Corporate Meetings & Incentives: What are some key differences between executive retreats and company meetings?

Bob Frisch: A strategic offsite brings together the management team to discuss goals and priorities for the company. Expectations for the offsite run higher than for a typical company meeting because it is usually the only opportunity that top management has to explore strategic issues in depth for several days. It's a high-level strategy session, and the planning is really about the agenda and the content rather than the logistics. At an event like a company meeting, the logistics are usually far more sophisticated. The owner of a company meeting may be the meeting planner or HR representative, whereas the CEO or division head is typically the meeting owner for an executive offsite. This person decides on content, helps design the offsite, and is ultimately responsible for the outcome.

CMI: What are some of the trends you are seeing with regard to executive offsites?

Frisch: Right now, everybody is very budget-conscious. In the past, that usually meant companies would reduce the number of meetings they were holding. But we have noticed something different this year with our clients. Many are asking us to work with them to look at their entire calendar of meetings for the year and rethink aspects like the sequence of events, who comes to each meeting, and the agenda items, rather than just cutting certain meetings out of the budget. So people are starting to look at meetings in the context of the entire company and make changes to who meets when or the objectives of each meeting, rather than just cutting an entire meeting.

CMI: How big of an effect has the economy had on the planning and frequency of executive offsites at the companies you work with?

Frisch: The frequency has not been impacted — these are critical conversations about the business, and most executives understand that these meetings need to happen. What is being impacted is the location. Companies are staying closer to home rather than flying everyone to a golf resort. The attendees are still physically getting out of the building, but they are going to hotels around the corner from the office or within driving distance. Where we see companies pulling back is the distance they are willing to travel.

CMI: What are some best practices in planning an offsite?

Frisch: Developing a clear set of objectives ahead of time is critical. Until you know what the objective of the meeting is, it will be impossible to succeed. It's asking, “What do I want the team to have discussed and explored by the end of this meeting?” That means leaving out any topics that can be handled in other forums such as staff meetings. It's about minimizing the amount of time spent sitting through PowerPoint presentations and maximizing the time spent engaging in conversation and strategy.

There are a couple of rules we like to live by when running an offsite. First, think about the size of the group that will be in attendance. If the goal of the meeting is idea sharing and brainstorming, a larger group of 25 to 30 people might make sense. But if you are using this meeting to make key decisions, 25 to 30 people in the room is going to be a disaster. You need to have a smaller group of people in the room when it comes time to make those decisions.

CMI: What is the optimal time frame for an executive retreat, and should recreational activities be built into the agenda?

Frisch: You have to make sure you're being realistic about how much time is spent watching a PowerPoint presentation, playing golf, or having dinner together, and how much time is being spent actually discussing strategy. If you look at the number of hours spent on those strategic topics and only four or five hours out of a three-day meeting is spent in these discussions, then it's not really a strategic offsite. It's a conversation wrapped into a whole bunch of other activities.

Now, you are getting people together, presumably from different offices and maybe even from around the world, so it's good to have some kind of social interaction — a dinner, or a golf event. You don't want to miss that opportunity for socializing and networking, but it has to be the right balance.

CMI: What is the most common pitfall for executive retreats?

Frisch: Many times companies don't adequately plan for what is going to happen when the executives return to the office. Before everyone leaves, it's important to decide on next steps and be very clear on these. Collect those action items that were decided during the meeting and do a recap of what was agreed on and who is going to do what by when. It sounds trivial, but it's actually very important because you usually end up making some modification at that point.

Also, we like to ask attendees, “What are you going to tell your subordinates happened here when you return to the office?” It's important that everyone agree on the common themes of the meeting and what came out of being away for two or three days. It's not about scripting responses, but rather about being clear on the outcome and having a set of agreed-upon communication points for discussion following the strategic offsite.

A lot of momentum is created at the end of a well-designed offsite. It's not just about what happens during the time away from the office, but about the planning and execution of those decisions afterward that makes it truly effective.

Related article:
The Meeting Is Now Open

Sidebar: Pick Your Format

The best retreats are tailor-made to fit an organization's specific needs, but specialized retreat formats often fit the bill. In their new book, Retreats That Work (2008, Pfeiffer), Merianne Liteman, Sheila Campbell, and Jeff Liteman analyze some options.

Large System Interventions

These sessions involve many people — often more than 100 — representing many different segments of an organizational system (or even the entire organization) who gather to explore and plan for change.

What is unusual about these conferences is that stakeholders from all groups affected by the organization participate. Having all these voices in one room can have a major impact on the organization involved, helping attendees to find new ways to support one another's work.

Open Space Technology

Developed by organizational consultant Harrison Owen, Open Space sessions call on participants themselves to determine the topics they would like to address and the individuals who will convene various subgroups to discuss each topic.

The participants decide which subgroups they will join to discuss the issues that are most important to them. The concept sounds (and sometimes seems) a little chaotic, but it takes place in a well-structured environment. For example, there is a formal process for involving the entire group in the work that has taken place in the individual sessions, so all participants have the opportunity to discuss any and all topics.

Open Space is not suitable for every situation. It will not work in an organization where the leader wants to maintain tight control. It yields a different result than tightly structured retreats do, one that often can't be foreseen but that does very accurately reflect the group's concerns.

World Café

Juanita Brown and David Isaacs developed the World Café method for creating collaborative dialogue for groups of at least 12 participants. The World Café conversations take place in small groups of four to five participants.

While individuals talk about issues that matter to them and to the organization, they draw their key ideas on paper tablecloths. In the course of several rounds of conversation, people move from table to table, carrying themes from their previous conversations with them. In a whole group conversation at the end, participants share key themes and highlights.

Much like Open Space, World Café is not suitable for environments where there is a predetermined answer, where detailed information-gathering and action-planning is the goal, or where the time available for the conversations is very limited. It works well, however, when the group wants to explore a topic in depth and increase buy-in for the outcomes.

Appreciative Inquiry

AI is a methodology that, in the words of its primary originator, David L. Cooperrider, uses “the best of the past and present” to “ignite the collective imagination of what might be.”

Rather than focusing on an organization's problems — identifying them, finding their causes, deciding on possible solutions, and taking action to overcome them — groups following the AI approach explore what they do well, envision possible scenarios for the future, discuss what they would like to see happen, and come up with innovative solutions that are grounded in current successes.

When skillfully facilitated, AI works particularly well in organizations that have undergone difficult transitions. The authors discuss using AI as a retreat structure for an organization that has gone through a poorly managed downsizing. For the first time, employees who were frightened, cynical, and burned out are able to talk about what they do best and what they aspire to for the future. This serves as the beginning of a process that allowed a healthier organization to emerge, something that had eluded the executives in the post-downsizing problem-solving sessions they had previously convened.

There is no formal training required to lead an Appreciative Inquiry retreat, but when you're using it for the first time, you're more likely to be successful if you work with a facilitator who is skilled in this methodology.

Work-Out

The aim of the Work-Out, a concept developed by Jack Welch when he was CEO of General Electric in the 1980s, is to improve processes by eliminating bureaucracy and non-value-added work.

Typically a Work-Out is a structured two- or three-day event for multilevel, cross-functional teams of 20 to 50 people. The teams participate in a progressive series of large group and smaller breakout sessions.

One premise of the Work-Out is that the returning teams will get quick approval from decision-makers about the recommendations they offer. At the end, the teams meet with top managers to report their conclusions.