Today's post is the last in our series. Now that we've got the whole package out there, it's time to ask the hard questions.
Does this approach to strategic planning actually work?
Is the plan you get at the end worth the time it takes to create?
Designed by Anna O’Byrne at Upstream Meetings, the process outlined in the Toolkit is meant to help larger organizations conduct planning with a distributed workforce. For big companies, it provides an effective way to run the annual planning process and save thousands on travel costs.
The surprise for us was how well this process works for small businesses, regardless of whether they work remotely or all at one location. The Toolkit provides a do-it-yourself guide to planning that a busy small business can use to quickly create a usable plan. Broken out into several short sessions that run over the course of one to three weeks, this approach not only saves travel expenses, it also means you don’t have to shut down the company for a full day while your team plans.
This approach to planning is practical, affordable, and effective.
How do I know? We’re a small business, and we ran through the whole thing ourselves. Here’s our story.
We test every new meeting template before it’s published to the Lucid template gallery. We check for typos and configuration problems, and we test to see if the flow feels right. Sometimes that’s pretty hard, because we don’t always have a need for that template ourselves at the time.
And yet, we found the process of creating a remote team working agreement surprisingly useful.
When you ASS-U-ME...
Like every other team everywhere, we’d been making assumptions. We've written before about our favorite communication and productivity tools, including Slack, Skype, and Lucid Meetings. We assumed that everyone used Slack the same way (we don’t) and that we all know exactly where to find the latest updates to the product roadmap. Wrong again.
It took our team just 55 minutes to run through the whole process, as you can see from this report snapshot.
Feedback from the Team: What did you learn from this experience?
For the most part, this exercise confirmed that we are aligned on the key elements of working together as a team. I was mildly surprised that we didn't have a common way of using Slack - I tend to keep it open 100% of the time, running as a separate application with alert badging on the icon in my OS X dock. This means I tend to be very interruptible and responsive to @ requests. Everyone else uses Slack in a web browser tab, with only sporadic checking. This lets them focus more, but also means they don't necessarily respond as quickly to pings in Slack. Very good to know, as my assumption was different!
We also did not have a clear commitment to joint, overlapping working hours, so that was good to iron out. And finally, I came away feeling that we had made a documented, mutual commitment to a behavioral standard that worked for everyone. It's very powerful to see that agreement in writing.
I learned that although we are on the same page for most of the ways we work together, defining it as a team in writing provides a nice clarity.
For instance, hearing that everyone uses Slack in a slightly different way helps me understand how to better collaborate with the team. Based on our discussions, I have modified my notifications a bit and switched to the browser instead of the app version.
The big surprise for me was that we really don't use email to communicate with each other very much. This has evolved over time, and we certainly all still check our email several times a day.
If I'd thought about this, it would have been obvious, but I hadn't really noticed the change - probably because my inbox still shows 5,000+ unread messages. But as far as internal communication goes, we pretty much use email only to communicate with clients, partners, and other people outside the company.
Once you have an established vision and mission, it's time to figure out exactly what you'll do to achieve them. The Complete Toolkit for Strategic Planning with Remote Teams breaks this work into two sessions. In the first, the team establishes a series of high-level goals, and in the second, they define the specific strategies they'll employ to achieve these goals.
The information that follows is an excerpt from Anna O'Byrne's detailed Guide that accompanies these templates.
How Goals & Strategies Fit in the Essential Strategic Plan
The Essential Strategic Plan is concerned with what you want to achieve – your "ends" – and how you’ll attain these ends, at a high-level. The "essentials" covered in this series of meetings make up the core of your strategic direction.
The vision, mission and values define your organizational identity; your very brand. They become the filter through which you evaluate new opportunities, and can drive day-to-day decisions.
Goals and strategies define where you’ll focus energy and resources.
True to its name, the Essential Strategic Plan covers the basics; a minimal but fully functional strategic plan. Depending on your organization, you may wish to plan to a finer level of detail. For example, you might break down broad strategies into more discrete tactics. Tactics are actionable steps towards achieving your goals. You can also break down goals into specific, measurable objectives. Then, as you define measures, you can capture these in a scorecard to monitor your progress.
Here at Lucid, we're fans of Lisette Sutherland's work with remote teams on CollaborationSuperpowers.com, Happy Melly, and her blog at lisettesutherland.com. When we saw her post on creating a working agreement for remote teams, we thought it was a great idea that would make for a really useful meeting template.
Happily, Lisette agreed to share her technique with us! Read on for her quick overview, and you'll find links to the template at the end.
On remote teams, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings. We can solve some of the basic miscommunications through the process of creating a team agreement: a basic set of expectations for how you want to work together as a team. It’s also a great way to learn about each others working styles.
The ICC Worfkflow
Phil Montero from The Anywhere Office has created a great process for getting the discussion started. He calls it the “ICC workflow”, which stands for Information, Communication, and Collaboration.
Start by asking your team these questions:
Information: What kinds of information do you need to share? Is there a centralized task system? A shared calendar? Do you need access to a database? An intranet?
Communication: How will you communicate with each other? Some people might prefer having live discussions in-person, over the phone or via video chats, and others might prefer email or instant messaging. What are your expected response times? Do you need to set core hours?
Collaboration: How will you know what tasks are being worked on? How will you give each other feedback?
Have you ever tried strategic planning without first getting your vision and mission right? What did you find?
If you were a small, cohesive group, maybe you breezed through goal-setting based on complete unity. It happens, but it’s rare.
For everyone else, here’s what typically happens:
You generate ho hum goals: goals that just don’t stretch the team.
It sometimes feels like you’re writing a to-do list, rather than a strategic plan.
You sign-on for strategies that are far-removed from what you see as your core business.
In short, strategic planning takes far too long and feels anything but strategic. You look at the end result and fear you’ve created a Frankenstein: pieces from here, pieces from there, with no final coherence.
And the challenges don’t end at strategy. Teams that operate without vision and mission feel the effects everywhere.
How? Here are some everyday signs you need a vision and mission:
Your branding feels disjointed or superficial.
People outside don’t get what you’re all about.
People inside don’t see their work as meaningful.
You zig and zag to meet opportunity, but you get no closer to your dream.
If a vision and mission are this important, why would anyone skip it?
First, we’re all pressed for time. Vision and mission sometimes feel like the extras we’ll get to when we have space to breathe...or when we hold our next retreat.
Second, we make assumptions. Many teams believe they’re on the same page when it comes to where they’re going, but when they sit down to plan strategically, the gaps become glaringly evident.
Finally, we misunderstand the value of having relevant, vivid, fully thought out vision and mission statements.
With this process, you’re aiming for a strategic plan that’s rooted in a clear understanding of your current situation, and that lays out a framework for moving forward that your whole team understands and embraces. As Steve Blank so clearly stated, Strategy is Not a To Do List. This leaves no room for chocolate-snarfing freeloaders in the process; everyone must actively contribute to building the plan for it to succeed.
To run strategic planning with a remote team, you must increase each participant’s individual responsibility for preparing and working outside the meeting. It’s the only way to get through planning within the time during which people can effectively engage online.
The happy side-effect: when your team does get together, every person will come with key insights and will actively contribute ideas that shape the resulting plan. When people are this involved in the process, they will also buy-in to implement the plan! This plan will be their baby, not some execu-garblety-gook destined for the round file.
4 Questions to Answer Before You Begin Strategic Planning
When Anna contacted us about a blog post, we starting talking about her unique past experience of leading strategic planning with remote teams.
We decided to explore the topic further by collaborating on a series of meeting templates that a could be used to guide a remote team through the strategic planning process.
Working Together to Bring Strategic Planning Online
Anna, who’s the expert here on strategic planning, outlined a series of meeting agenda templates and instructions for running those meetings. We then set these agendas up in Lucid Meetings, and tested out each process for ourselves, making small adjustments along the way based on our expertise in online meetings. We even ran one of the meetings twice, with Anna facilitating late at night from her Australian outpost.
This blog post is the first in a series about our experience building these strategic planning meeting templates together. The templates themselves are available in the template gallery.
Today’s post provides the context: what the strategic plan looks like, who these templates are for, and the problems unique to online planning they’re designed to solve.
In the following posts, we’ll go over:
How to prepare for strategic planning.
The 5 meetings that make up the real-time part of the strategic planning process.
Online software options that make the brainstorming part of the process easier (think sticky notes on the web).
Our experience walking through this process with the team at Lucid Meetings.
Along the way, we’re looking for your ideas and feedback. Strategic planning may be old, but planning like this with people all over the world is pretty new, and we definitely don’t have all the answers yet.
Ingredients for the Essential Strategic Plan
There are five parts to this plan, and five templates that run you through how to create them. When you’re done, the entire plan should fit on one or two pages when printed out.
There are probably some variations you can think of on these three based on different technology, but this about covers it.
Now, consider you’re working with a remote team – you’re the project manager and your team is geographically dispersed so you’re never co-located…you may never be throughout the entire project engagement.
I’ve worked several projects like this where I never even met any members of my team face-to-face during the entire project.
How do you keep virtual team meetings cohesive and focused during such a project? How do you make sure everyone is working their respective tasks and you’re consistently getting closer to a working end solution? Are meetings important?
Communication is always critical and meetings are probably more important than ever on an engagement like the one I’m describing here.
When you’re running meetings where everyone is remote and may never meet face-to-face, there are three things you need to ensure are always happening…
We are living in a digital world, and it’s likely that every manager has thought seriously about hiring remote workers.
Remote work is no longer a thing of the future – it is here, now.
In fact, it’s been around since the dawn of time - how else do you think armies were able to navigate world wars, or multi-national corporations were able to set up remote offices in far-flung locations? Examples of distributed teams are everywhere if you look for them.
After all, even if your team works in the same office, they are basically working “remotely” already - they are just across the room in front of their computers. Since everyone is digitally connected, what’s the difference if we are on a different floor, across town, across the country, or on the other side of the world?
As we have demonstrated before, there are not a lot of down sides to working remotely. Once you embrace a few basic principles of managing employees virtually, you'll be on your way to building a highly competent team of remote-working professionals.
Hint: Download the PDF facilitator guides for all 4 meetings at the end of this post.
Most teams run status meetings because they always have. Because someone told them to. Because that’s what they did in their last job. Because the client asked for them.
Just because that’s what you do.
The result? Almost 50 percent of respondents in a recent poll said they would rather go to the DMV or watch paint dry than sit in a status meeting.
Which reminds me of this old joke.
“A more frightened than injured young electrician was brought into the hospital suffering from electrical burns. Shortly afterward his instructor, a chief electrician, arrived. “Why on earth didn’t you turn off the main power switch before you tried to splice the wires?” asked the chief.
“I wanted to save time, chief, and I’ve seen you stand on one leg, grab the wires and splice without turning off the power.”
“My God, kid,” exclaimed the chief. “Didn’t you know I have a wooden leg?””
The status meeting is dead, long live the stand-up!
So if most people hate them, why not just cancel all the status meetings? Lots of people have tried this, and that can work ok for some teams. But more often, those teams run other meetings to fill in the gap: the team update, the individual check-ins, the stand-up – all basically synonymous with status meetings, but without the bad press.
This happens because status meetings are actually really effective and efficient (yep, I said it!) at keeping a team informed and connected. In many situations, this is the absolute best way to keep a group on track IF you know why you’re meeting and how to do it well.
With that in mind, here are 4 approaches to running remote team status meetings that work. Each one emphasizes different team values and work goals. Use any of them and you’ll get a project status meeting that sure beats the shiznit out of watching paint dry.