Getting the most out of an Annual Offsite Meeting
When a senior management team, or a board of directors, holds an offsite meeting or retreat the investment of time and money is significant. The question is;
“How to make the most of this limited and extremely valuable time?”
Here are seven suggestions based on Meeting Facilitators International’s experience with facilitation at several hundred retreats.
1. The right people…
If you don’t have the right people, then the whole thing will fall apart either during the retreat or, even worse, when you get back to the office. For a board retreat this means the entire board, plus invited guests. These guests are usually outside advisors, and selected members of management. In most cases the guests will only participate in specific agenda items. For a management retreat you will want the senior team. If there are other key staff members within the organization with an in-depth knowledge of the issues at hand, or who will be responsible for executing the strategy, consider adding them as well. You may wish to add them for only part of the agenda, or you may wish to get their input either before or after the retreat. Never use an off-site meeting to “reward” someone; this is a time for serious business and should only include the people needed to get the work done.
2. The right agenda…
Agendas that are unfocused, overloaded, and don’t have specific outcomes stated are an invitation to failure. These agendas try to cover too much in too little time, with the end result being that nothing gets done properly. The lack of focus makes it all too easy for discussions to get “off-track.” Before designing a management retreat or board retreat agenda, be very clear about the following:
- “What has to happen for us to consider this session a success?”
- “What specific issues do we want to deal with?”
- “What is not up for discussion?”
- “How are we going to document the meeting, including the actions that we will be committing to?”
- “If we don’t have enough time to cover everything, which things on our list can wait for a future session?”
3. The right process…
In far too many meetings we see a host of incompatible activities jumbled together. How often have you seen the following?.
- People involved in action planning or problem solving in the middle of a brainstorming session.
- Brainstormed lists of ideas that aren’t priority ranked or vetted. (Are all 45 of these ideas really equal?)
- Decision making based on some unwieldy matrix that nobody really understands or believes in
- Action planning that doesn’t capture all of the essential ingredients (who will do what by when.)
- People jumping to conclusions without adequately considering alternatives
- Unbalanced participation with some people dominating and others not contributing
- Cryptic notes on flip charts that make no sense to anyone afterwards
- Facilitators suggesting icebreakers or other activities inappropriate for executive level participants
You can avoid all of this by having the right facilitation process and the right facilitator.
4. The right pre-work…
We find pre-work to be of tremendous assistance in getting the most out of people’s time. We also find that how the pre-work task is defined will have a major effect as to how valuable it is. Asking someone to read a book or article is far more effective if they are also asked to think about what part of it gave them hope or made them worry. Asking them to think about how the author’s observations and prescriptions relate to their company will prepare people for a discussion at the corporate retreat of how to apply what they have learned.
Pre-work that involves brainstorming can be particularly effective if the results are collected in advance by phone, or through an online survey, and then tabulated for discussion at the meeting. Having one person collect the results provides a far more usable list than the ones that we typically see if people are asked to “email” their thoughts. The brainstormed list at the meeting can then be used for discussion and priority ranking.
5. Action planning…
Sometimes clients provide us with the notes from a previous retreat. It is amazing to see what is (or rather is not) documented in the action plans. In our opinion, an action plan needs to be “checkable” and has to describe who does what by when. By checkable we mean that each action is described in such a way that someone could “check it off” their “to-do” when it is done. A checkable action item that describes who does what by when would be the following:
• John Smith to prepare a business case for developing a “retail” version of our OEM product — due Oct 2013
Without some form of scheduled follow-up, we find that in spite of the best intentions many action items do not get completed. We encourage clients to define during the corporate retreat the date, time, and location of a follow-up session. This meeting may be specific to the off-site or it may be a simple agreement to put the corporate retreat’s action items into a regularly scheduled management meeting. (We should note that we also actively encourage people in the retreat to not make commitments around things that are not priorities. It is far better to have the team committed to three or four priorities than it is to have a list of thirty things that never get done.)
7. A comprehensive meeting report
It is amazing the amount of territory that a team can cover during a retreat. Making sure that a comprehensive meeting report is prepared and distributed to all participants afterwards will reinforce the decisions made, and help tracking of action items committed to. In our practice we have largely abandoned the use of flip charts in favor of a data projector hooked up to a lap top computer. This way we can create much of the meeting report during the session for everyone to see what is being documented with respect to conclusions, and action items.
Professional Facilitation of Board Retreats & Management Retreats
Finally a neutral facilitator can help you with all of the above. If you would like to discuss corporate retreat ideas for your next retreat, please Contact Meeting Facilitators International. The initial consultation is always free.
From Our Clients
“Over the past five or six years we have worked with Bruce more than a dozen times as a focus group moderator for our pharmaceutical and medical device clients. The clients are always impressed with how quickly Bruce picks up challenging concepts and how easily he communicates them. The high-quality feedback and insight he draws from the focus group participants is what we are all looking for. Bruce’s track record in exceeding client objectives makes me extremely comfortable recommending him to any of our clients regardless of therapeutic area.”
“We wanted to find somebody unbiased, with no agenda, who could lead the retreat and pull in all points of view. Bruce did this and more. He brought some clever ways to make sure that we fully explored our ideas and he forced the discipline of setting priorities and of committing to an action plan. We have now used him three years in a row since everyone sees the value he adds and trusts his process.”
Mary Todd Peterson