When the management team at Yule Tree Farms of Canby, Ore., holds its planning retreat, decisions move forward at a blistering pace. They don't rely on tedious discussion or nebulous feelings to plan where their business needs to head—they use a wireless survey system to vote anonymously.
"The clarity of focus is immediate and powerful,” says Eugene Wallace of Family Business Advisers in Aurora, Ore., who facilitates the meetings. "Strategic planning can be condensed to weeks versus months.”
Team members might suggest 20 strengths with a goal of identifying the top three or four to concentrate on. They'll vote on each on a scale of 1 to 5; the software calculates scores for each and charts them based on average scores.
"The Christmas tree industry is made up of family farms that rely on industry statistics on what happened last year to make decisions for the year ahead,” says Joe Sharp, president of Yule Tree Farms. "We look to ourselves, the future and the bottom line. Our focus is where the Christmas tree business is going, not where it has been.”
The voting device helps management make decisions, such as what varieties of trees to plant for harvest years down the road. In 2004, Sharp branded a "designer” tree, Oregon's Noble Vintage. The tree, which garnered press in Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and MSN News, sells at retail for as much as $80 more than similar nonbranded trees.
Another niche the company targets is consumers who hold environmentalism and sustainability in high regard. In its promotion, Yule Tree Farms emphasizes the eco-friendly nature of real Christmas trees and the company's use of integrated pest management.
One advantage of the voting system is that it can be anonymous. "In some companies, one or two people with strong personalities may want to dominate the decision making,” Wallace says. "This eliminates that effect.” Likewise, newer or younger members of the team may have good ideas but be hesitant to speak up. This gives them a voice and a vote, as well.
Perhaps most importantly, because everyone is involved, there is better buy-in to the decision, Wallace adds. "It is a process of the leaders working toward self-discovery about the company's direction, rather than someone from the outside telling them what to do,” he says.
Because the decisions come more easily, more time can be spent on planning the steps to make changes and identifying who is responsible to get something done and when.
Wallace ensures that progress is made by plotting movement toward the desired outcomes on a chart.
"That's the real key,” Sharp says. "If you don't act upon the strategies and tactics you identify, planning meetings are a waste of time.”
Top Producer, February 2010