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You’ve been invited, along with 50 other top leaders, to attend an all day meeting to discuss and decide some key strategic issues. This executive sponsored session promises to “engage in lively debate about our innovation strategy and reach a consensus on the general direction for the coming year”. You have been tapped because of your expertise and leadership role and because you will have implementation responsibilities. It is off site, facilitated by external consultants and followed by a nice dinner as a “thank you”. You see which colleagues have been invited and you are interested…if not exactly excited to attend.

Interested because, in theory, this is the right thing to do. Pull together all the relevant players, hash out the issues and draw some conclusions. Not exactly excited because you’ve been to this rodeo before. What is good in theory has little carry over into reality. Lots of kabuki theater followed by the executive team going off by themselves later to make a set of decisions that look nothing like what took place that day. Oh well, at least a great restaurant was selected for the dinner.

I’m all for good intentions but senior teams can be blind to the good will capital they burn up when the follow-through falls short…usually very short. Let’s take a look at what is really happening here.

  • Executive teams that plan and conduct these meetings genuinely want broader input and value engaging others. They admire and respect these top leaders and want them involved in decision making. Really!
  • But the comfort level of participating in one of these wide ranging group sessions varies amongst executives. Some would rather have root canal than be in one of these meetings while others are pigs in shit. Most leaders are somewhere in the middle…not sure what they are supposed to do or say, ready to jump all over horrible ideas, surprised to hear an unlikely superstar’s ideas, inpatient with the whole process, pleased to see people so engaged. This type of setting is difficult for many leaders.
  • Hope springs eternal for the invited participants. Although deeply skeptical that this meeting will end up differently than many others, people get involved in the process in spite of themselves. Most take it seriously and give it their best shot. They have been dying to put in their two cents and this is the forum for that.
  • These sessions tend to end with a thud. After the flurry of conversation and activity all day long everyone is having their doubts. The participants are thinking “Okay, good discussion but I have no faith that our voices will have mattered in the end.” And the senior team is thinking “What are we going to do with all this input? Half of these ideas are crap and the other half are too expensive (or fill in the blank).” So even though there is good cheer over dinner there are only a few dreamers in the group that believe that things will unfold has outlined on those last flip charts.
  • In the end the senior team feels fully responsible for making a set of strategic decisions that may or may not be informed by anything that took place in the room that day.

Once again I want to highlight that there are no bad guys in this scenario. There is just a bunch of regular human beings trying to do the right thing but finding out that is easier said than done.

True confession time: I have designed and facilitated more of these processes than I can count. I always warned the senior team up front: If you do not use the group’s ideas for real in your decision making then this is a scam and you are better off not conducting a charade. Naturally they all reassured me of how serious they were. I won’t go into the gory details of our debrief discussions but the punch line I heard repeatedly was: They just don’t understand the issues fully. I pushed and cajoled as best I could to break through their barriers but had only sporadic success.

In an attempt to redeem myself and to spare all of you from this misery let’s rethink this. If the goal is to engage a broader group of leaders (at least) to have input or (at most) to participate in decision making I think we need a new approach. After all, proper motivation is a terrible thing to waste.

Here are some ideas: (do try this at home)

  • The executive team has an honest discussion about soliciting input from others for the purpose of decision making. If there is resistance to outside influence, discuss why. Is this a topic that does not lend itself to more voices? Is the team so insular that it won’t let anyone/anything else in? Are members willing but the CEO is not? Get real here. If there is a brick wall that won’t come down, then be clear to each other and the rest of the organization that decision making rests within this group. Don’t pretend otherwise.
  • If the team is open to more input, each executive reaches out to have conversations on a specific topic with 3-5 key people who do not report to them. You can do this individually or in a small group. Keep the questions focused and only meet for an hour. Frame the meeting as “picking your brain on this issue” rather than input for decision making. Take notes.
  • At a senior team meeting each member shares a summary of what they learned. This is brief: interesting ideas, repeated ideas, ideas I believe we must consider. Group/cluster what you learned into some logical scheme. Select one group to discuss. At the next meetings discuss the other themes. Do this in bite sizes versus considering the whole universe of input. Charge the team with keeping an open mind and mulling over some stuff.
  • If something seems particularly compelling, invite a few staff experts into the senior team meeting to discuss it further. Don’t ask them to heavily prepare…this needs to be a conversation with just high level data. Do this as many times as warranted.
  • When key decisions are made and there is clear evidence that staff had a hand in where things landed, announce that to the larger staff. “Thanks in part to these people we have decided to…”
  • If you want to have a free flowing brainstorm session on a specific issue, keep it small and short. There is still a place for idea generation in group settings. Frame it as “We are looking at X and we just wanted to pull this group of folks together to see if we could look at this in some new ways. This may or may not lead to anything but we would really appreciate an hour of your time.”

In order to arrive at honest-to-goodness engaged and consultative decision making it may work better if it is done more intimately. There are loads of secondary gains by taking this approach. Execs develop rapport with folks outside their area. More in depth discussions can take place in 1:1 or small group settings. Staff feel singled out in a special way for these conversations. Small and short brainstorming can be energizing…especially if it is not attached to big expectations. Execs are engaged in engaging others. This approach may reach fewer people per incident but it will be richer.

In reality, there is a time and place for high impact and effective group engagement processes. Information sharing, idea generation (that is unrelated to major strategic decisions), team/culture enhancing. Input and/or decision making…not so much. I wish it did work because it sounds so good on paper. I have seen the error of my past ways and I hope all is forgiven!

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