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Francis Wade | Great strategy retreats confront the ugliest truths

Published:Friday | September 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM

What's the harm in your next strategic planning retreat of restricting the discussion to focus on the positives the potential of the future?

After all, everyone wants to walk away inspired by what can be accomplished, not bogged down by past losses and ugly failures. Should this sentiment be used to set the agenda to limit certain discussions while encouraging others?

If you are the meeting planner or sponsor, it's a dilemma. For example, some may suggest renaming the meeting as a 'forward', instead of a retreat, to keep things positive.

This probably won't make much of a difference, but here's something that will. Before the retreat begins, clearly script the first few agenda items so that you achieve a balance between activities that look to the past with ones that carve out the future.

Keeping this intention in mind is better than the alternative: leaving it entirely up to the participants to decide. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to fall prey to groupthink, only to settle on a poor decision that ruins the quality of the outcome.

Google probably won't help you find the right script for your event or hint that a change is needed in midstream. If you only plan a single retreat per year, here are three inside secrets known only to experienced facilitators.




The purpose of a strategic planning retreat is twofold. One is to make high-quality decisions which, when assembled, chart a favourable future for the company. The second is more subtle: to bring everyone together on the same page.

The fact is, anyone can write a strategy document a CEO, chairman, or even an outside consultant. The main reason to do things differently, to use a team, is to ensure that there is wholehearted support from each individual. This is an emotional result, not a logical one.

To achieve it, understand that team members are likely to share an unspoken question at the start: What is known, and, by whom?

Even teams that work side-by-side every day face this quandary. It's the reason a good marriage therapist begins by establishing a base of facts that both parties can agree on.

In much the same way, participants have a profound need to create a joint view of current business reality. In our retreats, we build it in real time, using past data.

The end result is composed of five perspectives. Four are borrowed from the Balanced Scorecard financial, customer, process, and people; and we also add a summary of external forces described by the acronym PESTER political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and regulatory.

It's human nature to want such a joint view to emerge, alongside the warm feeling of fellowship that accompanies it.




There are times, however, when this process is short-circuited. For example, someone powerful may 'suggest' that a document they have written is a sufficient substitute for this particular exercise.

If the team backs the potential shortcut, agreeing may be the only option.

If you do, stay alert for a sign of trouble.

As team members articulate visionary ideas, observe if they are repeatedly requesting present-day information. If this occurs, they are being hampered in their efforts to create the future by a lack of understanding regarding today's reality.

For example, a plan to double revenue in ten years is useless if the actual levels of current sales and the precise drivers are not known. Even the best-written document fails to provide the multiperspective insight that a full group discussion generates.

This isn't to say that it should be discarded. Instead, use it as a start a point of departure.




Sometimes, to help the team complete this real-time joint view, you must be bold to source the right data.

If Internet access is necessary, obtain it. If the employee with the information is at work or home on a weekend, call her. The issues being decided in the retreat are career-defining and require a certain level of urgency and commitment. It's the perfect time to be unreasonable given how much is at stake.

Of course, you are better off anticipating the need for this data. For example, if your industry is undergoing business process automation, then having an expert on call is a great idea.

But you cannot fully predict which direction the discussion will go, so be prepared to be resourceful.

The point here is to be ruthless in your pursuit of the truth as a necessary building block of a sound strategic plan. Once it's accepted in mind and heart, the team is ready to create a new vision that inspires them and those whom they represent.

There is just no shortcut. A joint agreement around even the ugliest truths cannot be circumvented.

- 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: