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Don't Be Afraid to Give Everyone a Voice

It’s day one of the annual corporate meeting and you already know what to expect. The CEO and Executive management team are going to stand up in front of the group and discuss results from last year and then roll out the critical success factors for this year. These factors will be well-founded and difficult to argue against. They will unveil an “exciting” incentive program to drive results. It will not be clearly understood by the audience. They may open up the floor for questions but only take the softball questions. At the reception or dinner following the opening session, the executives will mingle and chat with their underlings. Then they will disappear and the real meeting will commence.

During downtime, employees will chatter about results and wonder about lay-offs, downsizing, right-sizing, etc. They will try to decipher the incentive structure and understand how they are being paid. As the lower level marketing and operations presenters drive the conference forward, they will assume that their audience is tracking with them. They will verify this by the quality (and number) of the questions they receive during their 5-10 minute Q&A sessions after talking at their participants for 45-50 minutes straight. The attendees may be asked to breakout and flip chart ideas that will never be implemented. A year will pass between events. Sales results will either be below or slightly exceed expectations. The meeting location will change, but the structure never will.

How many times have you attended, planned, or presented at this meeting?

How many times can we do the same things and expect different results?

Isn’t that the very definition of insanity?

Unfortunately, for many companies the above example is not too far off the mark. Executives who are comfortable with this structure like it because they get to go back to the home office and say they delivered the message, looked their employees in the eyes, took “tough” questions, and led the charge. In reality, their message was not clearly understood, the tough questions went unspoken (until the executives flew off in the corporate jet), and the troops are only charging because they fear the consequences of unemployment if they don’t.

It’s time to break the chain of command and move into the era of the participant-driven meeting by giving everyone a voice.

Here’s what a participant-driven meeting might look like:

A pre-meeting survey is sent out to employees asking them to list the topics they want executives to cover at the annual meeting. Once the topics are listed, they are asked to prioritize this list into the top 3-5 big-ticket discussions they would like to engage in. Company results are communicated prior to the face-to-face meeting and participant reactions are collected. Then and only then do the executives and other presenters create the agenda (based mostly on what the people want to discuss) and their presentation content. Participants arrive at the meeting and are either given a device that will allow them to interact with presenters, content, and each other during the meeting or they use their own devices to do this.

Before the first session begins, a meeting MC warms up the audience with ice-breaker questions and asks them to detail their expectations for the meeting using their devices. These expectations are displayed on the presentation screen in a word cloud that clearly demonstrates the key themes. The MC and meeting presenters continually return to this word cloud to check-in with the audience and see if they are getting what they expected to get. Because last year’s performance has already been reviewed, executives don’t present. They get on stage and engage in a town-hall style session with meeting participants taking questions via handheld mics as well as anonymous submissions via audience devices and commit to answering the questions they couldn’t get to before the meeting is over.

Then the executives go into the audience and participate in the rest of the meeting sessions as participants. Facilitators drive the group to different decision points using collaborative activities designed to elicit the thinking of the group on the most pressing issues of the day. Actions and decisions are uncovered and the moving forward plan is revealed by executives upon the conclusion of the meeting. Questions, polls, and end of day survey results are analyzed in real-time to make sure that anything that can be aligned onsite is aligned and covered off.

Post-event, the executive management team constantly and continually communicates on the progress of the aligned initiatives. Every employee is engaged, understands, and knows the direction the company is taking to achieve results. Executives hear all the chatter and address it immediately because they maintain an open channel of communication with all levels of the organization. The next year, the meeting format is adapted based on the current desires of meeting participants.

Which meeting would you rather lead, plan, or attend? Let me know in the comments section below and please give this article a share to your networks!

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