Briefing notes: Making Face-to-face meetings count with solid preparation

I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about  $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.

Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.

Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time.  For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.

And I always have the client group do a quick P.O.P., clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.

Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.

Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.

The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:

 

1. Briefing notes for decision

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)

Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)

Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.

Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale

2. Briefing notes for information/updates

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Information”

Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc

Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy

Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities

Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues

Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of

Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies.  Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.

I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.

Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.

Structured Decision-Making: Roadmap to Wise Choices?

As a facilitator, I’m always searching for new approaches to help groups plan strategically and make smart decisions.  One approach I’m currently exploring is “structured decision-making”, or SDM (though somehow that sounds faintly obscene when I say it out loud).

Structured decision-making is a systematic process developed for making wise, transparent decisions in the face of complex issues with diverse stakeholders, high stakes and divergent perspectives.

Example: The Holiday Dilemma
Here’s a super-simple example of how SDM might work, from my friend and colleague Trent Berry. He’s the co-founder of Compass Resource Management,  based out of Vancouver. Compass boasts one of the world’s most masterful teams at designing and facilitating structured decision-making processes for resource and environmental issues.

He explains:  “Imagine you and your spouse want to plan a holiday.  You want to go to Mexico.  They want to go to Hawaii.  How do you resolve the difference?  Well, you start by trying to understand why each other prefers one location or the other.  What are you really trying to achieve.  So, you might point out cost, things to do, safety, etc.  Those are your objectives or interests.  Now rather than just arguing about a location, you can discuss the relative merits of each from the perspective of what you each want to achieve.  doing that you may discover that some of your facts are wrong – e.g., cost.  But you’ll also understand how much importance each of you is placing on different things – e.g., cost vs. safety.  And through the process you may understand each other better and you may actually come up with a third option that meets both of your objectives.  Not always –  but sometimes.  Really, structured decision making is similar to what used to be called ‘interest-based negotiation’.  The only way it may differ is there is the discussion goes beyond two private parties and the focus is on not only understanding interests but also doing a better job of really understanding how different options perform across interests. Its a marriage of science and values.”

The Steps to SDM
In practice, SDM processes can often be described in decision trees or other concept maps.  The basic steps follow, in many ways, a really great government policy briefing note. Here are the steps for a “PrOACT (Problem, Objectives and Measures, Alternatives, Consequences, and Trade-offs” SDM framework (originally outlined in the book “Smart Choices”):

  1. Define the problem
  2. Specify the objectives and measures – including getting agreement on “what matters”, and prioritizing information and assessing uncertainty or risk with different kinds of information
  3. Create imaginative alternatives
  4. Identify the consequences for each
  5. Clarify the trade-offs.

Growing interest in SDM
From Alberta to Australia, the wave of interest in this approach is growing. One major application is for complex resource management issues. Imagine a group of environmental activists, First Nations, oil industry proponents and government staff trying to come to some sort of sound, values-based decision-making around large-scale oil exploration over a relatively intact natural ecosystem. How do you design a dialogue process that isn’t about greenwashing or tokenism and doesn’t suck the life force – not to mention the coffers — of all involved for the next decade?  Past experience has shown that lengthy land-use planning approaches and environmental assessments don’t always yield wise results, and especially not in a timely or cost-effective way.

As Berry explains, “environmental assessments all too often look like a long, expensive shopping list of environmental impacts, with no way to prioritize or sort through them. Structured decision-making starts from a place of shared values – because science can tell us about all the options, but it can’t do a thing about setting priorities or assessing the relative risks among them. Only a clear set of values can do that.”

Beyond Resource issues
SDM is also being used with child welfare workers in California, adult protective services in Michigan  and a host of other agencies.  Check out several other case studies on-line, including several at http://www.structureddecisionmaking.org/applications.htm.

POP everything! Strategic planning in 30 seconds or less

P.O.P. – Purpose, Outcome and Process – is one of the snappiest, most useful planning tools I know. And it’s completely scalable – from planning a 10 minute phone call to organizing a campaign.

One of the simplest, snappiest and most useful planning tools I know is one we teach at Rockwood Leadership Institute.  It’s a sweet little acronym called “P.O.P.” – standing for Purpose, Outcome and Process. Given the state of my memory, I  lunge at anything this easy to remember.  And this fast. Sure, it may take a bit more 30 seconds sometimes, but it’s still pretty snappy and massively effective.

Here’s a snapshot of P.O.P. And really, it’s so straightforward, this is all you need:

  • “Purpose” answers the question “why
  • “Outcome speaks to “what” – the vision of what success will look and feel like when you ‘arrive’
  • “Process” speaks to “how” – the specific steps involved in getting there.

Straight from the Source
The “P.O.P.” model was devised by brilliant leadership consultant (and fellow Rockwood trainer) Leslie Sholl Jaffe and her partner Randall Alford.  As they describe it, “POP is a useful tool for a multitude of the daily activities leaders find themselves faced with: meeting agendas, campaigns, difficult conversations, unplanned calls and conversations… As you can gather from the list, POP is scalable, it can be used for large, long term projects, regular weekly staff meetings, a meeting you attend or a call that comes in that has no agenda, coaching/mentoring sessions…”

Case in point: Workshop Design
Last week I met with a small team of folks designing a workshop within a larger conference for immigrants and refugees.  We started by stepping back and asking: what is the overall purpose of this workshop? Why now? Why here? How can it advance our particular focus on supporting skilled immigrants and refugees in the job market? Then we asked: if this workshop were wildly successful, what would the outcome be? In other words, what does success look like, in concrete terms? Only then did we address the process – the specific format, agenda design, room set-up, breakout size etc.

Cart before the horse…
All too often, action-oriented social justice and not-for-profit leaders jump straight into planning the process of calls, meetings and entire projects – without first nailing down a clear sense of the purpose and outcomes. In practice, it’s vastly more effective to “go slow to go fast”.  Even doing a quick “POP” for simple tasks, I’ve found, can save hours of time, and help ensure that your  creative energies are aligned and vastly more effective from the start.

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