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Francis Wade | Bigger is not better - Optimise attendance at your strategic planning retreat

Published:Sunday | August 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I was recently called by a company interested in having 60 attendees at their one-day strategic planning event.

As they described the desired outcome, I decided to give them the bad news up front. They had unwittingly put their goal in jeopardy.

In short, the design of their workshop was in opposition to their intent to produce a quality plan. Too many participants and too little time would guarantee it. In addition, they were increasing the odds of people walking away feeling as if the activity were a waste of their efforts and the company's money.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that fixes itself during the retreat. In fact, it's possible to complete the event without hearing a single complaint.

How could this happen? In the Caribbean, we are polite, unlikely to create waves in the middle of a workshop unless things are going very badly. Compared to other work cultures, we give 'blighs' instead of feedback. The empty-handed reality would only creep in later when everything has quieted down.

Unfortunately, based on the retreat's 'success', the following year would be likely to see a repeat. Often, it's easier to go with the flow than to make a fuss, allowing the company to slip into a strategic planning rut from which it cannot escape.

If you are the retreat sponsor, here are a few interventions you can launch to bring new life to your strategic planning meeting.

Define what a successful retreat looks like. The main purpose of this kind of workshop is to make unprecedented decisions. It's not business as usual. This event should be difference-making, not status quo-reinforcing.

Some mistakenly define the gathering as an opportunity for a team to rubber-stamp the thoughts of a CEO, chairman or outside consultant. If that's all your company wants to do, save your time and money and have a conference call or pass around a document.

Instead, you should be trying to make the most of everyone's time, allowing participants to bring their best thinking to the occasion. In this unique space, the range of possibilities becomes dramatically expanded. A new vision for the company may be forged at will.

In a similar vein, you can catalyse complex decisions involving multiple trade-offs. In the right context, each stakeholder shares his/her expertise, contributing a unique perspective. Together, they shape the firm's journey from the present to the future, in an effort which requires everyone to be at their best throughout the entire exercise.

Imagine the creation of a fresh strategy which rescues the company from ruin, saving jobs. Or endorses a new product that becomes a best-seller. Or carves out a path for decades to come that preserves the organisation for future shareholders. These are the kinds of results that make a strategic-planning exercise a special opportunity.

Encourage a balance of inquiry and advocacy. In a retreat, there is a natural flow between generating more input (diverging) and driving towards a conclusion (converging). This movement from one extreme to the other is unlikely to take place by itself, hence the need for someone to play the role of facilitator.

It does not have to be someone from the outside. But an internal employee cannot execute the position without deliberately setting aside their substantive role while they are leading the discussion.

If they do a good job, preserving the balance between inquiry and advocacy, the entire activity comes alive as the tempo shifts from one energy to the other in a structured way. Attendees feel as if they are being heard and no one departs with an unexpressed thought. The empty space this creates is satisfying, even if it is intensely exhausting.

Control the number of people taking part in the retreat. Given the objectives and the flow which must be achieved, there are some limits to the total attendees in a typical two-day activity. One day is too short to get past polite banter.

I recommend that 10-18 people attend. Smaller numbers are dangerous because a single, strong-willed individual can dominate other participants. By contrast, in larger groups, introverts and lower-level attendees get lost, their voices never heard.

However, there are times when a client insists on involving all 60. If you cannot veto the idea, there is a bypass. Simply recognise that the workshop is actually comprised of two distinct exercises - the 'real' retreat in which decisions are made, plus an additional activity intended to achieve other goals.

Act to ensure that the real exercise is conducted with high fidelity, using my recommendations. Then, handle the second activity as the engagement boost, fact-finding mission, rubber-stamp or feel-good event it honestly is.

In this way, you can avoid the distractions and pitfalls that doom these interventions, and optimise the time spent. As a result, your strategic plan will meet the true needs of your company.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com