How To Run Effective Strategy Retreats
Spending time identifying how your organisation can grow and thrive is a vital role of any top team. Yet few activities are able
to generate as much heat and as little light as a strategy retreat or 'away day'.
An agenda that is unfocused, the wrong group of people asking the wrong questions and unrealistic expectations can all
contribute to a sense of lost opportunity. But effective strategy retreats are neither difficult to create or deliver as long as
you follow a few simple rules.
- Get the right people in the room. You do not need a cast of thousands to create an effective strategy. The only people you
want around the table are those who will have ultimate accountability for its delivery. By all means seek ideas and insights from
others ahead of the session, but avoid broader involvement in the session, as it will dilute your decision-making ability.
- Avoid distractions. Just because you've finally been able to get the full team together avoid the temptation to add other
issues to the agenda. They only serve to eat up time and divert attention away from the real work required.
- Remember that a plan is not a strategy. Many executives believe a plan and a strategy are synonymous - they are not. A
strategy is a framework to guide the decisions and actions that will help you succeed; a plan co-ordinates the use of resources
over a particular time frame. A plan will not help you create a breakthrough strategy. Focus on building the strategy and the
plan will follow.
- Start with opinions - and only then use facts. Many retreats I have attended start by going through a fact book, covering past performance, future projections and likely
competitor activity. The only impact they have on the discussion is to dampen energy and enthusiasm. Effective retreats use
your team's judgements and opinions as a starting point - call them hypotheses if you wish - which can subsequently be tested
with specific analyses.
- Establish a clear sequence. It is highly unlikely that you will cover everything in a single session. Any strategy process
worth its salt is likely to throw up some tough issues and choices. You will need time to reflect and consider options about the
best way forward. As a guide I suggest following this sequence:
- Spend 2- 4 weeks meeting the top team individually to understand their insights and issues and to create and
distribute relevant performance and strategic assessments.
- Run an initial 2-day session focused on identifying the future ambition of your group (over the next 3-5 years),
the key strategic assets that will help you succeed, and initial thoughts on how you can best compete and thrive in
your chosen markets.
- Take 2-3 weeks to assess the likely impact of the outline decisions made in the first session, undertaking relevant
analysis and research, and seeking reflections and feedback from the team.
- Run a second, one or two-day session to confirm the direction set out in the first meeting. Identify the implications
of your preferred direction for your products, services and markets and determine the capabilities you will need going
forward. Use these insights to establish high-level priorities and objectives.
- Again, take 2-3 weeks to confirm the hypotheses you established in the second session. You should also create initial
- Finally, conduct a one-day session to refine the plan, agree accountabilities and allocate resources. Write a list of
critical issues you must resolve in order to deliver the plan, and agree how you will monitor and manage progress.
The elapsed timescale will vary depending on the complexity of your issues and the capability of your teams, but using this
process you should be able to create a coherent, integrated strategy that enables you to start taking action within 2-3 months.
The move to implementation will require ongoing sessions - at least every quarter - to ensure progress is being made, issues are
being resolved and that your strategy remains valid.
The bottom line
By taking the time to create a structured process you can transform your strategy retreats from a talking shop that has no
long-term impact to a dynamic, focused series of meetings that shape the direction and performance of your organisation.