I came across an excellent article by Ron Ashkenas writing at HBR: Big Theatrical Meetings Are a Waste of Time. (tiered subscription model). This is mandatory reading for any manager leading business review sessions. And yes, the article generated a flood of memories—most of them bad. A few years ago, I put my thoughts on the whole business review meeting topic with: “Dear Corporate—Why We Hate Your Business Reviews.” I can assure you that I want all of the time back I wasted preparing for and participating in those mostly miserable sessions.

While I’ve not attended your business review session, I can tell you with confidence born of experience that most of these events are painful time, productivity, and morale killers. And, in this world where COVID has taught us that quarters are like centuries and the world shifts in hours and days, I increasingly find the ubiquitous quarterly business reviews anachronistic.

So, OK, criticism is easy. Let’s focus on moving forward and replacing or at least minimizing the need for these big meetings. Let’s lean the process out and improve our daily communication and propensity to take action instead of spending a lot of time rehashing the past.

Five Actions You Can Take to Improve Your Team’s Business Reviews and Operating Approach

1. Quit wasting time on history lessons.

The “explain what happened” theme for most business reviews is where time is wasted. The team can review Key Performance Indicators ahead of any meeting and note trends. You don’t need someone to give you the complete recap or feel compelled to justify their existence. What’s important is how groups and leaders will create the future and what they need for help to get there. Note: I love lessons-learned sessions. These tend to be outside of the auspices of business reviews. 

2. Eliminate status updates in the business review process

While it’s an educated guess based on long experience, I suspect status updates are the single most significant use of group energy in most organizations. Yet, you can use systems and processes to reduce the overhead in terms of time investment required to keep you and other leaders updated.

Chances are your project and business teams are running stand-ups of their own. If you are curious about where things are at, what the obstacles are, and how groups respond, check in to these meetings.

Additionally, challenge your teams and groups to create monitoring systems that accurately highlight the situation in near real-time. Intelligent use of readily available technologies for monitoring status or flagging problems can help reduce the need for manual status updates.

3. Shift the dialog to the future.

Ashkenas, in the article highlighted above, makes the case to focus on the future. I agree. My personal favorite questions to use with managers and key contributors are:

  • What do you know now that you can apply in the future?
  • What are you going to do that will strengthen your business and performance?
  • What can we (executive management) do to help you get to the second question faster?

I’m a fan of this three-question approach to uncovering the key issues, and I love the orientation of these questions on engaging, respecting, and empowering individuals. There’s an inherent respect for their knowledge, ideas, and the acknowledgment that management is there to help.

4. Change your daily management dialog

Every encounter during the day is an opportunity to create value, yet most of our exchanges are transactional or issue-focused. What if you, as the manager, started asking two questions regardless of the issue:

  • What do you know that’s new? (attribution: Ram Charan/Jack Welch) 
  • What can we do better to help improve performance?

One senior manager I worked with started bookending her conversations with these questions. Her tone was cheerful, helpful, and authentically curious. It wasn’t long before this behavior spread throughout her organization with positive results.

5. Adopt an obstacles/opportunities approach in your team meetings.

Try shifting responsibility for your team operations meetings and teach them to take an obstacles and opportunities approach to their narratives.

  • What are the big obstacles keeping you from moving ahead? (And what do you need to do or where do you need help to overcome them?)
  • What are the big opportunities in front of you? (And what do you need to do or where do you need help to bring them to life?)

I love this approach!

By adopting an obstacles/opportunities framework, you show your respect for their ideas and you position yourself as someone who can help provide sponsorship for bringing them to life. You gain insight into their development and thinking, and you gain an opportunity to provide coaching and career development support.

One caveat: this approach only works if you’ve done the heavy lifting of creating a quality working environment. Of course, that’s your fundamental job.

The Bottom Line for Now:

There’s a lot about how we’ve monitored and reported on our businesses and initiatives that no longer fit in this world. The meetings-as-theater where people justify their existence, posture, or try and survive are relics of a different era. Thank goodness. It’s time to get creative about how we tune in to what’s happening and what needs to happen.

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