Executive Meetings – Critical Forums or Kabuki?

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Patrick Lencioni wrote Death by Meeting in which he explored the usefulness of meetings and made some recommendations about meetings – not just their conduct, but when and whether they were needed. I want to take a look at the effectiveness of “less structured” and “more structured” executive meetings by considering some meetings in which I have participated.

First, I want to look at two (very) small executive meetings that I prompted as a Navy Program Manager. In both cases, I planned to raise issues concerning resources with the three- and four- star admirals who controlled the needed resources. Both of these meetings fall into the “less structured” category.

  • In the first case (a case of planning ahead), I wanted to give the Admiral (four star) a heads up that my program would be asking for something like one percent of all his operational resources for an entire year – about four years after my heads up. That is a huge deal because naval operational resources are fully (as in 100%) scheduled in detail two and more years in advance. We planned the brief to lay out what needed to be done and why those needs were real. Then we laid out what we had done to reduce the demand on his resources and how his resources would be used only to complete the validation of the results we had already achieved – but we would still need the full one percent! The meeting was not contentious or adversarial, but the Admiral challenged us – HARD. I certainly don’t blame him. We were, essentially, “asking for the world.” That said, we had worked very hard to provide him with the information that he needed to make a very difficult decision, and the discussion that I had with the Admiral after I laid out my case was a very productive interchange. He knew and understood what I was doing and the importance of “my” program, and I had provided him with details he had not known before. The whole meeting took about an hour (which was half an hour more than his staff had allowed – I’m sure they were unhappy) and resulted in the Admiral deciding to include all of my resource requirements in his plans. Now, actually coughing up those resources was still years in the future, but the marker was there. It was a good meeting and the results justified both all the work my team and I had invested and the hour of the Admiral’s time.
  • In the second case, I needed to go “on bended knees” to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (number two Admiral in the Navy), and his Vice Admiral (three star) Deputy and budget lead, and ask for a large chunk of new money in the budget that was being put together at that time. For folks not familiar with Navy and DoD planning, budget planning starts six years in the future as the last year in the Future Years Defense plan (FYDP) and gather more and more detail as that year gets closer to the present. Budgets “get real” two years from the present (or execution) year. Trying to change the budget for the year after the execution year is REALLY hard because the change will have to ripple through so many other budget line items. Again, my team and I worked hard to lay out the explanation of why we needed the new money and why we were raising this issue (literally) at the last minute. This was a very short brief, but a much longer Q&A session with a great deal of discussion about all sorts of possible alternatives. While my team and I had worked through all of these alternatives, we had not tried to cover them in our brief or the “read ahead” that we provided to the admirals. The discussion was free flowing and the admirals raised the issues from their own, encyclopedic, knowledge of the Navy’s programs and budget. The discussions were, as I recall, incredibly thorough and productive. In the end, the VCNO told his VADM Deputy to “fix the problem.” That did not, by the way, mean that I would get all I asked for, but that I would work with the right folks on the Navy staff to achieve a workable solution for my program and for the Navy. I think that was the best possible result of the meeting.

Now, I want to look at two larger (and more “structured”) meetings – one while I was a Navy Program Manager and one while I was an executive in industry. In both of these cases, the meeting was part of a larger set of discussions by Navy/company senior executives and the meetings were highly structured.

  • In the first of these meetings, I was briefing the Navy “N8” (the VADM budget dude – but one of the predecessors of the VADM in the second case above) on one of my programs so that the VADM could make a decision about transferring U.S. Navy assets to an allied country. Such a transfer, while certainly reasonable, was restricted by an extremely complicated set of U.S. and allied configuration decisions – sort of like which replacement parts can and cannot be used in your three-year old laptop. When I say “complicated,” think along the lines of a set of matrices in which there were probably twenty different variables. This is not something that could be covered in the ten minutes I was allowed. I made an offer to the VADM to provide the admirals (there was a roomful of them) with the definitive configuration matrix. The admiral replied with, “I think that we can make that decision without a matrix.” That was the end of my brief, and I received a letter signed by the president directing me to transfer systems to an ally for which they would not have worked (those configuration decisions). It took me almost a month and some significant help from Admiral, Sir Snuffy Smith and General Colin Powel to unscrew that decision. The meeting was too structured and too constrained to permit the discussion that the decision makers needed to make a good decision. It wasn’t a meeting. It was a “Kabuki” dance.
  • In the second meeting, I was briefing my company’s most senior executives. My team and I had put together a good brief describing our exploration of a new market area. As can be imagined, since this was new market area, it required some significant detail describing why we segmented the area the way we did and why the areas we were recommending that we pursue made more sense than pursuing the areas more familiar to the executives. My colleague who “managed” these executive sessions rejected our brief and wanted it restructured into a pre-defined format “so the executives can absorb the material quickly and efficiently.” After a great deal of “discussion” we restructured the brief. Caveat: the following is my perspective. I’m sure my colleague had a different one. The restructured brief presented only a need for resources that would have to have been drawn from the executive’s current budget and did not provide a significant justification for such a reallocation. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get the budget, and I believe the company missed a genuine “Blue Ocean” opportunity. The meeting was another “Kabuki” dance.

The point of taking your time to review, in detail, these four executive meeting examples is not to either pat myself on the back or for sour grapes, but to look at important decision meetings and what approach should be taken to the meetings.

The meetings that “went well” were fairly unstructured and allowed me to present my position with my rationale and then have a free-flowing discussion exploring alternatives and consequences. The meetings that didn’t “go well” were highly structured to “make the best use” of the executives’ time. Certainly, they didn’t spend any extra time, but they certainly did make a bad decision in one case and may have missed a major opportunity in the second case – because the meetings were too structured and constrained. While an executive’s time is important, it is not more important than ensuring that the time used results in good decisions. I believe that executives (or at least most of them) are smart and can engage in unstructured and still productive discussions within an overall meeting agenda. I think that overly structured/scripted meetings are, at best a waste of time and, at worst, counterproductive.


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