The initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to rapidly pursue work from home (WFH) strategies, and many of the in-office activities employees took for granted were migrated to virtual environment and software platforms. Now, as we navigate the next phase of work, and with many still working remotely, leaders must find ways to drive planning, prioritization, decision-making, and strategy execution virtually.
Ankura has developed tried-and-true methods for strategic planning, and our leaders have partnered with organizations to make virtual planning central during this period of volatility. With this in mind, we gathered a group of experts (virtually) to identify and highlight key expectations and practices in virtual planning.
Moderator: Organizations were forced to leverage virtual platforms to remain connected in the first stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. As organizations seek to continue leveraging virtual solutions, why are virtual planning techniques becoming more important?
Helen Lane: Organizations are living through massive volatility and ambiguity right now. Leaders cannot sit and wait, since planning and reprioritizing is critical to forge a path. Virtual planning gives leaders the platform they need to do the work.
Rebekah Carroll: In a work from home environment, people can easily isolate themselves in their own virtual siloes. Virtual planning busts those siloes. If you aren’t pursuing virtual planning, you’re missing a big opportunity to innovate. If planning is facilitated well, you can actually drive a lot of engagement and provide a space to think differently.
Helen Lane: A lot of innovation occurred in a short amount. Now leaders should ask the question: “How do we operationalize this innovation? How do we keep up the agility?”
Vicki Estrin: Alignment on this kind of work has a half-life, and the isolation caused by working from home can shorten it. Planning needs to be iterative, and virtual platforms provide a way to unite all stakeholders in-crisis.
Moderator: Can you share any recent examples where Ankura partnered to drive virtual planning efforts? How did the process work for these organizations?
Jonathan Payne: I partnered with a client who plans their application development activities on a quarterly basis. Regardless of the global environment, they needed to plan for Q3 2020. This client historically used a partially virtual setup – with some participants joining in person and others joining remotely – but these meetings often struggled to engage remote participants, making it difficult to capture key input from stakeholders not physically present.
We developed a pure virtual planning approach that was an overall better experience, because it leveled the playing field for all participants. We could engage everyone equally in the planning process and prioritize the development roadmap accordingly.
Vicki Estrin: We worked with a healthcare company that was in the middle of their strategic planning when COVID-19 hit. Two critical efforts then rose to the top of the list: financial liquidity and ongoing viability, as well as the complexity surrounding patient care and their real estate footprint. They certainly couldn’t afford to stand still and wait. The process had to be redeveloped.
We pursued an iterative virtual planning cadence. This required gathering the planning committee ahead of critical all-hands or board sessions to lay the groundwork. It ultimately meant more preparation, more meetings, and more time spent on alignment. The work paid off, however. The committee and the organization’s board found it to be a highly effective process, where everyone was able to speak to the tough issues at hand, and they were able to align on in-crisis strategy to protect their patients and the organization.
Helen Lane: We worked with an organization that had recently brought in new C-suite leaders, including a new CEO. The CEO was developing a vision for product development, which was directly impacted by COVID-19.
We pivoted to a very active planning session, with exercises designed to define the organization’s vision for the future and its in-crisis product strategy. They had to significantly change and virtual facilitation provided a strong structure to drive that kind of decision making quickly.
Moderator: Let’s dig in. How does virtual planning differ from traditional in-person planning?
Holly McClung: The process and frameworks are similar, but it gets complicated when you map them onto a virtual platform. For example, breakout groups are more complex, depending on the tool you use, but their usefulness remains the same.
Vicki Estrin: The amount of pre-work increases. You must consider how you are designing the agenda and align stakeholders before going into the virtual “room”. The platforms have a lot of benefits, but there is a learning curve, and certain things simply can’t happen. For example, facilitators cannot easily circulate between virtual breakout rooms, so you may need more facilitators and a framework to guide the discussion.
Kevin Cowherd: I agree with Holly that much of how you approach planning will remain the same. Virtual should become more of a tool in leaders’ toolbelts. And it is not just about knowing how to plan and then just logging into a virtual platform. There’s an intersection of skills. Leaders should continue to learn how to use virtual communication platforms and other tools to encourage faster collaboration.
Rebekah Carroll: There’s an even greater need to develop agreed-upon ways of measuring and monitoring progress and results outside of the virtual planning meetings. Developing this discipline and structure up front in the planning process will allow the team to recognize and adapt more quickly when something isn’t working. Virtual planning truly must be iterative. After all, you can’t just walk into a co-worker’s office to get a progress update.
Moderator: What about what some are calling “virtual fatigue”, where participants start to lose focus or get tired rapidly in virtual spaces?
Vicki Estrin: That kind of fatigue is definitely real. Facilitators and participants get tired in different ways than in-person meetings. People get tired of being on-stage and on-camera.
There is one philosophy in planning where you push participants to drive breakthroughs. I don’t find that this works well in virtual planning. People get tired and check out.
In addition, there is change fatigue more generally, with the pandemic taking its toll on people. We must understand what is required to sustain interaction, balancing participants’ energy with the end results. We are all learning that what often worked pre-COVID does not work in the middle of COVID.
Helen Lane: There are different styles of facilitation designed to balance energy levels. You can build in breaks and tell participants to reduce multitasking so they rest their eyes. If energy can be maintained, it can be impressive how far teams can go in short, iterative sessions.
Holly McClung: One thing that can combat exhaustion is setting targeted, incremental goals. For example, instead of doing a two-day virtual intensive, you can break up the work by targeted outcomes and perform bite-sized sessions.
Small groups can also build consensus quickly, which will make large group consensus easier. This reduces the need for constant meeting churn by making a clearer path for overall alignment.
Rebekah Carroll: Endless virtual meetings can be exhausting, but if you structure the meeting to focus on decision-making and results, it can actually save time by minimizing the need for future meetings. Organizations are often stuck having the same conversations over and over again, especially in a remote environment. A well-facilitated planning or decision-making meeting can put an end to the circular conversation, reenergize the team, and inspire forward movement.
Jonathan Payne: I personally get energized when we are able to surprise clients with that kind of successful outcome. It is common to assume we must lower our expectations for virtual planning, but the feedback we have received from pivoting to virtual planning indicates that some organizations are actually being more productive.
Moderator: Any other tactical tips for leaders seeking to facilitate and drive planning virtually?
Helen Lane: Make sure you get input from every participant, set up the expectation that you will call on everyone in an alphabetized order, say, by last name. Then you know you’ll capture everyone’s thoughts, and they can’t check out.
Rebekah Carroll: In a remote environment, I get a sense that people hold back on expressing a thought or challenging an idea more so than they might in person. To address that, sometimes I’ll set a ground rule for participants to “ask the hard questions” or “name the elephant in the room”. Alternatively, the facilitator can assign a “devil’s advocate” role to one or two people in the group and check in with them periodically to challenge the group’s thinking. These tactics can give participants permission to say what needs to be said to drive better outcomes.
Also, consider introducing the concept of assigning different hats in-session to delineate roles and drive robust discussion from multiple viewpoints. For example, one participant might wear the “IT leader” hat to begin a discussion on the operational benefits and risks of implementing a new technology while another might wear the “Customer” hat to consider and voice how the technology might impact customer experience.
Vicki Estrin: There are bad planning sessions that can happen in-person. Those kinds of meetings are even worse when done virtually. Don’t underestimate the skill and planning required to drive a group through planning and decision-making.
One quick example: I have ground rules for every session, and now I have additional unique rules for managing virtual sessions. This helps set expectations in the new environment.
Holly McClung: There is no one-to-one mapping of techniques and agendas to drive success. Be prepared to learn and iterate.
Also, pursue buy-in for planning, and the specifics within the planned agenda, ahead of time. Participants can check out quickly in virtual meetings.
Jonathan Payne: Different technologies have different capabilities. As virtual planning continues, it will be important to understand the feature sets of your tools, as well as the training required to use those tools effectively. Facilitators should carefully look at the capabilities (and limitations) of the tools they have available and explore whether supplementing with additional solutions may be needed to boost collaboration.
Helen Lane: Make sure you have backup plans. Technology can still fail you in critical moments.
 For more on virtual fatigue, and how to mitigate it, read: Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, “How to Combat Zoom Fatigue,” Harvard Business Review, April 29, 2020.
© Copyright 2020. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of Ankura Consulting Group, LLC., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals. Ankura is not a law firm and cannot provide legal advice.