We’ve written this article to help you plan a focused and effective strategy session when you’re all online/virtual. This is targeted towards product strategy sessions, but these 10 tips will work as effectively for bigger company strategy sessions. Just a note – moving your session online takes work. At the very minimum you need 3 weeks of pre-planning. Start soon!
- Design for outcomes. Remember a strategy is the plan by which you achieve your company/product objectives. A strategy meeting is the means by which you collectively create the plan on which you’ll execute. This might seem obvious – but it’s easy to lose sight of the reason you’re bringing people together. We’ve been in lots of in-person strategy offsites that end up more as information sharing sessions – or team bonding, or an excuse to talk about loads of new ideas (shiny new object syndrome!). Then all the decisions get made at the post-offsite strategy session. Virtual strategy sessions need to be designed carefully. Start by getting really clear on what you want at the end of the virtual sessions and what information is needed to achieve the results you’re looking for. Are you looking to refresh your strategy entirely, or are you looking to validate existing strategy? Has your business set new growth targets because of the pandemic, do they have a new set of objectives for the coming year? What factors will you have to consider – COVID impact, competitor analysis, market research, customer learnings, sales & finance updates, technology needs – what has changed and what is relevant? Now write down what success looks like – share them with your peers so that you’re on the same page. Here’s an example: We need to update 2 out of 4 of our existing strategies in order to meet the new growth target (list the two). A successful strategy session means that we have produced a draft set of product strategies that are aligned to the company objectives and strategy, and each team is positioned to create a set of initiatives that are driven by strategy.
- Break it up: We’ve all been on all-day offsites where we immerse ourselves in strategy and so the urge to replicate the process is strong. But you just can’t possibly do an all day strategy online – it’s painful even thinking about sitting in front of your screen for that long for one meeting! We’ve learned that 2 hours is the ideal time to have the team fully engaged, energized and effective. We’ve tried longer periods and it’s hard to keep everyone focused. 1 hour isn’t quite enough – people are getting warmed up and you’ll find yourself going long anyway. Some teams have insisted that we work in 4 hour sessions – but we see fatigue set in, then we take longer and longer breaks – it just doesn’t work. We recommend a series of 2-hour sessions spread over a week. With the right planning, this set of sessions can be even more effective than an in-person offsite.
- Set mandatory pre-work. To make the most of 2-hours together, you need to set pre-work. As you determine success outcomes – you’ll naturally uncover the most relevant topic areas (competitor analysis, market/economy, customer success, etc.). Two-three pages of pre-reading for each area is recommended. Summarize each of main points: clearly list market & customer insights that are most critical to the discussion, articulate each of the major problems that need to be addressed. Write these down in a paragraph or two, providing key data and backup links for anyone wanting to dive deeper means that everyone coming to the sessions is prepared. You can send all the pre-work together a week before your session, or set your sessions to be 3 hours, with the 3rd hour individual time for the team member to do the pre-work each day. This isn’t easy – but it’s invaluable for having great sessions. And we recommend asking people not to attend if they haven’t done the pre-work, don’t let your sessions devolve into opinion-sharing. Keep discussions focused on facts/data.
- Assign Champions. Share the workload and assign champion to each of the major sections of work. This is a great opportunity to highlight your team, or to even ask important peers at your strategy sessions to lead. When you engage others in leading the pre-work research, or summarizing the data points – you take the burden off being the sole facilitator, and all the research coming from one voice. You want everyone at these sessions to feel ownership over the strategy that’s developed, and one of the best ways we’ve seen to achieve this, is by starting with ownership right from the start.
- Write down assumptions. When doing the pre-reading, have the team write down their assumptions. This way, each team member is coming in prepared with a set of notes that lend themselves to a discussion. The pre-reading is not just for information, but to help form product strategies (remember #1, outcomes!). The reason we recommend this approach is that it helps provide the rationale for the opinion. It’s much easier to invalidate a stated assumption, rather than argue opinions. We really don’t like opinion-based discussions if that isn’t already obvious. When the team can’t readily invalidate an assumption – this can easily be turned into a hypothesis that can be tested after the meeting. We know exactly what information we need to help us make sense of the data.
- Address the elephants. Don’t bury bad news in the pre-reading or avoid it altogether. Some of the teams we’re working with are losing their funding, others have seen their customers disappear or put purchase decisions on an indefinite hold. This is critical information, and it’s not business-as-usual. You want the most out of these strategy sessions – you want your teams to armed with all the data. The impact of the elephants are pretty significant in terms of how the company will respond – perhaps the growth targets have doubled, or the retention goal has increased significantly. Make sure the pre-reading provides the “why” and the context – and don’t avoid those big, hard problems.
- Standalone Ideation. It’s really easy for each of these 2-hr strategy sessions to devolve into ideation sessions. Once people have their pre-reading done, and they understand what the business is trying to achieve – they’ll want to solve problems – it’s natural. We’re all full of product ideas, and asking people not to share them can be painful (and derailing). But you don’t want to continually talk solutions before you get a full understanding of all the areas that need to be reviewed. We suggest having a shared whiteboard to capture all the ideas generated. Don’t have this as a shared screen, you don’t want it visible and distracting – you just want a place where people know that they can add their ideas/solutions. Once you’ve finished the information sessions, you can move into ideation for product strategies. This is towards the end, and a 2-hr focused session on strategy ideation is ideal. Having your list of whiteboard ideas is a perfect input for this. Your team can self-select which ideas move forward, and which go away now that they are fully armed with all the background.
- Small Discussions. We design our strategy sessions to be about 5 minutes together as a large team, then 15–20 minute sessions with a small team. By small team, we mean about 3–4 people, a group where everyone has a voice. We move in and out of this format — so that we’re constantly regrouping, sharing updates, and then going back into real discussions. Consider if you want random groups so that different people are constantly reviewing data. This is good when you have a close working team, and the groupings are less important. Perhaps you want to deliberately create cross-functional breakouts if you have invited others in the company — you’ll want to design each small groups to have a voice from all the functions that are represented. This is an important part of pre-planning, looking closely at putting the right people together.
- Document Collaboration is a must. Zoom, or teams, or whatever video software you use is insufficient. You want to be virtually around a working board where the pre-reading is loaded, the assumptions are listed – everyone can see and have access to the documents and be able to write their own thoughts/comments. We have been using the in-built notepad on zoom, and then Mural to share all documents. We pre-build our boards with stickies – color-coding for teams, and sometimes individuals – so that we can make sense of all the notes at the end of the session. Avoid a facilitator writing down other people’s ideas – it’s nowhere near as effective as enabling everyone to have control over exactly what and how much they contribute.
- Lose the PowerPoints. Hopefully this goes without saying given the first 8 tips – we want the strategy sessions to be all about working together, discussions and making decisions. Feel free to create PowerPoints for pre-reading if that fits with your company culture. But by no means spend any time (not even 1 minute) sharing a PowerPoint deck. You’ll set the tone and expectation for this session if you avoid PowerPoints altogether. Let’s be clear – we’re still asking you to make sure that everyone understands the pre-reading. You should still start each session by recapping or highlighting the relevant facts, check in for understanding and questions and then jump into the assumptions that people have written down. Work through the data in a structured way. We just don’t want you reading slides!
Bonus tip!: Don’t lose the happy hour. Last, consider how you can celebrate together at the end of the strategy session. Maybe it’s a separate hour after every session is complete – but it’s important to acknowledge the end of this hard work. Here are some ideas that we’ve experienced or seen work. Send everyone a bottle of wine, or their favorite beverage a few days in advance, so you can open it all together at the end of the session. It’s always fun getting a surprise in the mail! I took part in a chocolate tasting by an expert a few weeks ago – I was sent a package of 4 bars (yes, it was hard not opening those) and couldn’t wait for the event. It turned out to be a really fun experience, as we all opened packets and tasted together while the expert shared the history and taste notes of each bar. A month earlier, I was part of a sommelier experience, and the prep for that was to bring in the bottle of wine that you’d always been saving for a special occasion – so the only company expense was providing the expert. Hopefully these ideas get your creative juices flowing – whatever you do, mark the end of the session with something fun and a way to connect and have a shared experience.