27 September 2023

Time waster: That big important meeting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

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Ron Ashkenas* says business review meetings are too often run like theatre productions, lacking substance and wasting time.

Most organisations spend enormous amounts of time and effort on business review meetings.

Some of these cover key projects, others top-line sales, and still others on overall company or unit performance.

In all cases, the purpose is to create a dialogue between senior executives and operating managers about how the business or project is doing versus its strategic objectives, where gaps might exist, and what’s needed to close those gaps.

When done well, business reviews are powerful tools.

Without them, initiatives can go off track, projects that should be killed continue taking up resources, poor performance goes unnoticed and uncorrected, excellent people remain unrecognised, and you end up being surprised by issues that should have been addressed much earlier.

Unfortunately, many business review meetings are more show than substance, becoming what I call “business review theatre.”

Here’s just one example: Several years ago, I worked with the CEO of a diversified manufacturing company.

Each business unit spent several weeks a year preparing for quarterly reviews in which the managers presented current performance figures, highlighted anomalies in the numbers, provided explanations, and described what they were doing to get things back on track.

Whenever the CEO or CFO asked a question, the managers answered in a way that was intended to demonstrate their complete mastery of the business.

But the CEO and CFO were not impressed.

Although most of the businesses were doing well, there were worrying signs for the future: An aging customer base, changing macro-economic conditions, new competitors coming into their markets, and insufficient new product development and innovation.

There never seemed to be time to dig into these issues at the reviews and questions about them were almost always dismissed with a description of how the business was already dealing with it.

In my experience, this isn’t an isolated case.

Many business reviews tend to be bereft of real conversation, significant questions, or follow-up actions.

So how can companies stop wasting hours of precious time preparing for reviews of the past and instead create conversations that help prepare for the future?

Why do we put on business review theater?

The first step is to understand the root of the problem. There are two basic reasons why business review theater is so prevalent.

The first stems from senior leaders’ failure to set an appropriate agenda for the review meetings. If not given direction, managers naturally focus on areas that are doing well or will try to review every aspect of the business.

The second is that managers of business units or projects fear that the reviews will reveal inadequacies in what they are doing, which could make them look bad or open them up to senior executive scrutiny or interference. This anxiety is exacerbated when senior executives have a history of embarrassing people with gotcha-type questions or berating them in front of their co-workers for doing something wrong.

To foster more-productive business reviews, you need to solve for these two issues. From my work with hundreds of companies over the years, here are three key steps that 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 “review” implies a backward look and, indeed, it is important to know what’s happened in the past month or quarter to learn from it.

But that information can be sent in advance so the discussion can centre around why things happened in a certain way in the past and what, if anything, should be done differently going forward.

To help identify those critical topics, senior leaders, as the intended audience, must be actively involved in setting the agenda and focusing on the priority issues that truly need discussion.

For example, take the project scorecards used by voice-recognition software company Nuance in its reviews.

CEO Mark Benjamin requires that the scorecards highlight not only current performance, but also progress on three strategic questions: How do we increase scalability?

How do we leverage our use of the cloud?

How do we over-invest in opportunities that can become inflection points for growing the company?

His teams are then able to use the reviews as working sessions about how to improve current performance while addressing these critical questions.

The same shift in focus also made a big difference in an international aid organisation that I worked with.

Frustrated by being asked to review only projects that were fully realised, the board created a forum for reviewing projects that were in the early idea stage and insisted that the lower-level staff and managers who staffed the projects do the presentations.

This gave the board an opportunity to contribute ideas and guidance about future projects rather than ritually rubber stamping projects that were already formed.

Based on the focus you want, also consider the invite list for your reviews.

Participants should be fit for purpose, selected not just because of their status or title, but because they could make a real difference in advancing the project or the business to the next stage.

Create a safe space for robust dialogue

To overcome participants’ fear of appearing inadequate, you need to make them feel that they are free to speak up, offer ideas, and challenge each other.

To create this kind of safe space, you must find a balance between appearing too passive on one the hand and too critical on the other.

If, as a senior leader, you act like a passive member of the audience, what you’ll get is a performance.

In a pharmaceutical company I worked with, the most senior executives, many of whom were scientists themselves, had to learn how to get tougher with team members by looking more deeply at data and getting the group to ask challenging questions about what it meant for how to go forward — rather than accepting whatever was presented.

At 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’ll also get a performance — but with actors (managers) on their guard, hesitating to enter into dialogue or raise tough issues for which they don’t have ready answers.

At the aid organisation I worked with, the board began to join staff members for collegial brainstorming sessions.

It took several meetings to make the staff feel comfortable with a group that they were more used to see passing judgment, but over time they learned that mixing their technical expertise with the board’s political acumen led to more-viable projects.

One way to create this balance is to ask questions and not just give opinions.

A manufacturing CEO we worked with was used to being the hierarchical boss and liked having everyone defer to her authority.

But acting in this way discouraged her people from having a real conversation about what to do.

As she learned to ask questions, managers started to open up about their thinking, which led to much more robust dialogue, problem-solving, and learning.

Review your reviews

The third step for avoiding business review theatre is to periodically assess and adjust the process itself.

For example, at Augury, a fast-growing IOT machine health company, Keren Rubin, the head of people and culture, takes part in organising many of the business reviews.

In keeping with the company’s agile philosophy of “build, measure, learn,” she gathers data after each one to identify what worked and what could be improved.

When one of Augury’s executives invited 40 people to a quarterly sales review which had too many slides, too much data, and not enough time, Rubin worked with that executive to refine the scope of the review, get materials out ahead of time, rethink the participants, frame key questions to be addressed, and refashion the process so that the next review became a much more constructive dialogue.

There’s no one right way to conduct a business or project review.

But if yours have turned into staged performances, maybe it’s time to shape a different approach.

These simple changes can transform your project reviews into problem-solving forums with a focus on changing the future, not just rehashing the past.

*Ron Ashkenas is a co-author of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and a Partner Emeritus at Schaffer Consulting.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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