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Getting past the post-retreat flop

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2011 | 12:00 AM


The statistics are stunning: some 90 per cent of companies fail to execute strategies developed at company retreats.

Why does this happen, when so many executives leave these annual meetings feeling so positive, optimistic and energised? Was it due to poor quality planning? Not having enough data? Putting too much faith in one or two people?

My observation is that the quality of the plan usually isn't the problem. After all, the retreat is usually attended by the smartest, most committed people in the organisation.

Instead, the common complaints at year-end are as follows: we didn't have enough time; or we were too busy keeping things running; or there were too many fires to put out.

These excuses are rife, but they provide no clue as to what the executive team should do differently the next time around. Here are some practical pointers that executives can use to ensure that this year's plan doesn't turn into next year's flop.

No 1: Use Averages and Not Outliers

At the retreat when the fires of creativity are running hot, I often notice executive teams leaving reality behind in the search for breakthrough results.

They start to build improbable time-frames into the plan that could only be achieved under ideal conditions.

For example, let's imagine that the plan requires a new wing to be added on to the current office-building. It's a mistake to put a six-month estimate in the plan when the average time to build such a wing takes 18 months.

Under ideal conditions - that almost never take place - it might indeed take six months, but it's a bad idea to build a plan on the foundation of extraordinary outcomes that only happen rarely.

Some argue that such aggressive planning is motivational, but more often than not it simply causes everyone to lose faith in the strategic plan from its very inception.

Instead, executive teams need to be rigorous, and to use their collective experience to include average time estimates, and not exceptional outliers.

No 2: Leave Items Unassigned

In the excitement to conclude the retreat on a high note, executive teams often fail to assign activities in the plan to responsible individuals.

Sometimes, action items are handed to vague groups of executives, with no clear leader. At other times, the assignment is an after-retreat chore that never gets completed.

The solution is to make sure that each item is delegated to one person before the retreat ends, and insist on a date for the first update.

No 3: Train Executives in Advanced Time-Management Skills

When executives are assigned a new project or task from the strategic plan, the best practice is to enter it directly into their personal schedule in their diary, laptop or Blackberry.

To make this work, the executive should be practising the art of using their schedule to manage all their future activities, following the most recent research. In her latest book, Dezhi Wu from the University of Southern Utah confirms that the most effective time managers make heavy use of schedules, and little use of lists.

Unfortunately, most local executives don't use calendars in this fashion, and instead schedule little more than appointments with other people.

Most use lists, but run into problems when they need to plan complex activities such as a new project that requires multiple dependent activities ranging over several months.

Using lists requires constant monitoring, and many do a poor job of frequently scanning them, resulting in major items falling through the cracks.

The least effective approach of all is to use one's memory, and to hope that an unplanned reminder will pop up in time.

Executives who use this technique are the least reliable of all, and can't be trusted to implement critical aspects of the plan.

Ahead of a retreat, executives can work on upgrading their time management skills from using their memory, to using lists, to using their schedules so that they are prepared to do the extra work the new strategic plan will require.

It's one way to find the time to prevent disappointing post-retreat flops.

Francis Wade is a management consultant with Framework Consulting, and a leader in Time Management 2.0.