Four Tips for Remote Strategy Discussions

Association staffers now have plenty of tech options for virtual conferencing. But one association succeeds by making sure connections are simple and equitable.

Strategic planning is board work—it’s how volunteer leaders set an association’s direction. But it’s staff work as well. The staff is responsible for assembling the data and crafting an agenda that allows the board to have meaningful strategic discussions. And as with just about everything else, doing it remotely has both virtues and challenges.

Heidi Ellis, senior director, member and district strategy, for the International Society for Technology in Education, helps coordinate staff conversations around the association’s strategic plan. And being a tech-focused association with staff in multiple offices, ISTE was better prepared than many to handle remote conversations once the pandemic hit. But calls about strategy that can include up to 30 people can be challenging. 

Ellis will talk more fully about making those discussions work at the 2022 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo during her session, “Strategic Planning With Your Team—Engaged, Invested, and Fully Remote!,” at 2 p.m. on August 21. In advance of the session, she shared a few insights about what she’s learned about leading remote strategy discussions.

We’ve tried to replicate the best pieces of physical conversations in a virtual environment.

Heidi Ellis, ISTE

Recognize the upsides of virtual. One benefit of a remote brainstorming session is that it removes a stage—everybody is framed as an equal contributor to the conversation. That can keep whiteboard exercises from being overly dominated by one or two participants. “We’ve tried to replicate the best pieces of physical conversations in a virtual environment, and at the same time recognizing the benefits that you can get from a remote setting that you can’t get in person,” Ellis said. “Some people feel it’s a little bit out of their comfort zone to physically stand up and put their bright pink Post-It note somewhere on the board in front of everyone.”

Similarly, asking “any ideas?” in a room is an invitation to the people most comfortable sharing them, and dissuasive to everybody else. During Zoom calls, Ellis prefers to ask participants to respond to questions in the Zoom chat simultaneously to avoid particular voices dominating. “I’ll say, ‘Think of whatever answer you have to this question, but don’t put it into the chat until I say go.’” 

Dedicate a moderator. Ellis recommends assigning a person to keep an eye on the room for technical glitches and other concerns that can keep the conversation from going smoothly. With hybrid office arrangements, conversations can be asymmetrical without such added attention. “A room moderator is actively watching the people who are in person versus online and making sure that the people who are online are able to hear clearly,” she said. “Sometimes when they’re in a conference room, some people are louder than others.”

Try new tools, but don’t obsess over every bell and whistle. Ellis uses a whiteboard app called Miro to map out strategic discussions. But the goal is to facilitate conversation, not use every feature available. “In the moment, we keep it pretty rough and rudimentary,” she said. “It’s a way to get ideas down on ‘paper’ quickly, and for people in the group to arrange ideas and prioritize things.”

Even hybrid staff should go remote. On Zoom calls, we’re habituated to a simple standard: One participant, one box in the Zoom gallery. Though many staffers have returned to the office, having in-office staff convene in one place for a strategic discussion—five participants, one box—can be alienating. “If there are five people who are all in one room together, and then there’s six who are in their own individual spaces, it’s a little hard to make sure everyone feels like they have an equal voice in the conversation,” she said. “Occasionally, even though people are in the same physical office, we might have them take the call from their desk, so it looks like everyone’s in an individual space.”

How has your organization handled strategic discussions virtually? Share your experience in the comments.

(RedVector/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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