It's only spring, but you're probably already thinking about next year.
Yep, with Q1 down and Q2 well under way, it's time to start thinking about the traditional Q3 event: The oft-dreaded company retreat to plan next year's strategy.
Sadly, apart from perhaps 'performance assessment', no two words are more likely to induce acid reflux and facial tics in an otherwise well-balanced and competent executive than the phrase 'strategic retreat'.
What should be a valued and enjoyable opportunity to escape the grind of day-to-day tactical implementation, so often becomes death by Powerpoint. Basically, these retreats become an endless sequence of presentations that cram too much information into too little time, even leaving the presenters with a sense that they'd rather take a paper clip, straighten it, and stab themselves in the eye.
Having participated in hundreds of strategic retreats, I know that this doesn't need to be so. Here are five ways you can make this year's retreat a resounding success:
1. Don't hold it on a Monday. You want your participants to arrive at the retreat clear-minded and able to focus. So don't hold it on a Monday when everyone has forty-seven things they need to do to start off the week. Also, don't do it on the last day of the month, when everyone is racing to hit their quotas, or on any other day that requires the majority of people's attention to be elsewhere. Instead, pick the least event-laden day you can find: likely a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday in the middle of the month.
2. Go off-site. Find an offsite location, far from the office, preferably with spotty Internet access. If your team is clustered in a conference room at head office, the likelihood of interruptions (and the probability of disengaged participants 'finding' an emergency to deal with) is too high. Poor Internet access removes the temptation to 'multi-task' (read: disengage).
3. Get a seasoned facilitator. Find someone from outside the company who is experienced in dealing with C-level executives to facilitate your retreat. This doesn't mean yielding the overall goals of the retreat to them. You still must set those, but it does mean entrusting them to manage the process of achieving those goals.
Why bring in an outside facilitator? To engender rich interaction by leveling the status pyramid. Un-facilitated retreats tend to be heavily influenced by the status of those in the room, with discussions (and the resulting decisions) skewed by the relative position in the org chart.
A skilled facilitator, unencumbered by the subliminal influences of where he or she fits on the org chart, will create a more neutral environment in which everyone can contribute equally, and will encourage a stronger challenge factor in a non-threatening manner.
4. Make pre-reading mandatory. In most strategic retreats too much time is spent on presenting information, and not enough time on analyzing and acting on it.
Make it your goal to reverse that situation: Have whatever presentations and background reading material are required for the retreat available at least one week ahead of time. Start each session with the presumption that the underlying information has already been read by everyone, and use the time for analysis and decision-making, not presentation.
5. Pre-schedule implementation accountability. Most strategic retreats bring with them an unfortunate reminder: "Gosh, look at these great decisions we made last year that we never actually implemented!"
The looming shadow of previously unimplemented strategic initiatives can produce a sense of guilt that undermines the ability of the leadership team to take the process seriously.
Break the cycle by pre-scheduling post-retreat accountability sessions: 45-90 minute conference calls to discuss the progress of action points arising from the retreat. Schedule the calls monthly for the three months immediately after the retreat, then quarterly after that.
(Hint: Initially, schedule everyone to participate so the sessions get into their diary. After the retreat, the list of actual participants can be whittled down as appropriate, depending on content and subject of the agreed action points.)