Your company's senior management team has scheduled an annual retreat for the fall. The board of directors wants a two-day strategy session to finalize plans for the new millennium. You know it's a high-profile group and the meeting needs to be focused, constructive, and productive. You've arranged an off-site location with all the amenities, the logistics for the meeting are coming together nicely, but . . . have you thought through the agenda and the group dynamics you want to take place?
According to the Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Company, strategic planning continues to be the number-one management tool used by American businesses. A retreat provides a management team or board the opportunity to get away from the press of business routines and spend time assessing and planning the company's strategic direction.
Although this type of session typically involves only 10 to 15 participants, logistical demands can often be greater than with large conferences.
Participants come together with high expectations for results, and the stakes--the long-term success or failure of the business--are huge. Attendees want to move the discussion along, get buy-in where needed, and frame strategies and immediate plans for action. The company is making a major investment: Quite aside from facility and transportation costs, the "time value" for a two-day session can range up into the five figures.
With this kind of investment in mind, how can you anticipate and react to potential meeting minefields? We've developed a simple assessment tool, the Planning Effectiveness Index, or PEI (see page 82), which evaluates seven common meeting dynamics. When participants complete the questionnaire four to six weeks prior to the scheduled retreat, you can anticipate and assess how the group will work together, zeroing in on those factors that positively or negatively influence the quality of interaction. You'll have direct input from your "customers" on their expectations.
Here's a closer look at the questions, each followed by ideas for boosting meeting effectiveness, with the emphasis on things you can do before the retreat.
1. As the meeting progresses, discussion tends to meander over a variety of topics, with each participant promoting a different agenda. This problem usually stems from the meeting sponsor's failure to communicate his or her objectives for the meeting. During the session, some par- ticipants may wonder, "What's the point?" while others pursue their own objectives. The result: a discussion with little focus or no closure.
What you can do about it: * Review and agree upon meeting objectives with the sponsor well in advance--then review with, and elicit input from, all participants, with a confirmation in writing.
* Restate objectives at the beginning of the retreat, look for buy-in, and review agenda and ground rules for the meeting to achieve agreed-upon objectives.
2. Discussion is dominated by one or two participants. Usually this occurs when the meeting sponsor is trying to assume the dual--and conflicting--roles of participant and leader. In most instances, it just can't be done, even if the sponsor consciously tries to maintain a balance. Or, perhaps there is one participant who regularly dominates the group discussions.
What you can do about it: * Engage a neutral facilitator, from within the company or outside, to manage the meeting. This will free up the meeting sponsor to be a true participant in the discussion.
* A simple, effective technique is "round robin" participation--where each delegate gives input.
3. Your retreats have become stale, with the same agendas, the same thought patterns, the same outcomes. If participants agree strongly with this statement, it's time for a change. One management team we worked with was extremely satisfied with the inaugural strategy retreat. But in the second and third years, the format became a dull routine and the energy level of the group diminished. Participants were all too familiar with each other's opinions.
What you can do about it: * Discuss with the meeting sponsor how the organization's priorities have changed in the past 12 months and how that translates into a new agenda.
* Consider some pre-meeting input that will challenge the participants to think in different ways: Customer focus group results, employee perceptions, trends in the industry, and the like.
4. Participants tend to spend most of their time on tactical details, rather than on the big picture. The natural tendency within a group is to jump to problem-solving, often at a very tactical level. While the impulse is admirable, undirected problem-solving can choke off the strategic thought-process and leave meeting objectives unmet.
What you can do about it: * This kind of situation is difficult to handle ahead of time; the meeting facilitator must be prepared to intervene in the group process and pull participants back to a strategic level. A simple technique is to recognize and record tactical issues on a flip chart for later consideration.
5. Our planning sessions result in broad strategic statements and a "feel good" atmosphere, but with few specific action steps and little accountability. This is the flip side of #4. If your group strongly agrees with this statement, it means that whatever is decided at the session will probably not translate effectively into action. At a recent retreat, for example, the discussion was animated, with aggressive plans for company growth. But several participants were reluctant to make the connection between strategy and their own accountability.
What you can do about it: * Always reserve time on the agenda, typically at the end of the session, to identify or review all agreed-upon action items.
* Have a mechanism in place to record key decisions, target dates, and accountability, and distribute to meeting attendees.
6. Sessions are dominated by presentations, with little time for interaction and dialogue. Far too many participants in management retreats would strongly agree with this statement! Almost invariably a series of presentations will take over a meeting like some invasive weed. Strategy retreats are a very expensive forum for show-and-tell.
What you can do about it: * Limit presentations to no more than 25 percent of your meeting time. If possible, intersperse them throughout the agenda.
* Distribute necessary information, which can be the basis for discussion, before the meeting for attendees to review.
7. We have not found a constructive way to involve employees and other stakeholders in the planning thought-process. Too often, the planning process occurs within a closed group of executives or board members. A com- pany's other stakeholders (employees, investors, suppliers, customers), who would add a fresh perspective and energize the process, are left out of the loop.
What you can do about it: * If the management team or board of directors want this kind of involvement, start planning for it three to six months before the retreat.
* Be very careful to manage expectations of those involved.
* Consider involving a subgroup in the planning process with some form of pre-meeting questionnaire to help identify critical--or common--issues.