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Successful Strategic Planning Done Virtually

October 15, 2020
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It is strategic planning season again, and after the year we’ve had, there’s a lot to think about as financial institutions navigate ways to drive future growth. For many organizations, strategic planning will be conducted virtually in some form or another. Some may have portions of their team in one room, socially distancing and wearing masks, while other team members connect virtually. Other institutions will have everyone dialing in remotely.

While virtual meetings are nothing new, especially in 2020, strategic planning traditionally has been conducted in person over the course of at least two days. Converting six to 12 hours of total, traditional strategic planning time into a virtual setting is not ideal, nor do I recommend it. What I do recommend is implementing these tried and proven tips to help make your virtual strategic planning a success.

Limit On-Camera Meeting Time

Both Microsoft and Google have collected a plethora of data examining virtual meeting fatigue. Meeting in a video setting is more stressful than in person due to the amount of increased information being sent to your brain. You have to focus your attention on one monitor that has multiple camera feeds, a presentation and your own image staring back at you. Not only are you trying to process the information on the presentation and what the facilitator is saying, but you also are distracted by the different backgrounds you see from your colleagues, maybe even trying to figure out what books they like to read from the bookshelf behind them. You also are distracted by your own image and what might be on display from your own background, while conscientious of trying to appear attentive to the discussion.

Virtual settings generate too much information for your brain to process, and it easily becomes tired. For that reason, I recommend no more than two hours of on-camera meeting time with a planned brain break after the first hour. Two hours is not enough time to complete a full strategic planning session, but four hours is. I encourage you to have two virtual planning days at two hours each. It may be a third of the time you are accustomed to, but it is much more efficient and effective than one long on-camera meeting.   

Establish Virtual Etiquette Expectations

Knowing that virtual meetings already send our brains into information overload, you need to minimize distractions as much as possible. You can quickly get all participants to reduce distractions by establishing clear expectations of how to conduct themselves during the virtual strategic planning meetings.

Just as traditional, in-person strategic planning sessions generally include expectations to not be on cell phones, virtual meetings should have similar etiquette. Managing a virtual meeting with the same level of focus and undivided attention as a traditional meeting is quite different. For one thing, the participants are all coming from different environments. You are no longer meeting in one, controlled space. For that reason, it is imperative to set clear expectations to help participants create an area that minimizes distractions as much as possible. Some virtual etiquette expectations you may want to include are:

  • Leave your keyboard and other mobile devices alone – These are distracting to other participants and prevent you from devoting your full attention to the meeting
  • Mute your microphone when you are not speaking – This helps eliminate any background noise that might disrupt the speaker and prevent everyone from hearing key information
  • Speak up when you are sharing with the group – Even though you may be in a private room, speak as if you are addressing a room full of your colleagues. There is sometimes a delay in microphones picking up when you first speak, and participants may have varying volume levels
  • Stay seated and stay present – Just as you would conduct yourself in person, do not be distracted by emails or texting
  • Have your video camera on – Even though we are not meeting in person, being able to see each other virtually will help establish trust as we collaborate on key strategic initiatives to help drive sustainable growth

Prepare Participants in Advance

In order to have a successful, four-hour virtual strategic planning meeting, I recommend helping your attendees prepare prior to the meeting itself. Be sure to share expectations of the virtual meeting with guidelines for establishing stable, quiet, professional environments with tested internet and audio capabilities. Make sure everyone has their own machine with a working camera. This is also a good time to identify any participants who may need extra technical assistance. Provide an agenda of the meetings in advance so participants understand what will be discussed. Also, establish a clear goal of what you anticipate accomplishing in the meetings to help set expectations for everyone involved.

A successful virtual planning meeting requires you to get to the core discussion points right from the start. In order to do that, I recommend assigning homework to participants. Specifically, I would assign prereading of key topics including: current economic environment and expected trends, industry trends, changes in consumer behaviors, and technology advancements. Set expectations for them to share at least two takeaways from the articles they read. This will help engage everyone in the virtual environment and encourage collaboration on key elements that will shape your strategic plan. 

Virtual environments create new opportunities for managing planning sessions, but they require an adaptation to the traditional approach. Financial institutions should prepare an agenda that reduces on-camera time, as well as involves participants in the discussion based on their prereading assignments. This will help elevate the level of focus and drive deeper collaboration, enabling you to conduct a succinct strategic planning meeting resulting in a plan that is clear and actionable.