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PHIL HARDWICK — Strategic planning retreats: A Q&A



It seems that more companies and organizations are holding strategic planning retreats. This is likely due to the current and unprecedented change going on in the business world and in society. As someone who has been facilitating strategic planning retreats for over 20 years, I thought you might find it useful to share with you the most common questions I get regarding the subject. They are presented in no particular order.

Question: What should a strategic plan include?

Answer:  The essentials of a strategic plan are as follows:

The Mission statement

The Guiding Principles

Vision Statement

Goals and Objectives

Action Plan

Monitoring and Evaluation Methods

Q: What will happen at the retreat? What are the steps in the strategic planning process?

A. Planning the retreat is one of the most important aspects of the retreat process. Management should consider what is needed to come out of the retreat and what should be covered at the retreat. For some organizations, the retreat might be how to deal with personnel issues and how to restructure, while others may consider the best strategy to handle new forces in the marketplace. Many organizations have “an elephant in the room” issue that needs to be addressed at the retreat.

There are four steps in the classic strategic planning process. They are as follows:

1. Situational Analysis (Where we are now.)

2. Visioning (Where we want to go.)

3. Goal Setting (How we will get there.)

4. Implementation (Who will be responsible and accountable)

Q: What are the more common issues you are currently seeing at retreats?

A. There are two issues that I have seen in every retreat I have facilitated during the past two years. The first is the changing marketplace as it applies to for-profit organizations and the changing support base for nonprofit organizations. The second is related but distinct, and that is the development of a new communications strategy to deal with the current environment. Both have to do with technology.

Many managers are coming to grips with the fact that the so-called millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000, are somewhat different compared to their predecessors. Millennials now number 83.1 million and represent more than one-quarter of the nation’s population. Their size exceeds that of the 75.4 million baby boomers, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates. At retreats I’m hearing lots of discussion about this subject.

Q: We are in the process of planning our company retreat. Should we hold it at an off-site retreat-type setting or is having it at a local restaurants conference room sufficient? What about holding it at our office conference room?

A. It really depends on the situation. If you have a small number of participants, i.e. less than 15, who know each other well, then it may be more productive to have the retreat in a conference room. If the group and larger and more diverse, then an off-site location conducive to meeting, teambuilding and more quiet time is probably more appropriate.

Q. Should we hire an outside facilitator?

A. Some of the advantages of hiring an outside facilitator are that the facilitator is a neutral third party, the facilitator is (should be) an expert at guiding the process instead of the outcome and that the facilitator can ensure that all voices are heard. If an insider is used as the facilitator, then they should assume that role instead of being a participant in the retreat.

Q. Don’t most strategic plans just “sit on the shelf?”

A. Probably. If so, it is an indicator that the company or organization is not very well managed.

Q. What has been your biggest strategic planning retreat success?

A. Several years ago I facilitated a retreat for a foundation board of directors that had been formed a few years earlier by a philanthropist. The foundation was formed to provided social services in a community where the philanthropist, a well-known national figure, had grown up. He had selected/recruited the board from his acquaintances and family members. He had one meeting with the board and shared his vision before passing away a couple of years later. The board had hired an executive director and administrative assistant who went about providing services, mostly through contracting with providers, in the selected community.

The retreat was held at a rural, retreat facility. Board members were brought in from their various hometowns from around the country. Early on in the retreat it was obvious that the board members were not sure what services were provided to whom, nor were they certain about the mission of the organization. They had accepted their roles as a tribute to a friend. The result was a half-day discussion about the “where we are now” portion of the retreat. Eventually, board members left better informed and more enthused about the foundation.

Q. What has been your biggest strategic planning retreat disappointment?

A. I once accepted an assignment without an in-depth discussion of the retreat with the CEO. I had instead talked with an assistant about the housekeeping details of the retreat. At the beginning of the retreat, which included about 20 department heads of the organization, I noticed that the participants seemed disengaged. I also sensed some general animosity. When I asked if they knew why they were there they said that they were just told be be there for a meeting. It took over an hour to reset the stage, so to speak, and get everybody on board. In the end, the retreat turned out okay, but I realized that I had allowed a micromanager CEO and a failure on my part to properly plan the retreat to spoil the beginning of the retreat

Finally, when facilitating retreats, I rely on the words of management guru Peter Drucker, who said, “Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.”

» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and owner of Hardwick & Associates, LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is phil@philhardwick. com and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com.


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