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Of Movies and Management Meetings

Another season of blockbuster movies is upon us and like millions of other people around the world I'm escaping the blistering summer heat for a few hours and rushing off to my local multiplex to catch Iron Man, Get Smart, The Dark Knight, and WALL-E. I loved the first three, but just didn't feel the hype for WALL-E lived up to what I saw on the screen. If you think I'm woefully misinformed, drop me a note through the website and let me know what I was missing.

So I got to thinking between handfuls of greasy popcorn, what makes a great movie? Film-going is definitely a subjective experience, but I think if we were to critically analyze it we'd probably agree on the following as critical success factors for a movie. We need characters we can empathize with, not necessarily like, but agree that we'd do the same thing in their shoes. Beautiful scenery helps the cause, as does clever dialogue. But what we really expect when we slap down our eight dollars (at least) and gaze at the silver screen is a compelling story. If you're not invested enough to care what happens next then everything else – the characters, the cinematography, the direction, the witty dialogue – don't matter one iota. It's all about the story.

In movies the story progresses through the use of individual scenes, with most feature length films containing about forty to sixty, ranging in duration from a few seconds to several minutes. Entire books have been written on creating and dissecting scenes but playwright and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter David Mamet suggests that a scene's success hinges on the ability for the writer to create and answer three simple questions :

1. Who wants what from whom?

2. What happens if they don't get it?

3. Why now?

That's it! Think about a time you were meeting a friend for a movie and arrived a bit late. You find your friend in the dark, look up at the screen, and say, "What's going on?" "Who's that guy?" Your patient, and prompt, friend will undoubtedly fill you in immediately: "He's a cop who has to get the bomb code from this tech geek or the bad guys are going to blow up the Federal Reserve." Three simple questions.

A couple of hours later the credits roll, you and your friend have a nice dinner, discuss the film and call it a night. The next day you show up for your monthly management review meeting at the office and what happens? Is it as satisfying an experience as the good movie you saw the night before? If yours is even remotely similar to the vast majority of organizations around the world, the answer to that question is an emphatic no.

As with movie-making, dozens of books have been penned on the subject of management meetings, with most tackling what plagues these time-consuming sessions and recipes for improving results. Among the criticisms hurled by experts at management meetings are a lack of constructive conflict and contextual structure.

In the paragraphs above I described what makes for an engaging movie and specifically discussed how to create a compelling scene. The three questions provided are essential ingredients in ensuring each and every scene has conflict or opposing goals. Conflict and tension drive the story forward and without them movies will grind to a painful halt. We've all witnessed scenes that do nothing to propel the plot and leaving us scratching our head as to why they didn't end up on the cutting room floor. A lack of conflict can also derail the typical management meeting. I'm not suggesting you stage knock-down drag-out fisticuffs among members of your leadership team – although you could probably increase revenue significantly by selling tickets to such an event – but simply foster a climate in which challenging comments and constructive criticism are welcomed for what they truly represent: a wonderful opportunity to learn about your business.

The second fatal flaw of most meetings is the complex sounding lack of contextual structure, which may be more colloquially referred to as 'meeting stew.' In other words, when planning management meetings we have a nasty tendency to throw everything into the agenda but the kitchen sink: operational results, the company picnic, HR issues, you name it. Without a context to guide the discussion, the meeting soon becomes fragmented and results dwindle. In fact, one study on meeting effectiveness discovered that over 80 percent of the time is spent on items creating less than 20 percent of the organization's value.

If three simple questions can be used to construct winning scenes in a movie, why can't we use three simple questions to lead us on the path of better management meetings? I say we can, and would suggest you use these queries when reviewing Balanced Scorecard results during your management review:

1. What happened?

2. Why did it happen?

3. What are we going to do about it?

Profound? Maybe not. Effective? Definitely. Following this guide assumes you've avoided meeting stew by allowing the Scorecard to drive the meeting's agenda. Nothing extraneous – just the vital enablers of strategy execution represented by objectives on the Strategy Map and measures on the Scorecard.

Once you begin the meeting, use the questions above to guide your discussion. "What happened?" refers to results for the period under examination. Are they as expected, better, or worse? Next, why did it happen? What factors influenced the results? This query will undoubtedly lead to an examination of competitor behaviors, marketplace conditions, enabling human and information capital issues, and a host of other relevant topics all designed to ensure you never stray far from the bulls-eye of strategy execution. Finally, ask "What are we going to do about it?" This question introduces a layer of accountability strikingly absent from most management get-togethers. Too often leaders will lament the problems they face, brainstorm solutions, but fail to create simple action plans for follow-up. Coming to consensus on next steps, and committing to follow-up is a common-sense, yet critical discipline to follow should you hope to derive the maximum benefit from your management reviews.

Ask the questions above and the "Oscar for Best Management Meeting" might just be in your hands sooner than you think.

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