8 Ways to Improve Virtual Strategic Planning Sessions

May 2021
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Among the seemingly endless changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust on our agency is how we approach strategic planning with our clients. Pre-pandemic, we would engage our clients in our “Going Vertical” strategic process that included three, deep-dive, in-person sessions at our agency. 

These sessions happened in our conference room with rolling chairs, whiteboards and a snack table. We even took advantage of our building’s rooftop deck for breakout sessions and a fresh-air lunch. 

How do you replicate this sort of interactivity and team-building when you’re no longer in the same room? It’s not easy but it can be done, albeit within limits, of course. We’ve spent a year experimenting with ways to improve our virtual planning sessions and offer these eight insights.

1. Identify roles and responsibilities. 

Just like you do before an in-person meeting, take the time to make sure everything is set before the session begins. Note who is leading each segment of the session, and what roles others will play. Appoint a host to populate links in chat and post reminders about what’s next. Make sure those who will share their screens are identified in advance.

2. Prepare, test, practice. 

Prior to the pandemic, everyone learned the importance of testing the screens before every presentation. This is even more important now. So, host a virtual test session on whichever platform you’ll use.

Ask your colleagues to test from the actual location and with the actual equipment they will use for the meeting. It’s always a good idea to do a dry run to make sure everyone’s comfortable with her or his speaking part — and that you can accomplish what you need within your time constraints. 

3. Set clear expectations.

Before the session, set expectations by sharing a detailed agenda with time frames. Send any background info, noting precisely what you expect people to read and absorb prior to the session. 

Place the Zoom or Microsoft Teams credentials in several places — in the invite, on the agenda, etc. Refer to where you are in the agenda throughout the meeting. (Consider using the chat function to remind people of what’s coming next.) If you plan to use breakout rooms, then make sure that’s communicated; people want to know these things in advance. 

4. Record it and transcribe it.

Use the record function. Ask the attendees for their permission first, of course, but recording the session will help to capture everything that is shared. It also takes the pressure off someone trying to capture every word; instead, everyone can focus their energy on engaging and adding value. 

There are several low-cost services online that will machine-transcribe your recording. We have learned that so much is shared during the strategy sessions that it’s extremely helpful to have a recording.

5. Conduct some ice-breakers. 

Start with a short ice-breaker, especially if this is the first time the group is together. You may even want to scatter a couple more throughout the session to help break things up. For instance, ask everyone with a pet to show theirs on screen. Or you can ask everyone to show a piece of art or knick-knack that they’re fond of. Keep them short, easy and include an element of fun.

6. Select your collaboration tools.

If you’re in the office, then whiteboards, sticky notes and markers work great for strategy sessions. How do you ideate virtually and recreate that whiteboard feeling and flow? The good news is that there are several tools out there that do a really good job with this. Google’s Jamboard is a good one. Some of these tools even allow you to incorporate real-time polls and get immediate results. Whichever tool you use, be sure to test the tool and gain confidence before using it.  

7. Surprise and delight. 

Ask a client if they prefer salty or sweet and then send them a snack package that can be unboxed and enjoyed during the session. We like to include a journal that is branded with our logo — a gift we typically give in person at the first session. Clients appreciate the extra touch — even more so now that it’s an extra step to get a package to them. 

8. Survey participants. 

After the session is over, ask attendees to complete a simple form indicating what they did and didn’t like. Use the learnings to improve your next session. 

A virtual strategic planning session is not the same as an in-person meeting. We know that. We’ve done this for more than a year. So why are we still attending virtual meetings that have glitches and hiccups? It doesn’t have to be that way. 

What has worked well for you? Please drop me a line and let me know. 

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