As predictable as the change of seasons and the swooning of the Cubs in the Chicago-area, I’m starting to hear whisperings about plans for upcoming strategic planning offsites.  

And while I spend a lot of time preaching to anyone that will listen that STRATEGY IS A PROCESS NOT AN EVENT, I’ve come to grips with the fact that many organizations and leaders relegate their strategic thinking time to these annual events.  

If your organization treats strategic planning this way, I’ll offer a few of my hard-learned lessons on how to optimize results and possibly even catalyze a more robust process that sustains beyond the once-a-year event.

The Annual Offsite:

For many organizations, the annual Strategy Offsite is the primary or only occasion during the year when key managers gather to talk about market and competitor issues and to discuss directions and opportunities for new investments and programs. 

And while a single event is not a substitute for an on-going strategy process, if designed and managed properly, the offsite can help to get people thinking and talking about the right issues.  

 After many years of sitting on both sides of these events—participant and leader, I’ve compiled a list of Do’s and Don’ts that if followed will help you optimize this valuable use of time and avoid some morale and meeting killing mistakes.

 The Annual Strategy Offsite List of Do’s:

1.  Choose the attendee’s carefully: incorporate key managers, individual contributors and thought leaders in addition to executives.

2.  Start the planning for this event several months ahead of the actual date by developing a strategy team consisting of an executive sponsor (CEO is fine) and a representative from each of the functional teams.  I encourage clients to go one layer below VP for these team members to provide others with developmental opportunities and to infuse fresh ideas into the process.

3.  Carefully define the scope of the event along with key goals and outcomes for the session and then develop the agenda along with roles and responsibilities.  Also, identify advance work such as data gathering and dissemination that will educate and arm people on key facts and issues before the meeting. This is a great opportunity to identify advance work teams and begin building collaboration around strategy issues.

4.  Encourage the participants to educate their associates/teams on what the meeting is about and even to engage their help in advance data gathering or idea generation.

5.  The CEO needs to recognize that many people approach these events with different attitudes: concern, cynicism or plans for subtle defiance should the outcome require change.  It is the CEO’s job to get everyone on the same page. Build the vision!

6.  Consider the use of an outside facilitator to ensure that the meeting stays on track and on topic in pursuit of the established goals and outcomes.  It is extremely difficult for participants to objectively facilitate this process—especially if they are content/idea contributors.  It’s nearly impossible to do both effectively.

7.  Practice effective meeting management techniques, offer ample breaks, incorporate activities and movement (breakouts, mini-groups, report backs), ensure that there is a scribe and a timekeeper and recognize people’s limitations to be creative on command.

8.  Your goal is not necessarily consensus on any one key issue—so don’t focus on driving every topic down to the agreement level.  This event is a great opportunity to motivate lateral thinking.

9.  If managed properly, you will come away with a current view on the market, key market forces, competitor strategies and opportunities for your company to exploit, defend, adapt and improve.  Recognize that all of the “ideas” will require additional fleshing out and establish ownership and follow-up commitments (what, who, when).

10.  Realize that if you do a good job with 1-9 above, you are creating a strategy process not just conducting an event. 

The Annual Strategy Offsite List of Don’ts

1.  Don’t expect everyone to be excited about this event—you have to provide context and build interest.

2.  Don’t expect people to “innovate on command” around complex issues.  Starting the meeting by asking, “What business should we be in?” is a guaranteed disaster.

3  Don’t drive for consensus—you invite the tyranny of mediocrity to have a seat at your table as you force people to compromise around half-measures.

4.  Don’t take the group through a death march of composing mission or vision statements at these sessions.

5.  Don’t forget that everyone else in the company knows this meeting is going on and they think you are talking about them.

6.  Don’t over-invite: it’s not a company town hall.

7.  Don’t limit to just executive members—there are a lot of smart people that make executives look good.

8.  Don’t let the meeting end without planned follow-up. 

9.  Don’t make the offsite an operations update by burning a lot of time covering results and key metrics—that should be handled ahead of time.

10.  Don’t use an internal facilitator that has an agenda—it will be visible to everyone and destroy meeting morale and credibility.

11.  Don’t expect one meeting to yield market dominating strategy plans—it’s a process not an event.

Take the opportunity to catalyze a great process by running an outstanding event.  Happy planning.