For any Board, executive or senior management team it is vital to spend dedicated time together at periodic intervals to reflect, think and plan. Normal, routine meetings won’t do because they typically have a crammed agenda and there is usually not enough ‘quality’ time available to focus and engage in dedicated strategic discussion and fresh thinking. But, to be successful, strategic planning or Board away-day meetings need special preparation and careful planning.

Alternatively called sometimes ‘executive retreats’ – strategic away-days can serve many specific purposes of a strategic nature, for example: to review progress of the current business plan; to review the progress of some major development projects; to think of ways of improving the effectiveness of the Board; to review/update the organisation’s vision and values; or to engage in some broad ‘blue-sky’ thinking about the future.

Successful strategic meetings need a lot of careful planning and facilitation: ideally you should be thinking and preparing at least 4-5 weeks before the meeting itself. Based on my varied experience as an operational director, CEO and Board director, as well as a consultant/facilitator, here are a dozen ‘must do’ tips I would particularly recommend:

i) Don’t treat a strategy away-day as just another, regular executive meeting: Away-days are special meetings. The scope of matters discussed is broader than the usual management meeting, with participants there to take an organisation-wide perspective rather than focus just a particular function. The frame of reference is the long-term, not the short-term. Participants will have to deal with information and issues that are often ill-defined, uncertain or speculative, which can make some executives uncomfortable. Also, away-days must be planned and ‘owned’ by the CEO (or most senior executive), even though he/she may not actually run the meeting itself.

ii) Define the objectives of the meeting in terms of the wider strategy process: The success of a strategy away-day is largely determined by what happens before the meeting, not at the meeting. It won’t be effective or efficient just to schedule a meeting, perhaps add an external facilitator, and then let discussion take its own course. Instead, you should first consider where exactly your organisation is in the strategy process and then decide what specific outcomes you want from the meeting to fit in with that process. For example, does the group need to hold an expansive conversation about broad strategic options, or is the focus on preparing next year’s budget/plan?

iii) Avoid cramming too much into a single strategy meeting: Two separate meetings, or a short series of half or full days over a few months, are usually more effective than a single meeting. There are a number of reasons: holding just one meeting severely limits the time available to deal with any issues in depth and participants’ energy and attention will start to wane after 4-5 hours; breaking up the process over a number of meetings gives participants time to reflect after each session and prepare better for the next occasion; and having a gap between meetings enables useful, supportive tasks like collecting more data or consulting others to be carried out.

iv) Carefully consider who needs to attend the meeting: The number and range of participants should be determined by the scope and objectives of the meeting. An expansive discussion about broad options benefits from a larger group (as long as it is well-facilitated), whilst decisions are best made by smaller groups. Don’t just cobble together a unique list of participants but start with the team (e.g. executive team) who are used to meeting regularly. Add possibly a few other staff members to help balance the overall make-up of the group (e.g. a newly recruited senior manager who may bring a fresh perspective) or outside experts or service providers for parts of the meeting where their input will be valuable. Overall, keep numbers limited to what is necessary, otherwise you’ll have more of a ‘town meeting’ than a ‘strategic away-day!

v) Use an external facilitator who specialises in strategy: This is a must for three key reasons: i) to provide informed guidance on relating the strategy meeting to the wider strategy process; ii) to professionally plan, structure and design an effective process and programme; and iii) to help ensure group discussion on the day is well-led, fair and objective, enjoyable, and centred on achieving the session objectives. It is possible, of course, to use someone as an in-house facilitator, but they inevitably will not be able to bring the same objectivity or freshness as an outsider. An essential principle is that, whoever is used to be facilitator, they must keep themselves fully independent: their job is simply to guide the process, not to influence the content of any decisions made.

vi) Ahead of the meeting distribute a background/data briefing pack To orientate participants about the meeting and provide a common foundation for discussions, prepare a set of background reading and send out at least a week ahead to all attendees. Stick to hard facts and figures only, or as as much as possible: there will be enough subjective opinion raised at the meeting itself!

vii) Plan a suitable meeting structure, process and set of techniques: This critical stage involves, firstly, designing an overall structure, agenda of topics, time-plan and set of specific objectives/outputs for each agenda session. Secondly, selecting what particular discussion/interaction process and what particular frameworks and range of supportive techniques and aids will be most suitable for each session. Avoid using an agenda made up simply of blocks of time with a broad topic for each block and relying on free, open discussion to come up with useful outputs: this is invariably not as effective as using a semi-structured approach for each session with at least some particular, pre-sequenced questions to work through.

ix) Ensure a comfortable environment and relaxed meeting ‘tone’: If you want a group to work well together for several hours, make sure in advance the meeting room itself is well-aired, quiet, temperature-controlled, and large enough for participants to walk around at intervals for a break. Of course, make sure that the layout of the room is suitable and seating arrangements comfortable for everyone (arranged in a U-shape or complete circle is usually best, and certainly avoid ‘theatre-style’ rows). Natural daylight in the room is preferred by many people for a long meeting. To help reinforce a convivial, relaxed atmosphere, it helps if participants have some time to relax socially together before the meeting (e.g. dinner the prior evening). A ‘smart-casual’ dress code on the day also helps.

x) Manage conversations carefully on the day: This is where the facilitator’s skill is key. At the very start of the meeting, the CEO or other senior executive responsible for the meeting should make some introductory points (e.g. welcoming everyone and summing up the aims of the day), followed by the facilitator overviewing the day’s agenda and giving some simple guidelines (‘ground rules’) on how sessions are to be handled. Once the meeting has got going, for each agenda session, the facilitator should give a clear overview of the objectives and how it is to be handled. Try and avoid sessions opening with any long data presentations (e.g. PowerPoint), as they often leave people ‘flat’ and bored. Let the facilitator lead and gently steer and progress each conversation and ensure things like everyone has a fair chance to speak and that nobody is allowed to be rude or domineering.

xi) Fix definite review/decision points along the agenda of the meeting: At regular points during discussions, it is valuable to assimilate the range of points raised up to then and offer a simple summary to the group. Also, at key stages in discussions – especially after an allotted time for a topic has been reached – the facilitator needs to bring the conversation to some form of ‘closure‘: that doesn’t necessarily mean reaching a particular decision, it can simply mean, for example, agreeing a set of issues or prioritisation of issues to be discussed later or agreeing to investigate a topic further.

xii) End the meeting with a wrap-up review & check everyone is aligned: If participants, guided by the facilitator, have managed to maintain a decent focus, quality and progression to their conversations throughout their meeting, the result should be the outcomes wanted. So, in the final session the facilitator’s task is to summarise and overview the outputs from all previous sessions and check everyone is clear and agreed. There also needs to be an overall check on which executive is to be responsible for taking forward or overseeing each issue/decision/action.

xiii) Post-meeting write-up and action follow-through: Straight after the meeting an overall write-up/digest should be drafted – usually by the facilitator – that collates and records all the ‘raw’ key points raised and noted (on flipcharts etc) from each session, gives a master summary/overview of all these points, and also lists all the agreed outcomes (including agreed actions, timings and allocated responsibilities). After checking and final changes made by senior management, the write-up should be circulated to everyone who participated in the meeting – ideally within 7-10 days.

What sort of away-day are YOU planning? If you’d like a free, no-obligation call, online conversation or face-to-face exploratory meeting at your offices, to help shape ideas and thinking for your event, please call Mike on 01886 881092.

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