Most organizations spend a tremendous amount of time and effort in business review meetings. Some of them cover key projects, others large sales, and still others the overall performance of the company or unit. In any case, the aim is to create a dialogue between senior managers and line managers about how the company or project is doing against its strategic objectives, where gaps may exist and what is needed to fill these gaps.
When done right, business reviews are powerful tools. Without them initiatives can go off the rails, projects that should be killed continue to consume resources, poor performance goes unnoticed and goes unaddressed, great people go unrecognized, and you end up being surprised by issues that should have. be resolved much sooner.
Unfortunately, many corporate review meetings are more spectacular than substantial, becoming what I call a “corporate review theater”. Here’s an example: Several years ago, I worked with the CEO of a diverse manufacturing company. Each business unit spent several weeks a year preparing quarterly reviews in which managers presented current performance numbers, pointed out anomalies in numbers, provided explanations, and described what they were doing to get things back on track. Whenever the CEO or CFO asked a question, managers responded in a way that demonstrated their complete mastery of the business.
But the CEO and CFO weren’t impressed. While most companies are doing well, there were worrying signs for the future: an aging customer base, changing macroeconomic conditions, new competitors entering their markets, and insufficient new product development and innovation. There never seemed to be time to dig into these issues during reviews and questions about them were almost always dismissed with a description of how the company was already dealing with them.
In my experience, this is not an isolated case. Many business reviews tend to be devoid of real conversation, important questions, or follow-up actions. So how can businesses stop wasting hours of precious time preparing reviews of the past and instead create conversations that help prepare for the future?
Why do we do corporate exam theater?
The first step is to understand the root of the problem. There are two basic reasons why corporate review theater is so prevalent.
The first stems from the failure of senior management to set an appropriate agenda for review meetings. If not guided, managers naturally focus on areas that are performing well or will try to revisit all aspects of the business.
The second is that business unit or project managers fear that reviews will reveal inadequacies in what they are doing, which could give them a bad image or expose them to scrutiny or interference from the public. high direction. This anxiety is exacerbated when senior managers have a habit of embarrassing people with trick-type questions or berating them in front of their co-workers for doing something wrong.
To drive more productive business evaluations, you need to address both of these issues. From my work with hundreds of companies over the years, here are three key steps you can take.
Focus on the future
To create a more fruitful agenda, structure the exam session around specific, actionable topics that can improve future performance. The word “review” implies looking back and, indeed, it is important to know what happened in the past month or quarter in order to learn lessons. But this information can be sent in advance so that the discussion can focus on Why things have gone a certain way in the past and what, if anything, should be done differently in the future. To help identify these critical topics, senior leaders, as the target audience, should be actively involved in setting the agenda and focus on the priority issues that truly require discussion.
For example, take the project scorecards used by speech recognition software company Nuance in their reviews. CEO Mark Benjamin demands that dashboards highlight not only current performance, but also progress on three strategic questions: How to increase scalability? How can we leverage our use of the cloud? How to overinvest in opportunities that can become inflection points for business growth? His teams are then able to use the reviews as working sessions on how to improve current performance while answering these critical questions.
The same shift in focus also made a big difference in an international aid organization I worked with. Frustrated at being asked to only review projects that were fully completed, the board created a forum to review projects that were at the initial idea stage and insisted that lower level staff and the managers who staffed the projects make the presentations. This gave the board the opportunity to contribute ideas and advice on future projects rather than ritually approving already formed projects.
Depending on the goal you want, also consider the invitation list for your reviews. Participants should be fit for purpose, selected not only because of their status or title, but because they could make a real difference in moving the project or business to the next stage.
Create a safe space for solid dialogue
To overcome participants’ fear of appearing inadequate, you need to make them feel that they are free to speak up, come up with ideas, and challenge each other. To create this kind of safe space, you need to strike a balance between appearing too passive on one side and too critical on the other.
If, as a senior manager, you act like a passive member of the audience, you will get a performance. In a pharmaceutical company I worked with, senior executives, many of whom were scientists themselves, had to learn to be tougher on team members by digging deeper into the data and bringing in the group. to ask tough questions about what that meant for how to move forward – rather than accepting everything that was presented.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you get the upper hand, dominate the conversation, put people down, and act like the smartest person in the room, you’ll get a performance too – but with actors (managers) on their toes, hesitant to engage in dialogue or raise difficult questions to which they do not have ready answers. In the humanitarian organization I worked with, the board started joining staff for collegiate brainstorming sessions. It took several meetings for staff to feel comfortable with a group they were more accustomed to seeing as judgmental, but over time they learned that mixing their technical expertise with political savvy of the board of directors led to more viable projects.
One way to create this balance is to ask questions, not just give opinions. A manufacturing CEO we worked with used to be the line boss and liked everyone to submit to his authority. But acting in this way discouraged his people from having a real conversation about what to do. As she learned to ask questions, managers began to open up about their thinking, which led to much more solid dialogue, problem solving and learning.
Review your comments
The third step to avoiding corporate review theater is to periodically evaluate and adjust the process itself.
For example, at Augury, a growing IOT machine health company, Keren Rubin, head of human resources and culture, helps organize many trade reviews. True to 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 that had too many slides, too much data, and not enough time, Rubin worked with that executive to refine the scope of the review, release the documents. in advance, rethink the participants, define the key issues to be addressed and reshape the process so that the next review becomes a much more constructive dialogue.
There is no one right way to conduct a business or project assessment. But if yours have turned into stage performances, maybe it’s time to shape a different approach. These simple changes can turn your project reviews into problem-solving forums focused on changing the future, not just rehashing the past.