Monday, April 23, 2007

Minutes Last Forever

In ancient times, countries went to war in many ways like today’s society plays sports. There was a specific time each year when war was in season. The winner of the annual warfare season took his plunder and things were settled until the next year.

Even the Bible speaks of this phenomenon in II Samuel 11:1, when it says, “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…” or in 1 Kings 20:22, when it says, “Afterward, the prophet came to the king of Israel and said, ‘Strengthen your position and see what must be done, because next spring the king of Aram will attack you again.’”

Just as the Old Testament of the Bible is the Israeli account of their battles, other Kings kept records of their battles.

I saw a video of an archaeologist who was an expert in reading the ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Every year in the ancient hieroglyphic records were the accounts of the annual warfare of the Egyptians, spoken of in the most favorable manner. It reminded me of the National Football League’s NFL Films division, which at the end of the year produces a film for every team in the league, giving an account of the past year’s successes. Even the teams that did extremely poorly get a positive slant, with the films saying things like “It was the beginning of a new era” or “The turnaround has begun.”

What was interesting in the documentary on the Egyptian hieroglyphics was that at the time when many biblical scholars believe that Moses would have lead the Israelites out of Egypt, the hieroglyphics did not mention a single battle for three years. It was the only time when there was not a single mention of the annual warfare. There is speculation that the defeat to the Israelis at the Red Sea was so bad that there was no positive spin that the Egyptians could place on the event, so that only left the option of silence.

So, while the Bible mentioned a great victory by the Israelis that wiped out the great Egyptian army in the Red Sea (and may have required a couple of rebuilding years before the Egyptians were ready to battle again), the Egyptian version was unusually silent on the subject. I guess the records of what happened depend upon which side you are on.

They say that the victors write the history. Although the times of the battles of ancient Egypt and ancient Israel are long gone, and the eyewitnesses are long dead, their records still remain, thousands of years after the fact. These records give us our perspective on what happened.

In the business world, a similar phenomenon can happen. There is a hustle and bustle to the fast pace of activity. At times it can all sort of blur together. Memories can get a little fuzzy on the details. In fact, over time, memories of specific events could fade away. Key players may leave the firm. What does not fade away, however, are the records of what occurred. A skillful strategist can use the lasting power of documentation as a tool to help mold and direct strategy long after the particular event is over.

This is the first in an occasional series of blogs on “Stealth Strategy.” The principle here is that many firms no longer show an interest in doing a formalized strategic planning process. Given some of the bad strategic planning processes that I’ve seen over the years, I can understand why people would want to walk away from these processes. However, just because there are bad strategic planning processes does not mean that companies can afford to stop doing strategic thinking.

If you do not think about your company strategically, your competition will do it for you, and you will not like the results. So the goal is to try to get a company to think strategically without setting off those negative feelings about strategic planning in some people who would want to shut down the process. That is why I call it stealth strategy—it is getting under the radar of anti-strategists and bringing strategic thinking into the business process without people realizing that they are doing strategy.

In many companies, the places where a lot of decisions are made are in committee meetings. Therefore, if you can get these meetings to think strategically, you are by default getting the company to act strategically, whether they realize it or not.

Therefore, one might think that a good way to get a company thinking strategically would be to try to head up these committee meetings. Unfortunately, people in business tend to understand power and they would see you in a power position if you ran the committee. The radar of the other committee members would be very active in monitoring your activities in order to keep your power in check. A committee leader cannot sneak something in, because they are the most visible member. Besides, in an effort to monitor the meeting, the committee leader often needs to have an appearance of being unbiased in order to get all of the members of the committee to participate. Therefore, the committee leader may be the least able to direct a committee to think strategically.

Fortunately, there is a more powerful alternative. Volunteer to take the notes and write-up the committee meeting minutes. Most people hate doing that job and will gladly give it to you. Being the writer of the notes is not a position people typically feel threatened by, so their radar will not be active against you. Yet, as we saw in the story above, the documentation of an event outlasts the memory of the event and becomes the official record of what happened.

In the story, depending on your perspective (Egyptian vs. Israeli), the document writers saw the world in a different way, and their record reflected that point of view. These points of view then became the official points of view. As the writer of the meeting minutes, you can record them from a strategic perspective and make strategy the key thrust in what gets taken away from the meetings. This, then, becomes the official thrust of the meetings.

If your committee meetings are similar to most of the ones I’ve seen, there is a lot of confusion going on. Multiple side conversations may be going on at the same time. Decisions may not be entirely clear on what exactly was decided or exactly what everyone was specifically to be held responsible for doing. A lot of verbal back and forth may occur that drifts around a topic and never really gets summed up well at the meeting. Some people may be bored and not really be paying close attention. Others may be using the committee to draw attention to themselves in an attempt to gain an advantage in office politics that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. That is why I have often heard people come out of committee meetings and make a comment to a colleague something like this, “What exactly just happened in there?”

Here, then, is your great opportunity. Because of the confusion, there is a need for someone to summarize what happened into a logical flow so that people understand specifically what was decided and specifically what tasks were assigned. If you take a strategic perspective to your summary minutes to the meeting, you can frame the discussions into a strategic context and explain the conclusions as strategic initiatives (avoiding the word strategy in your summary). The nature of the assigned tasks can also be framed as strategic initiatives.

Over time, people will forget the details of the meeting, and your minutes will be the official recollection. They can be circulated to the bosses of the attendees. Since the bosses were not at the meeting, the only official record of what happened are your recollections in a strategic context. By reading the minutes, you are then influencing the way these bosses think strategically about the committee issues.

At subsequent committee meetings, you can refer to the minutes to help direct further thinking at a strategic level. It is not as threatening, because you are not personally demanding it, but merely saying, “Didn’t this whole group agree last week to think about this topic in such-and-such a way?” Better yet, if you have an accomplice in the committee, you can play the part of the lowly writer, and let your friend speak up for the minutes.

The goal here is not to deceive the group or to lie about what happened. They will catch on to that and make you change the minutes. Rather, the goal is to slowly, meeting by meeting, use a strategic perspective to the way you summarize the activity, so that the group is influenced to approach the objective at hand in an every more strategic manner at future meetings. The more you frame the problem as a strategic issue, the more the committee will need to resolve the problem via strategic thinking, as long as it is done in a stealthy manner.

Years later, some of the official records of that meeting may still be influencing the strategic approach which the company takes to an issue. Remember, committee meetings may only last an hour or two, but the committee minutes may last forever. We still have the hieroglyphics and the Biblical accounts.

Because bad prior experiences may have caused executives to be turned off by formalized strategic processes, one must often turn to alternative approaches to get a company to think and act strategically. One method is to use already in-place committee meetings as a strategic forum rather than official strategic planning meetings. The best way to do this is usually not by heading the committee, but by being the keeper of the committee meeting minutes.

To paraphrase an old friend of mine, “What happens during a committee meeting is not nearly as important as the posturing which takes place just prior to the meeting and the summarizing and record-keeping which takes place just after the meeting.”

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