Management Consultant Mike Eldon

How not to dread strategic retreats

Not many people look forward to strategic retreats. Quite a few dread them. Sure, they often take place at fancy hotels and lodges by the coast or a lake, or in a game park. But how often are they productive, never mind enjoyable? And how much of what is discussed and agreed upon is ever implemented?

To be fair, some organisations do manage to consistently run imaginative and exciting strategy planning sessions, that motivate all those who participate and result in good things happening thereafter. Such groups expect to do well; and they do so because they know what it takes. For, like with anything else, there’s a whole bunch of skills that have been developed which, if acquired, will make a strategic retreat something to look forward to rather than to endure. Indeed, some have made a profession out of organising and running these retreats.

But what’s the big deal? Surely all you have to do is get the management team to throw together a handful of Powerpoint presentations, and line up a bunch of directors to tear them apart. Then everyone toils away till late at night squabbling over budget allocations, and you’re all set for the next year, feeling good you’ve been through some painful haggling

That may be how too many such retreats unfold, and of course it’s also why people dread them so much. But there is a better way, and much is in the preparation. First, one must be clear about the purpose. Is it to review recent performance, assess the present situation, and as a consequence dream up (or reaffirm) the desired vision and mission and values? Should it extend to sketching out the strategic goals, to working on specific plans? And above all should it include discussions on the revenue and the expenditure – the budget business?

I firmly believe strategic retreats should be just that – strategic. People should keep to the big picture, and not allow themselves to get bogged down in too much detail, while of course not erring in the other direction by being too vague. I also don’t think participants should be up until all hours in the meeting room, or that they should normally take more than two or three days. Sometimes though, like when people come from many and distant locations, and there are other issues that require them all to be present – like training, for instance – it makes sense to extend the time.

Too often though, the reason retreats become extended is that endless time is consumed by unproductive arguing over relatively insignificant issues – like the order of the agenda; or where despite basic agreement over some point, the usual suspects insist on being obstinately difficult.

Indeed retreats are as much about atmosphere and pace as about content and outcome. They must flow well, building up from a strong opening to a powerful close. Except in very exceptional circumstances they should end on a high note, one that inspires confidence and hope. Throughout, participants should feel energetic and enthusiastic. They must be open to each others’ ideas, being prepared to build on them And they must be in a relaxed frame of mind that makes them open to bold and creative thinking.

Let’s come back to those presentations. Very few know how to structure these to best effect. There’s often far too much detail (not least in the overloaded slides); there are far more requests (not to mention complaints) than offers; and presenters operate as lone rangers rather than as members of a coordinated team. Above all too many stop very short of developing their business case to a point where those listening can easily say ‘yes’. So much of what one hears leads one to ask ‘So what?’ rather than to state ‘I see’, never mind to exclaiming ‘Just go ahead!’

What were the alternatives considered, one would like to know, with their respective advantages and disadvantages, and what led to the selection of the preferred one? And what would be the consequences of not going ahead with what is proposed?

After the presentations – which should neither be too many nor too long – the organisers must decide how to arrange for discussion and for convergence on an agreed way ahead. Here I have found that breaking into smaller groups for focused and constructive discussion pays great dividends. It gives the quieter and the less senior in the group easier opportunities to contribute freely, and it brings all levels together in a common brainstorming. It can transform ‘judges’ into ‘advisers’, and persecuted victims into motivated performers. For a retreat provides a unique opportunity to build teams – between levels, between departments and between individuals.

However brilliant the retreat though, the common cry is that despite all the best intentions, little ever changes. And it’s only when planning the next one a year down the line that one dusts off the beautiful report of the earlier event and blushes with shame over how so many of the same challenges and opportunities exist, quite untouched by firm yet long forgotten resolutions. So a good deal of time needs to be spent towards the end of a retreat in being very specific about the follow up.

Organisers of retreats rightly anguish over where to hold them. OK, it must be away from the normal workplace to avoid constant interruptions, but how far away? At a site that can be reached in under an hour or so by road, thus avoiding the higher cost of travel, never mind of extra hotel nights? Or is part of the objective to reward participants by offering a more exotic setting, with reasonable time also available in which to enjoy its recreational facilities?

There are no fixed or easy answers in this delicate business of managing great retreats. But if, like me, you’ve been part of some really awful ones and also of some stellar ones that motivated everyone present to go out and conquer the world, and if you reflect on the differences between them, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the do’s and don’ts.