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14 tips for running a strategy day that works

People workshopping with postit notes
Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

The Strategy Day has a bad reputation. But done well, it can make a valuable contribution to a broader process for developing and executing business strategy.

Have you ever been to one of those strategy offsites which feels great, energising and engaging at the time, but once you get back to the office you realise nothing has really changed?

I like to call this "strategy theatre". It's mostly for entertainment. It pretends to be strategy. It looks a bit like strategy. But it isn't.

Real strategy takes time and effort. It involves hard choices.

Strategy Away-days, Strategy Offsites or just Strategy Days have a terrible reputation for being a waste of time. For indulging out-of-touch executives in their ivory towers. For producing strategies that just sit on the shelf. Until next year's strategy day comes up with the next one.

But, well run strategy offsites can play a vital role in a well designed strategy development and execution process.

Here are 14 tips for running a strategy day that actually delivers results.

1. Don't expect to build a strategy in a day

Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither will your strategy be. But that doesn't mean you can't do meaningful work in a day.

Strategy is a process, a conversation, a way of thinking, planning and executing.

It's not an event or a deliverable. It's not annual strategy day.

But a strategy away day can be a valuable part of that conversation. Just don't assume its enough on its own.

Be clear on what you will and won't achieve on your strategy day. And be clear about how you will achieve everything else you need to achieve to develop and execute a strategy successfully.

2. Remember that it's still a meeting

A strategy day is a particular kind of meeting. But it is still a meeting. So all of the usual good practice for meetings applies.

  • Set clear objectives.
  • Set a clear agenda.
  • Communicate both up front.
  • Distribute any pre-reading, allowing plenty of time for people to actually read it.
  • Make sure the pre-reading is relevant, concise and of a very high standard.
  • Make any expectations of what you want done in advance clear with plenty of warning.
  • Think about who you actually need there. There is a perceived status attached to attending strategy away days. But who do you really need there? And who will really add value?
  • Keep to time. But be flexible if you need to be. You can't rush strategy.

3. Choose the right venue

Choosing the right venue is an important first step.

There are two objectives:

  1. Minimise distractions.

    Encourage people to turn off their mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Discourage them from 'checking into with the office' or 'popping back to their desks' during breaks. Each interruption breaks their flow. Takes them out of 'strategic thinking' mode and back to day-to-day fire-fighting mode.

  2. Allow space to think.

    Getting people to carve out a whole day to think about strategy is a good starting point. But it is difficult to think strategically when you're crammed into a stuffy windowless room. Find a venue which provides plenty of space to move around. Find a new environment that encourages creativity. Find an environment that doesn't remind them of the immediate day-to-day problems which will still be waiting for them tomorrow.

For both of these reasons, it is often best to leave the office for an offsite venue.

4. Bring people into the room

Many people aren't naturally strategic thinkers. Even those that are often live there lives in a much more tactical fire-fighting mode. So the first thing you need to do is to set them up to spend a day thinking differently.

The right venue will help (see above).

But the first agenda item is critical for setting the scene and for setting up the participants. This could be:

  1. An inspiring introductory talk.

    This could be delivered by an external speaker or by one of the participants. It should be on a topic or topics of particular relevance to the organisation at that point in time. But it should be forward-looking and expansive. It should focus on 'the art of the possible', and not on the challenges of the past. It should focus beyond the organisation - beyond the industry even - rather than on the organisation itself. It should throw up questions more than answers.

  2. An inclusive question.

    An inclusive question is a question that everyone in the room can answer, and for which there are no right or wrong answers. It should be phrased so that the answers are positive and connect people. The aim is to get people out of day-to-day problem-solving mode, and primed for thinking strategically. A good example is: What is the one thing that makes you most proud to be associated with this organisation?

  3. Set expectations.

    A more conventional opening is to ask each attendee to state their expectations of the meeting. Ask them to complete the sentence: "I'd be happy if by the end of today we'd ...". Record their answers on a flip chart.

  4. Name the elephant in the room.

    Whilst it is best to start the day on a positive note, sometimes you can't avoid the fact that there are one more shadows hanging over it. Perhaps the organisation has just posted a particularly poor set of results, lost a large contract, or is facing a hostile takeover. In that case, there is no point in trying to sweep them under the carpet. Allow participants to name them. To get them off their chest. Write them down on a flip chart. They are more likely to be able to move past an issue if everyone is clear that it is out in the open.

5. Understand when to be divergent and when to be convergent

Developing and executing strategy requires a combination of divergent and convergent processes.

Divergent processes involve gathering data and generating ideas. Casting the net as wide as possible. Using macro scanning and brainstorming. Imagining. Asking 'what if?' Thinking about benefits. In divergent processes, there is no such thing as a bad idea. No stone that should be left unturned.

Convergent processes involve analysis and making choices. Narrowing things down. Focusing and prioritising. Choosing what you will do as well as what you won't do. Planning. Considering feasibility and costs.

But as much as developing and executing strategy requires you to alternate between the two, it is important never to mix them.

We've probably all heard that you should never evaluate the ideas generated during a brainstorming session. This is because brainstorming is a divergent process, and evaluating is a convergent process.

So decide if the purpose of your strategy day is divergence or convergence, and design the day accordingly. If you must do both on the same day, aim for divergence before lunch and convergence after lunch.

See also: Alternating between divergent and convergent processes.

6. Work on the business, not in the business

Your strategy day is an opportunity to talk about the bigger picture. About the shape of the business. Which markets should it be in? How should it compete in those markets? What should it look like in 10 years time?

It is not an opportunity to dive into the operational minutae of your existing business. To identify and fight fires.

Those things are important, of course. But indulging in them on your strategy away day will take people out of strategic thinking mode and into operational mode. And more often, those issues are better delegated to other people.

7. Make visible notes as you go

Obviously, you want to remember all the good stuff that people talked about.

But if people see the notes, it makes it easier for them to feel heard and then to progress to the next thought without worrying that their great insight will be lost.

There are a number of different ways of achieving this:

  • Flip charts,
  • PostIt notes on a board,
  • On-screen capture.

Remember that the note-taker wields enormous power in the room. How you capture the notes makes a big difference. Who's words do you use? What do you leave out? What do you include? So choose that person wisely. I've seen many a session all but destroyed because note-taking was delegated to a junior person who did not really understand the nuances of what was being discussed.

Sometimes it makes sense to let delegates take then pen and draw what they're describing for themselves. That should be encouraged. Not just because it allows people to share their thoughts more clearly. But also because it creates a sense of movement and energy in the room.

On-screen capture has the advantage of making it easy to distribute exactly what was captured immediately after the event. There will be plenty of opportunities to refine and develop the output later. It's usually hugely valuable to get out an accurate record of what was actually discussed as soon as possible.

8. Be clear on the actions

You don't want your strategy day to be nothing more than a talking shop. So make sure you draw out clear actions. Actions don't need to be strategic decisions themselves. An action can be to:

  • gather more data,
  • consult with more people, or
  • work up some options,
  • to stop doing something, etc.

Use (simple) templates to send everyone out of the room to continue working but in alignment. And be clear how and when you will follow up.

9. Plan a post-event communication

If you take any number of senior decision-makers out of your business for a day, people will notice.

And they will start to speculate. And talk. Especially if the company is facing difficulties or uncertainties. If not handled well, that can further erode trust and alignment.

These days, it is quite common to share diaries. Either generally, or with subordinates or support staff. So it is worth thinking about how your strategy day appears in peoples diaries. This is part of the communication.

Then, plan a general communication with a few days of the meeting. You may not be able to talk about exactly what was discussed. But there is always an opportunity to say something positive.

10. Where is the data?

Strategy should be an evidence-based process. All-day workshops don't always lend themselves to that.

Consider what data you need before the workshop. Do you want to distribute it ahead of time? Or do you want someone to present it on the day?

Record actions to gather and distribute data after the workshop. Make sure they are assigned to the right people. One technique is to do a round at the end of the workshop. Ask everyone what, after the day, they most wish they knew now.

Predistributed data is better for convergent processes. Divergent processes tend to generate data needs after the workshop.

See also:

11. Use a facilitator

There are a number of reasons to get an external facilitator:

  1. Participation: Using a facilitator means that everyone else gets to participate fully. Let the facilitator worry about process, time-keeping, etc.
  2. Objectivity: Using an external facilitator ensures they are objective, and have no vested interests.
  3. Skills: An experienced facilitator should have the right skills. These include facilitation skills, strategic thinking, and possibly even industry knowledge. But make sure they are a generalist so that they are not bringing any bias into the process.
  4. Cost: Hiring a facilitator may be a little bit more expensive. But it is worth it to ensure you get the most value out of taking a number of expensive senior resources out of the office for a day.

See also: Expert Facilitation will Transform your Meetings - Destination Innovation

12. Don't confuse strategy with team-building

Team-building is another great reason for having an away day. A strategy away day may have some team-building benefits. But don't confuse the day.

A strategy day is all about the business. A team-building day is all about the people and the inter-personal dynamic.

Think back to the difference between working on the business, and not in the business, above. Also, you will need a different kind of facilitator with different skills for a team-building day.

13. Don't mix other issues into it

Resist the temptation to tackle other issues 'while we've got everyone in the room'.

Your strategy day is designed to get everyone thinking strategically.

Every time you do something other than strategy, it draws people back into their day to day firefighting mode and out of strategic thinking mode.

For the same reason, you should avoid letting people step in and out of the meeting. When they do, they then miss part of the conversation and thread of logic. But as importantly, their thinking pattern changes.

But be pragmatic. If disaster strikes during the day you will have to adjust. There is no point in having the perfect strategy if the business was destroyed while you were designing it!

14. Get people to move

Strategy days can be quite intense. The session immediately after lunch can be particularly challenging for many people. It isn't called the graveyard shift for nothing.

A little bit of movement reinvigorates the brain.

Sometimes it's enough just to ask people to change seats. Some people believe that simply changing seats is enough to change people's perspectives.

Another technique is to play a little game for a few minutes. A little bit of fun can enhance creativity. But try to make it a game connected to the strategy or the strategy process. Remember this is not a team-building day.

The strategy day has a bad reputation. But done well, it can make a valuable contribution to a broader process for developing and executing business strategy. And now, you know how.

See also:

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