The Strategy Retreat is a favoured exercise amongst the C-Suite and many organisations. It’s not a ‘Strategic Retreat’, mind you (although sometimes one wonders), but an opportunity to focus on the strategy of the firm and develop concrete goals, discuss vision and mission, tactics, values and means for accomplishing objectives. It’s a good concept, but unfortunately strategy retreats often do not correlate with great strategy.
Why don’t strategy retreats create enough good outcomes? What is it about the process that creates distressed strategy?
- Strategy Retreats are taken on too lightly. The CEO and others are busy. Operational matters, financial needs, share value, the crisis of the day, etc. are often seen as more pressing issues. Therefore, not enough of an investment in preparation, analysis, discussion, time, money and planning are made to ensure that the strategy retreat delivers.
- Inadequate tools are used. I watched a one-day strategy planning session for a volunteer organisation that had called in an expert facilitator from interstate. The gentleman was fine, but unfortunately, the entire day was spent on two things: one, setting the scene for their needs and two, conducting a SWOT analysis. They spent most of the entire day conducting a SWOT analysis, which is a woefully inadequate and insufficient approach to complex issues, had a huge series of boards filled with the SWOTs, no way to make sense of it and everyone left at the end of the day with nothing planned except that the convenors would ‘get back to everyone.’ It’s too easy to use these simple tools, get bogged down in detail and end with nothing but a ‘fruitful and frank discussion’ as the key outcome.
- The Retreat is viewed as a Mecca, a Cure-All for strategic issues. Emphasis is placed so solely on the retreat, that other considerations, contexts and processes are given short shrift or no attention throughout the year.
- Consultants/Facilitators are engaged only for the retreat and not for an ongoing process. Frankly, if the consultant is engaged only for the retreat, then it is only through that time that a good one will really start to assert order and value. Likewise, they just start to get a handle and insights into the company. Additionally, assuming that all strategic potential and value only lies in the persons attending the retreat is an egregious error.
10 Cures for the Ineffective Strategy Retreat
Here are some of the ways that you can amend or work with the retreat concept to create greater traction and results.
- Regard the retreat has a high-water event that allows you time to focus without distraction and conduct some powerful intervention that allows for people and thinking to be realigned. Optimise their participation so that you gain the best out of your people. The CEO and executives should look to tap into the expertise and capacity of all the people at their disposal. This is not an opportunity for people to
- Treat the retreat as part of a process. This should be an event that integrates with processes, ideas and procedures throughout the year – every quarter, every month, every week and every day. In other posts, I discuss the iterative nature of strategy. This is not a ‘once-only’ decision, but part of a process that should engage your thinking, your resources and your people in achieving your overall goals.
- Separate a Reward/Celebration event from the Strategy Retreat. Celebrate at a different time. It’s perfectly valid to reward oneself and one’s people with a few days ‘away from it all’, but don’t try to combine the two. One of my clients used to take his whole company on a cruise for a few days at the end of each year. They loved him for it, because it was a pure reward and recognition of their efforts and growth.
- Do your homework. Prepare so that the retreat is not a “Why are we here?” time, but a climax or turning point for the organisation. That requires appropriate information and analysis, effort and orientation to the desired processes and outcomes.
- Use quality folks who keep working with your organisation and people throughout the year. I have consulted with organisations who have wanted to do all of this ‘on the cheap’ and even ended up hiring a friend who’d run something for free for them. They got what they paid for.
- Spread strategic thinking throughout the whole organisation. Don’t just focus on the executive. Include key players in and outside of the organisation. Conduct mini-events and training, facilitation and idea-gathering throughout the organisational hierarchy throughout the year. Use your data gathering and reflections throughout the year to continue to feed strategic thinking and decisions on the fly. The folks at ‘The Great Game of Business‘ make a point of working with every staff member – from the cleaner on up – to examine financials, operations and strategy for their companies. The Argenti System for Strategic Analysis and Planning also makes a point of working from the bottom up in the development of organisational strategy. The 6-Days to Great Strategy System that I have adapted from Lafley & Martin and my colleague Stuart Cross also involves key players from the business’s environment.
- Create “thinking systems”, not paper plans. If you don’t come away with a clear way of thinking about and applying strategy, then you’re only getting a fraction of what you should be out of the exercise. As I mentioned before, the SWOT is a tired and extremely basic strategic tool. There are many more thinking tools that one can use that can become a byword for discussions and analysis. I have had numerous clients who have pointed to the expensive Strategic Plan (usually delivered by one of the big consulting or accounting firms) that sits in a binder on the shelf or under the desk. This should be living, breathing strategy for you to apply to your daily decisions.
- Don’t turn this into a budgeting exercise. Oh, how painful! See my earlier post about confusing budgeting and ‘strategic planning’.
- Think Big! Don’t limit yourself. This should be an energising exercise, not a foray into parsimony. There should be structure, yes. But the structure should enable, not inhibit.
- If the great conversations are happening around the pool, then keep them there. I’ve often seen strict, rather formal experiences where it was only after the formal sessions that people freed up – over lunch, by the pool, over a game of billiards – and started to say what they really thought and proffer their gems. That’s because they were not under threat of evaluation and analysis. As a discussion leader, strategist and facilitator, when I run sessions I recognise this and break these barriers down so that people feel free and generously contribute. However, a wise leader and facilitator recognises that if it’s the relaxed moments where your best ideas come from, maybe you should stay there for more …