How to Improve Planning Session Participation

By Hardy Smith

Effective planning is vital to any business’ success. Participation by employees and executives in planning sessions for activities such as mapping out annual action plans, organizing major projects, and developing strategic plans should be a priority.  Nevertheless, many of those who are charged with leading a company planning effort often face the problem that other employees who should be present aren’t. If you struggle with participation challenges in your company’s planning activities, here are eight tips to help make your sessions successful:

1) Don’t repeat mistakes of the past. There is a reason that previous attempts to secure needed participation have not been successful. Take time to understand why and be honest in your assessment. Seek out opinions both from those who actively participated in the past, and from those who should have been there but weren’t. Use that feedback to make needed corrections. Ask these questions:

  • Could past sessions be seen as a waste of time?

  • Were potential participants given appropriate notice?

  • Was the planning activity itself planned, organized, and conducted with a sense of purpose?

  • Was time allocated used effectively and efficiently?

  • Was discussion dominated by a single person or just a few individuals?

  • Were opinions elicited from those who were present but quiet?

  • Did participants leave with a sense of accomplishment?

  • Were participating employees recognized for their contributions to the company’s planning effort?

  • Was follow-up action taken on strategies that were developed?

2) Set participation goals. Identify who should be present if your session is to be a success. There will be those in each company who unless specifically directed, will consider their participation optional or not a priority to them.

Communicate individually to let employees know how much their participation is needed and how much their insight is valued. Ask for a personal commitment for attendance. Don’t accept “will try to,” “plan to,” or “should be able to” as solid answers. You should know exactly who will attend prior to your activity. If you can’t confirm committed presence in advance, then chances are good you won’t get your needed numbers. Send out reminder notes to help ensure your attendance. Confirm the significance of participation with personal messages from the organization’s top leader. It’s a nice ego stroke and it’s also hard to turn down the boss!

3) Avoid schedule conflicts. Schedule planning activity far enough in advance to avoid potential scheduling conflicts. Sounds like a no-brainer but sometimes the organization already has other activities planned, important deadlines are approaching, or it’s a heavy vacation period. Get schedule availability input from desired participants and set your date when most are available. Even better - set your activity on a regular, recurring schedule.

4) Establish expected outcomes. Have a specific purpose for your session. Communicate in advance the intended result, for example, developing three new strategies for growing your customer base. Your participants will be able to come in with ideas already formulated. Identifying an expected outcome will also help keep the session focused on the primary task at hand.

5) Make sure participants are prepared. Your planning team should know exactly what is expected of them. It’s difficult to offer qualified opinion when given a thick folder of financials, project proposals, and operational details without the opportunity to review materials prior to the time of discussion. Help them be prepared with advance information.

6) Determine what format works best for your group. Take into account the personalities involved. Use a meeting format that gets desired results and creates a positive experience so people are motivated to participate in future sessions.

  • Do you need teambuilding or fun activities?

  • Will your team react more favorably to a strictly all-business session?

  • What is most productive length of time?

  • Will you get best results by getting away from the office and working in a retreat setting, or will a few hours in an office conference room be okay?

7) Have a designated facilitator. Having someone with the ability to get everyone engaged and keep the process moving and focused is essential for creating the successful planning session you want. Judge whether or not someone outside your organization is needed. An outside facilitator is often more effective at challenging, encouraging, and drawing out opinions, and controlling discussion so it stays on a positive productive track.

Advance preparation time with your facilitator is important. The facilitator should do the necessary homework to be knowledgeable about the organization, be familiar with the backgrounds of the participants, and know the expected outcome. Create a predetermined structure designed to maximize the activity.

8) Don’t forget your post-event follow up. Send personal thank you notes that mention specific contributions made. Solicit feedback for future sessions. Give regular progress reports on implementation of the plans that were developed.

Having consistently high participation in your organization’s planning sessions sets the environment conducive to the wholehearted buy-in necessary for business success.    Create within your company the realization of the vital importance of planning activities by executing these tips. You will be much more likely to enjoy a higher level of preparation, participation, and enthusiasm in your planning sessions.

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