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7 Things to Make Your Next Strategic Retreat and Discussion Actually Produce Something

7-Things-Strat-PhotoJeremie Kubicek, well-known blogger, author and speaker in the leadership circuit, recently wrote a post about strategic retreats. Here’s what he said, “…what I have noticed is that most people come into the retreats like they come into a 10AM meeting – not prepared and a bit frazzled.”

Does that seem like it’s the case with a lot of your strategic retreats or discussions? Perhaps, that’s even why you try not to have them or at the very least, try to make them as short and painless as possible.

Although Jeremie’s blog brings up a very valid point, he doesn’t get to the heart of what strategic leaders are really asking, “Okay, but how do we do it – how do we get a more engaged and thoughtful discussion going about the future of our organization.” How do we get leaders from all different departments, locations, with all their own agendas in a room and actively start to look at strategy for the next 3-5 years. An even more pressing question related to strategic planning, “Does it even make sense to plan when everything is changing at the speed of light?”

At New Directions we recently held a couple of strategic discussions with organizations who were asking these very same questions. One organization was a health care association looking to assess and determine the various impacts technology will have on their industry and association. This was an organization with over 100 employees serving a large geographic area. Everyone invited to the retreat needed to come fully prepared to have an open, honest and action-producing meeting. Another organization was a small group of extremely smart surgeons who were looking to take their group to the next level of business development, work effectively as a team and look at various strategic intents over the next 2-3 years.

Having done strategic planning, discussions and retreats for over 15 years, here are a couple of ways we like to put ‘meat on the bone’ so to speak and move an organization and its members from simply showing up to “10AM meeting – not prepared and a bit frazzled” to a high-performance, actively- engaged group, knowledgeable in the subject matter they will discuss. The goal in any strategic retreat or discussion is to have members of that meeting leaving with a clear strategy for the future and action lists to help transition from the retreat to initiation of the goals. There needs to be plan that is very clear, accountable, and forward moving in whatever way the group decides.

Here is how we structure the process:

Pre-Strategic Discussion – Whether you now approach strategic planning as just a strategic focus discussion or the creation of an actual plan, it’s important to get everyone on the same “playing field” before you begin. Let’s look at how we do that:

1) Stakeholder Surveys: It’s important to understand before planning what the various stakeholders think the focus for the future should be. This is not a satisfaction survey, but rather a strategic survey of what’s going to be happening in the future. Awhile back we surveyed community stakeholders for a non-profit service organization and found that they were all predicting serious budget cuts to the funding for the agency – more cuts than agency leaders anticipated themselves. We also sometimes use the survey process to do the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) data gathering to create greater participation and feedback.

2) White Papers: Many people who participate in strategic planning discussions only come with their own perspective – finance focuses on financial forecasting, marketing on product growth, production on efficiency and so on. Writing white papers, which summarize the key organizational issues in two or three pages each, provides advance reading that helps to create greater understanding of the important issues. Being able to summarize in a succinct manner the key points brings a discipline to the planning process that pays dividends in the actual sessions. It also means that no time is spent in the planning sessions bringing others “up to speed.” The expectation is that when the meeting starts, all have read the papers and are aware of the pertinent information.

3) Interviews: Interviewing customers and employee groups is another way to bring outside information into the strategic planning process. It’s easy to become very insular in the C-suite – getting real-life feedback prior to the sessions can open new thinking and perspectives. We often find that a combination of data from a survey and anecdotal summaries from interviews build important insights into the “current and desired states” as well as how to bridge the gap.

4) Pre-reads, primer: We offer a Strategic Planning that helps those who aren’t regularly on the role of planners to understand the work required. Especially when it comes to vision, mission, values, pipeline analysis, forecasting and such, the primer gives create examples to help everyone understand what will be expected in the planning sessions.

During the Sessions:

5) Meeting Set-Up: It’s important to do the proper setup for the strategic planning sessions including review of the agenda, the meeting roles, the difference between strategic-operational-and-tactical thinking, and how decisions will be made. People come to these sessions with very diverse viewpoints and knowing how the decision process will work, including how to build consensus, is a critical skill to explain in the beginning, before getting into the heart of discussions. You may want to look at our blog on 10 Tools for Leaders to see what else is particularly appropriate for your sessions.

6) Creation of a One-Page Strategy: The OPS (one-page strategy) template is a great way to put all the information from the planning session on a single piece of paper, including vision/mission/value, core strategies for the future, strategic goals, key initiatives and obstacles to overcome. By using the OPS, everyone can follow a simple process for delivering a good plan.

After the session:

7) Action plan: An effective strategic plan should identify 3-4 strategic intentions with specific strategic goals for each and initiatives that will drive goal attainment. That means that there will be a lot to accomplish and setting up the preliminary action plan – including assignment of actions for key players – will be critical for goal achievement. Don’t leave the planning session without follow-up assignments, owners and due dates.

You might be surprised, but at some of these strategic discussions and retreats, the conclusion has even been that the organization is not ready for a strategic discussion or plan. And, that’s okay too because it brings a practicality and a realness to the discussion instead of “well, let’s do a strategic plan to get it over with” mentality.

For your next strategic retreat or discussion, I encourage you to try some of the tips above to get a more engaged, knowledgeable and ready group of people together to “stop fighting fires” for a day and start building towards something great. New Directions offers strategic discussion and/or planning event design, surveying design and tabulation, and event facilitation.

What’s been your experience with strategic planning and retreats? Are you planning one this season? What are some of your best tips to have a successful retreat?


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