In her book, “Seeing Around Corners,” Rita McGrath notes that insights at the “edges” of an organization — close to the customers but far from the executive suite — can take a long time to reach the top of the food chain, if they get there at all.
This can be problematic for a number of reasons, but it’s particularly troublesome when it relates to the development of a strategic plan.
Here, communication in both directions between the front line and top executives is essential. Not only does this ensure that everyone feels engaged and part of the process, but it also uncovers critical information that may be otherwise overlooked, while limiting the likelihood of important stakeholders being surprised by the final plan.
All fine and good. But when the organization is large, the problems are complex, and the stakeholders are diverse, it may be easier said than done. It’s not like you can fit everyone into a conference room and hammer out a strategy over lunch. Under these circumstances, the “Town Hall” meeting format can be especially effective.
Direct Participation at All Levels
As the name suggests, the idea of a business Town Hall meeting originated in American politics as a way for political leaders — who were literally standing in a town hall — to speak to, and more importantly, hear from their constituents on current issues. During the Jack Welch era, General Electric was well known for using the concept to connect its senior executives to groups of employees for the same purpose.
I’ve used this approach as well in my work. For example, during the strategic planning process for a state university, we were able to successfully engage nearly 1,000 people using this format. This was an organization with many diverse stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc.), and the Town Hall gave participants a chance to have unfiltered, firsthand knowledge of what was being discussed and considered and, if they chose, to have direct input into the overall strategy.
But it does take some planning and an appreciation of the fact that these are not simply meetings to inform about decisions already made. To be most effective, they need to be interactive and informative, with senior leadership in particular genuinely open to feedback and input from all levels of the organization.
With that in mind, here are five suggestions for running a Town Hall meeting well:
1. Begin by setting the stage.
Start by providing information and context for the session, and do so in an objective way, with little editorial commentary. You don’t want to give the impression that you have already reached conclusions about the meaning of the information, nor do you want to provide “incomplete” material (i.e., leaving out some data points that might not support your hoped-for direction).
Make sure to limit the scope and complexity of the information presented. You want your audience to be able to reasonably digest what is being discussed, and some (many?) participants may lack the background, training, or context required to dive in deeply. If there are a lot of issues to address, it is better to have more town hall meetings than to try to get all the issues jammed into one.
In the university example I mentioned earlier, we focused initially on just a few critical external trends we viewed as most relevant, along with how we saw the university’s performance related to those specific developments. That provided for a focused discussion — subsequent town hall meetings built on what we learned in the first one.
2. Allow plenty of time for questions and answers.
For example, with a 90-minute town hall, you might limit presentation time to just 30 minutes, leaving the remainder for discussion. This might be counterintuitive to those in senior management who are used to presenting at length, but it’s important to recognize that by reserving a majority of the time for open conversation, you are demonstrating a genuine commitment to receiving input from those in attendance.
(PRO TIP: you may want to seed the discussion by making sure a few people in the audience have questions prepared, as waiting for the first person to speak up can cause a long and awkward pause.)
3. Don’t be defensive if challenged.
Very early in my career, when working in the supermarket industry, I attended a Town Hall meeting where the first question — raised by an important and thoughtful member of field operations — was greeted with an angry response by the CEO who rejected the premise behind the question. Needless to say, and though the meeting continued for a while afterwards, it was effectively over after that response. Neither of the goals — receiving useful input and gaining engagement of the employees — was achieved.
This means that while you ought to be prepared for uncomfortable questions or challenges, you should enter with a mindset of acceptance. If there is a misleading or erroneous basis behind the challenge, it is of course important to provide a correction — but do so in a calm and objective manner, correcting the data but not challenging the person or their motivations.
4. Establish a means for post-meeting input.
Despite the significant time allocated for Q&A, not everyone with a question or concern will feel comfortable speaking up in front of a large group. To make sure you receive all relevant input, you will want to provide a way for participants to follow up after the fact. In my university example, we created a unique email address that went to the co-chairs of the executive committee, two individuals who were well known and trusted in the community.
5. Provide a meeting recap.
Perhaps most critical is that you distribute a meeting summary — evidence that you heard the feedback and any subsequent questions or comments. Keep it simple and concise, identifying a few key take-aways that the planning group had from the session. Overall, it is more important for the recap to be timely (ideally within a few days after the session) than fully comprehensive and detailed.
If there were critical comments or questions received that were not adequately addressed in the live meeting, provide the question and response in that summary. If any of the feedback was compelling enough to lead to a decision or end up in the ultimate strategic plan, it is helpful to share that as well.
All of this helps to demonstrate that you were genuine in your intent to consider new ideas and confirms to stakeholders that it is worthwhile to share their views with leadership.
Communication during the process of developing a strategic plan is as important — if not more so — than communicating when the plan is “complete.”
In my experience, having now incorporated several of these Town Hall sessions at various stages of the strategic planning process and with a range of organizations, this is an approach that can be relied upon to engage a broad and diverse set of stakeholders, uncover ideas from all areas of the organization, and lead to strategic plans that are communicated and embraced by most in the community.