How was your summer break? Time spent in the sun with family, or simply reading a book or two by the pool, lets us all relax, reflect, and reinvigorate.

For many business leaders, a common output of that downtime is the decision to run a strategy away day for their team. As they chew over the issues and opportunities facing their business, and the fact that they’ll be entering a new business year in a few months’ time, these managers resolve to find some quality time for their team to explore their big issues and challenges.

Expectations for these strategy sessions are often high – after all, it’s a big commitment of senior time and effort – but many, if not most, fail to have a lasting impact.

Having designed and led literally dozens of these sessions for clients over the years, I know that a successful strategy off-site can make a real difference to both corporate performance and the dynamics of the leadership team. But that only happens if you put in the necessary time and effort into planning and preparing for the meeting effectively.

Here are five questions to help you make sure that your strategy away day is a success and not merely an empty talking shop:

  1. What are the 1-3 specific objectives of the session? Too many strategy off-sites become burdened by an ever-increasing agenda of tangential issues. You need to clarify the specific objective of the meeting. For instance, are you looking to develop new strategic options for the business, or are you more concerned about accelerating the delivery of your existing strategy? The fewer the objectives, the better.
  2. Who needs to be there? Strategy away days suffer from a surfeit of attendees, many with no clear role. As a result, you end up with a handful of people taking up the majority of airtime, with the remaining participants sitting in silence for most of the day. In general, the fewer the people attending, the better the results. After all, you can always break your away day down into two or three shorter meetings, allowing you to consult your initial findings with a wider group in-between sessions.
  3. What pre-work is required to support the session? You can’t simply run these meetings on anecdote. Having good quality and insightful data can transform the effectiveness of the decisions you make. But you can only decide on the pre-work if you are clear on the objectives.
  4. How will you run the meeting? Too many strategy off-sites are killed by lengthy presentations. Perhaps I would say this, but having an independent facilitator can allow you to put the focus on having productive discussions where everyone is encouraged to contribute, rather than simply sitting through endless graphs and charts that no-one can remember. That’s why getting the pre-work done and shared ahead of the meeting can have a big impact on the session’s success.
  5. What will happen next? This may sounds obvious, but I’m surprised by how many strategy sessions fail to create a coherent action plan. Ensuring that there’s dedicated time on the agenda for next step actions, timescales, and accountabilities, as well as agreeing how you will review ongoing progress, is critical to the success of the meeting.

Spending time addressing these questions ahead of the meeting can help you and your team turn an interesting conversation into a real inflexion point for your organisation. And, during next summer’s holidays, you’ll be able to reflect that the quality of your team’s strategy discussions and actions has improved significantly over the past 12 months!

Off The Record: Down in the Tube Station at Midnight. by The Jam

The last thing that I saw, as I lay there on the floor,

Was “Jesus Saves” painted by an atheist nutter,

And a British Rail poster read, “Have an Away Day,”

“A cheap holiday – do it today!”