We’ve all been there. The annual strategy away day is a fixture for many management teams. And yet, all too often, they are sessions where there is more heat generated than light, and where real breakthroughs are thin on the ground.

Based on my experience of leading and facilitating these sessions, here are my top 10 ways to get more from strategy retreats:

  1. Clarify your objectives well in advance. One or two specific objectives should be set 6-10 weeks ahead of the meeting to allow relevant information to be gathered and the session planned effectively.
  2. Match participants to the objectives. Getting as many senior people as possible in the room is not necessarily the best way to achieve your objectives. If you are after new ideas and thinking a diverse and larger group is appropriate, if you are after making some critical decisions fewer people in the room is generally best and if you want to focus on implementing your agenda ensure that you have sufficient front-line managers.
  3. Share the data before the meeting. Nothing kills an off-site session quite like a series of PowerPoint presentations. Instead, share relevant data ahead of the off-site, both through short, pithy(!) papers and through individual or small-group briefing sessions.
  4. Provide some pre-session homework. Ask your team to spend time on the front-line of your business, directly observing your customers using your products and services, visiting benchmark companies from other industries, and/or shopping your business. This provides great data to compare with any quantitative reports you might prepare.
  5. The route to success is involvement. The off-site’s #1 driver of success is meaningful involvement. Find ways to get participants actively involved in the meeting, rather than becoming passive observers of the session.
  6. Focus on the future. More people are turned on by discussions and dialogue on the future of your business, than an in-depth review of current performance.
  7. Raise the bar – significantly. Don’t just focus on how you can be a little bit better tomorrow; focus on how you can transform your company’s results.
  8. Get some customers in the room. There’s nothing better than some real-time, direct customer feedback to get your team focused on what really matters.
  9. Remember, you don’t need to solve everything. I recently facilitated an retreat where the group agreed 3 growth priorities, but were unable to agree on which others, from a list of 15, should be taken forward. Not perfect, perhaps, but certainly a success.
  10. Follow-up. There are three actions you should take: (1) Determine the actions required and assign responsibilities; (2) Decide how you will manage progress of your agreed next steps; and (3) Agree how you will communicate the conclusions and outcomes of the retreat to the wider organisation.

© Stuart Cross 2011. All rights reserved.