Looking Ahead 6-1-1998

Meetings & Conventions: Golden Tools - June 1998 Current Issue
June 1998
Looking Ahead

Strategy retreats help plot a course for the future


When was the last time your organization called a halt to all business and spent a few days planning for the future? If the answer is "never," you're not alone. Many of us strive simply to survive a day's work and make it home in time to watch Seinfeld.

Until a few years ago, most U.S. businesses were of the same mindset, says John Reddish, CEO of Advent Management International, Ltd., a Chadds Ford, Pa.-based consulting firm specializing in management and strategic planning. "They looked no further than their quarterly dividends and put out the fires when they cropped up," he says.

But the business world is changing too quickly for that approach to work, says Reddish. "Companies used to be able to set up 20-year strategic plans and follow them like a bible. Now, five-year plans can be obsolete in six months."

As the new millennium approaches, a growing number of organizations are making sure their plans are on track. And they're not doing it in the office; they're getting away from daily distractions and holding strategic planning retreats.

"Firms are realizing that if they wait to deal with problems until 'things calm down' in the office, they'll never deal with them," says David Wharton, a senior consultant at Greystone, Inc., a Redding, Conn.-based management consulting firm. "There will never be a 'good time' - there are always going to be more problems."

In some cases, a serious problem spurs the decision to hold a strategy meeting. OutdoorLife magazine, which targets hunting enthusiasts, found itself up against a roadblock when the publication turned 100. Just when the editorial staff should have been celebrating their milestone anniversary, they were facing the gloomy fact that the number of hunters in the United States - OutdoorLife's chief audience - was progressively diminishing.

To arrive at a solution, the entire editorial team left the day-to-day grind of their New York City office and headed to Hidden Valley Ranch in Cody, Wyo., for a strategy meeting - along with hours of rugged bonding in the form of hunting and fishing. According to senior associate editor Phil Monahan, the editors were able to not only come up with a blueprint for the anniversary issue but with a whole roster of ideas for beefing up the publication for the new millennium and boosting interest in the flagging sport.

Becton Dickinson & Co., a Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based medical products manufacturer, also needed a future plan. "We're an old company [launched in 1897], but we're in a transforming market, and what served us well in the past may not work tomorrow," says Bill Tighe, training and development coordinator for the company's Canaan, Conn.-based syringe production plant. Representatives from all departments within the plant met for an intensive one-day session at the Interlaken Inn Resort and Conference Center in Lakeville, Conn., and created the company's first formal plan for staying ahead of the competition over the next three years.

The impending Year 2000 has given organizations a natural hook for staging a planning meeting. The U.S. Department of Energy, for example, held a meeting last month at the Indian Oak Resort & Spa in Chesterton, Ind., to develop radiation chemistry strategies for the millennium.

Is there a strategy meeting in your organization's future? If so, here are some pointers from the pros on how to plan it effectively.


  • Keep it small. "Try to limit the number of attendees to 10, no matter how large your organization is," advises Kathy Boas, managing director of Boas Associates, a management and human resources consulting firm based in Overland Park, Kan. A larger group will inhibit the intensity and quick pacing these types of meetings require, she says. Boas recommends that participants be department heads or members of an executive team, who can then share the meeting content and plans with other employees or association members.
  • Keep it brief. Two days is all a typical strategic planning meeting requires, say Boas. People will feel the need to get on with the business at hand if they know there's not a lot of "fluff" time, she says.
  • Assign homework. Prior to the meeting, have each participant do a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity and threat) analysis of the organization to determine what they're doing right and wrong, where they stand in the marketplace, what their competition is doing and what external factors are having an impact on their business. They should be prepared to present their findings to the group, either individually or as part of a team.
  • Stay on track. Since the future course of the organization is being determined in a matter of 48 hours, these meetings require a lot of focus. Boas recommends that one person, preferably from outside the company, act as facilitator. "This person should present the problems, assign tasks and keep things on schedule."
  • Foster camaraderie. "When there's brainstorming, there's going to be a lot of disagreement [among participants]," says Boas. "You need some type of activity to lighten it up and make it less intense." She recommends exercises that focus on building trust and communication. "I like to have people tell the group something about themselves that the others would never guess," she says.
  • End with a game plan. By meeting's end, participants should have developed a draft of a formal strategic plan. "If you leave the meeting without one," says John Reddish, "the daily business at the office will take over and everyone will forget about the new goals and plans." He adds: "Paper is magic in our society; when people read something on paper, they take it seriously. It creates and clarifies a vision, and it provides a framework for accountability." Adds Boas, "Don't make a plan for more than three years out." The best strategy plans, she says, are "SMART" - specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and timely.
  • Involve the troops. Back at the office, the plan should be distributed to everyone in the company to let each individual know where the company is going and how his or her role is tied into its future strategy.
  • Desperately Seeking Solitude? What's the best place to plot out the future of your organization? Hint: It's not the office.

    "Strategy meetings require a lot of focus, and you don't want attendees distracted by phones, voice mail, e-mail, etc.," stresses David Wharton, a senior consultant at Redding, Conn.-based Greystone, Inc.

    But if your budget is tight and you have no other choice, Kathy Boas, managing director of Overland Park, Kan.-based consulting firm Boas Associates, says, "it's imperative that all participants [including higher-ups] agree that, unless the building burns down, they will allow absolutely no interruptions."

    If you can get away from it all, the best places to go are small resorts, inns or conference centers. "I always recommend properties that offer minimal distractions," says John Reddish, CEO of Advent Management International, Ltd., a Chadds Ford, Pa.-based consulting company. "These meetings are intense, so you want to give the attendees a little bit of R&R in a relaxed setting, but you don't want a place with other groups running around."

    Venues that accommodate only one group at a time are ideal, consultants agree. Here's how to find them.

  • The Independent Innkeepers' Association (800-344-5244), based in Marshall, Mich., publishes The Innkeepers' Register, which lists more than 300 member inns in the United States and Canada. The organization also has a Web site (www.innbook.com).
  • The Professional Association of Innkeepers International (805-569-1853), based in Santa Barbara, Calif., lists its members on the Web (www.paii.orgM).
  • Outside Insights (541-383-2090), an organizational development firm based in Bend, Ore., has a Web page listing its favorite retreat venues (www.outside-insights.com). L.G.

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