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10 tips for how to do business strategy when you're remote

Photo by www.ccPixs.com
When you start talking about strategy, many people immediately think of strategy offsites. Indeed, the strategy offsite is one of the cornerstones of many strategy processes. I've written about them before at 14 tips for running a strategy day that works. (You should consider everything in this post as being in addition to the tips in that post.)

But what do you do when you can't get everyone together? How do you do strategy when you're remote?

Here are some handy suggestions for remote strategy workshops and other ways of doing strategy remotely.

1. Use video, not just audio


Audio is fine for shorter and more transactional meetings. But for longer meetings and more complex, nuanced subjects, use video.

Video adds:
  1. Non-verbal communications from body language and facial expressions.
  2. Clearer cues as to who would like to speak and when they are finished. This helps to reduce people talking over each other. This is a common problem in audio-only conferences.
  3. More engagement.

2. Get familiar with your meeting software


There are lots of choices. The current darling is Zoom. But there are also:
Decide which one you're going to use and make sure you're familiar with the procedures for:
  1. inviting people to your meetings, and
  2. running your meetings
Anticipate that not everyone will be familiar with whatever solution you've chosen. Issue clear instructions. As the convenor, understand your ability to do things like:
  1. muting participants when they are not meant to be speaking,
  2. taking (back control) of screen sharing privileges, etc.

3. Adapt your hosting style


There are many techniques for controlling a meeting when you're physically present. The easiest and most well known of these is simply for the presenter to stand up whilst everyone else is sitting down. You can use sound cues, like a bell, to signal the end of breakout conversations in larger groups.

These techniques don't work in online meetings.

The technology may provide some alternative aids:
  • Allowing the facilitator to mute other participants while one is speaking.
  • Allowing participants to type questions using the conference tool chat facility, etc.
But you will also need to change your style of meeting chairing. Be clear upfront about how you will handle questions and participation. Offer clear breaks where you clearly welcome and actively manage comments and questions.

4. Adapt your presentation materials


A virtual meeting still needs quality inputs. These could include analysis, plans or progress updates.

In a physical environment, you might have a speaker talking to some visual aids. The audience can see both the speaker and the visual aids at the same time.

In most virtual environments, can see either the speaker or the visual aids at any one time.

So, it is important that the visual aids or even more engaging than normal. And that the speaker uses tone of voice, inflection and timing even more dynamically.

You can make visual aids more engaging using animation and videos. Animation helps to ensure that slides are not too packed with information and overwhelming. They also help to pace the delivery more effectively.

Powerpoint is probably the most common tool for visual aids. It has a number of features for animation built into it. But perhaps this is the time to switch to something even more engaging, like Prezi. See also: Five presentation apps to replace PowerPoint.

5. Get interactive


In a physical workshop, you might use a flip-chart or whiteboard to keep things interactive. You can use these to record key ideas and next steps, etc. But you won't have ready access to these in a remote environment.

Fortunately, though, presentation materials no longer need to be passive.

For example, you can build feedback loops directly into your presentations using tools like Poll Everywhere or ParticiPoll. There are many more alternatives if Powerpoint integration does not matter to you.

These allow you to
  • present a question to your audience
  • display the results live in your presentation (all without leaving Powerpoint)
  • download the results after the meeting for further analysis.
You can use interactive presentation materials in conjunction with collaboration tools (see below).

6. Adapt your workshop process


Zoom allows you to break your meeting out into working groups. This is very similar to having breakout rooms in a physical meeting. The working groups can then have separate meetings with a meeting. These smaller groups can be more engaging and ensure everyone has a chance to contribute. This is particularly important as your overall group gets larger. The results can then be collated before everyone rejoins the main meeting in plenary.

You can do this without special the functionality in Zoom, though. This may be more complex. You may have to ask your participants to dial in and out of a number of different meetings.

All of this requires more preparation (see below). Are you clear on:
  • who will be in which groups,
  • how you will get them there, and
  • how you will get them back.
It might make sense to ensure you have a well-briefed facilitator in each breakout room.

7. Consider shorter sessions


Getting everyone physically together in the same place can be expensive. So it makes sense to pack in a full day of activities when you do. Sometimes it makes sense to pack in a few days of activities.

It also makes it tempting to include other topics not directly related to your strategy process.

But when you're meeting remotely, this cost impact is different.

Do you really need a whole day? Or would you be better off splitting the meeting into different sections and running those on different days?

Holding people's attention for an extended period of time is even more difficult in an online environment than it is when you're physically present. Its harder to eliminate distractions when everyone is in their own remote environment.

Perhaps that creates an opportunity for shorter sessions, allowing people to do additional work and reflect on progress in between them. In fact, you might find that most of the real work happens outside of your meetings. The meetings then serve as punctuation marks. They ensure everyone is working at the same pace and on the same page.

We recommend remote strategy sessions of about 2 hours.

If your audience is in different time-zones, consider:
  • What times of day they are all available at the same time.
  • What times of day are most productive for your participants.

8. Make use of remote working tools


There is seemingly no end of remote working tools. You can use them:
  • within a remote workshop (synchronously), or
  • outside of the workshop setting (either synchronously or asynchronously) for preparation and processing of outputs.
If using them within a workshop, I advise:
  • Consider having one person to facilitate the workshop and another person to operate the tool. It can be difficult to do both at the same time.
  • Ensure the tool operator is very familiar with the tool.
  • Consider whether you invite your participants to work with the tool themselves, or just watch the tool operator capturing the conversation. This may depend on how technical adept your participants are.
We can divide these tools into three categories:
  1. document-based
  2. whiteboard-based
  3. purpose-build collaborative strategy tools.

Document-based collaboration tools


Google Docs paved the way with live multi-user document editing.

Microsoft Word followed suit with similar capabilities. However, you can only use them in conjunction with Microsoft Sharepoint. Powerpoint has similar features.

General-purpose collaboration whiteboards


Collaboration 'whiteboards' like Miro try to reproduce a more free-flowing whiteboard/post-it note session style online.

They're very flexible. But like document-based tools, they require you to come up with your own meeting process and output structure.

Purpose-built collaborative strategy tools


Then there are purpose-built collaborative strategy tools like StratNavApp.com. StratNavApp.com brings strategy development and execution best practice online. And its collaboration features make it ideal for remote work. Its post-it note style interface makes it simple and engaging to use.

(Disclosure: The author is the founder of StratNavApp.com.)

9. Increase preparation


Doing strategy remotely requires more preparation from the facilitator.
  • We generally have less experience of doing it.
  • We have to allow for all the additional complexities as outlined above.
But we should also demand more preparation from participants. It's even more important that participants should have pre-read and digested all materials before the meeting. Offer them an opportunity to ask clarifying questions about any pre-reading. It is much more difficult to discern if your participants are confused about the materials when you're working remotely. So try and sort out any confusion before the meeting starts.

10. Use a skilled facilitator


It's important enough to use a skilled facilitator for traditional face-to-face meetings. It's even more important when you're working remotely.


I suspect that doing strategy remotely is relatively new for all of us. I did some research on the web and found that very little has been written on the subject. I'd love to hear your experiences, suggestions and questions in the comments or by social media. And if you need some help, please don't hesitate to contact me.

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