edit Innovation blog.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.