Online Strategy Workshop
by Katrin Bässler-Vogel and Uwe Malinoswki
Dear Uwe (UM), dear Katrin (KBV), just the other day you told us about a virtual strategy workshop that you conducted together. We are very interested in your experiences. When we think of strategy workshops, images of leadership teams meeting in a special place, e.g. in the mountains or at a lake, come to mind. There are hours of discussions to wrestle with alignment and perspectives, one-on-one meetings to advance individual clarifications - and finally, there is an evening program that provides yet another connection between participants on a personal level.
We previously assumed that "strategy workshop" was a contact sport, and were sure that it could only work if everyone was in the same room with each other. Effective strategy work needs depth, intensity and a high level of trust - and that doesn't really work well online, does it? Because of the Corona pandemic, you've held a number of strategy workshops virtually, together or individually, over the past few months. Many of the approaches that have been tried and tested so far can probably only be transferred to the virtual world to a limited extent.
Should leadership teams still conduct strategy workshops online?
UM: My answer is an unqualified "yes. After all, strategic challenges do not become fewer or smaller if you leave them lying around. Given the current travel restrictions, no one knows when they will be able to meet in person again. Of course, this is especially true for international teams.
Are there certain requirements that must be met in every case?
UM: Even if it's not a basic requirement, we have achieved particularly good results when the teams have known each other for a long time. Trust forms the basis for being able to discuss topics openly, controversially and with depth. And it definitely helps if you know each other well.
KBV: At the same time, it makes things more difficult because the group is used to dealing with each other differently in a strategy workshop than in a rushed day-to-day situation: In this particular situation, they can afford to discuss a lot of things to the end, no matter how long it takes. I'm just thinking about an online workshop we did the other day with a management team we've been familiar with for years. The heated discussions pushed the well-prepared, virtual format to its limits. Thanks to our robust foundation of trust and good contact despite distance, we were able to capture the whole thing and bring it back into structure.
When a leadership team plans a strategy workshop and wants or needs to hold it virtually: What do you need to keep in mind? What is different than in a strategy workshop in presence?
KBV: As mentioned, the structure here has to be stricter in any case than in a workshop where everyone is in one room. Since you have to prepare virtual workshops even more precisely, there is less flexibility here; you can react less dynamically to things and, for example, adapt the process or the methods out of the situation. This doesn't mean that this form has to be rigid and inflexible, rather you have to anticipate the flexibility to a certain degree. Another useful and cherished habit is also not feasible in the digital format: the "by the way" clarification of issues in bilateral conversations. Facilitators should keep this on their radar. Reflection loops among themselves and with the manager or contact with individual participants as needed in the times between modules should be part of the process.
UM: And of course, a suitable infrastructure is needed, from sufficient bandwidth to a good set-up (camera, microphone, etc.) to suitable communication and collaboration platforms. Conducting virtual workshops requires additional expertise from us as consultants: We have to know the tools, select the right combination depending on the area of application, and then master them. Of course, we have learned a lot in recent months. In principle, the platforms can all do the same things, but the details are always a little different. And we have also developed the confidence to improvise within the tools if necessary. But this learning journey is not over yet.
It is not only in strategy workshops that there are repeated attempts to avoid conflicts, e.g. with the request "Let's clarify this objectively".
KBV: Of course, this works just as poorly online, despite the best carefully prepared structuring. I would even say that this is even more difficult to handle than when everyone is in the same room. If conflicts arise out of nowhere or participants become emotional, it is even less controllable by the moderation. Here, a metacommunication/attitude well established from the beginning is even more important than usual. Also, an agreement at the beginning on how everyone will handle such a situation can prove helpful.
UM: This is a particular challenge because I can't feel the energy in the room. You can't do that with the best tools. So we need frequent feedback loops. These have to be short interventions, they have to be quick, with different methods and tools. The whole workshop concept and all methods must be geared towards interaction, neither the facilitator nor any participant must switch to "presentation mode".
What would have to happen for the virtual strategy workshop to definitely not succeed?
KBV: In a classic strategy workshop, ideally everyone is in one conference location, or at least in one room. This ensures focus and concentration and makes it easier to generate the necessary energy for the topics. Those who want to fail translate the classic formats 1:1 digitally. A professionally scheduled online workshop is divided into several, shorter units. Several blocks of about 3 hours have proven successful.
UM: This structure seems to be an invitation for some participants to work on other topics from their daily business before, between and after the blocks. This does not work. Then there is neither focus nor energy. By the second block of a day at the latest, some participants are no longer "in it" - and that can hardly be absorbed later. Here it has proven itself to declare the entire period of e.g. 1.5 or 2 days as workshop time. This should be done with the announcement that workshop work is to be scheduled as "homework" between the joint online times.
Are there any other absolute "no-go's"?
It's like an aquarium: Everyone in the room is in contact with each other and connected; everyone else is behind the glass and observing what's going on. Maybe they knock on the glass, then the "fish" are briefly irritated - and then continue as before.
KBV: Since, as I said, we can't translate strategy workshops 1-1, it takes more planning until the workshop is ready in terms of content and technology. Preparing a workshop ad hoc without the necessary lead time is therefore another "no-go".
What are the advantages of virtual strategy workshops and what can we learn from previous experiences for the "new normal"?
UM: Leadership teams can meet more frequently in an online format; strategic issues can be discussed in shorter cycles. This also makes agile, iterative strategy development possible. And of course, a combination of face-to-face and online formats is then also conceivable and makes sense. Overall, management teams in particular, which are scattered all over the world, gain a whole new flexibility.
KBV: Genuine individual work with its individual perspectives has also become more important again. We rarely took this into account in workshops; "time was too precious" for that. Now we propose regular individual reflections for the times between the online modules, where everyone can take their time to think and prepare a presentation. This creates good visibility of the individual situation/position and shows us where the individual stands. During the longer breaks between the workshop modules, groups can also self-organize and implement their tasks as they see fit. In this way, we have immediately taken into account another basis for successful virtual formats: The frequent change of methods.