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Big, Theatrical Meetings Are a Waste of Time

Too often, business review meetings — in which executives and stakeholders hear project or performance updates from managers and staff — are run like theater productions. Enormous amounts of time and effort go into creating the impression that all is well and that any problems are well on their way to being overcome. But these anodyne meetings leave little chance that serious problems and gaps will be discussed and addressed. To keep initiatives on track and solving the actual problems that organizations and their customers face, leaders need to update their approach to review meetings in three ways: 1) Create their agendas to be about the future, not a review of the past; 2) Create a culture of safety around bringing up challenging ideas and problems, and 3) Rigorously review each review meeting in order to improve the next one.

Most organizations 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 unrecognized, 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 theater.” 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 center 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 discussi

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