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Off-Sites That Work

Whether convening at a resort, at a Marriott around the corner, or in a conference room down the hall, almost all management teams spend a day to a week every year away from their regular responsibilities to plan for the future. Off-sites collectively cost U.S. companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually in salaries alone. But too often, planners and participants assume that the off-site, other than featuring a golf outing, is just another meeting. It’s not. It differs in critical respects from every other meeting that top leaders attend.


The strategic off-site is the one meeting that the CEO (or the division head) owns completely. No matter who actually runs it, the business leader convenes it, helps design it, and ultimately will be measured by its results. Expectations for the off-site run higher than for a typical executive session because it is usually the only opportunity the top management team has to explore strategic issues in depth for several days.


The scope of the matters discussed at a strategy off-site is broader than at the typical management meeting. When looking at big-picture topics like what business the company should be in, as well as more-focused questions like how to build new core competencies, executives must peer beyond the immediate horizon to three to ten years into the future. Instead of concentrating on their individual functional areas, participants must take an organization-wide perspective and synthesize information drawn from disparate areas of the firm. And unlike operations-oriented meetings, whose objectives are limited and whose function is primarily reportorial or tactical, strategy off-sites deal with information and issues that are often ambiguous or speculative, which makes many executives uncomfortable.


Few executives would call their off-sites outright disasters, but it is the rare management team that can look back six or 12 months later and say that the meeting truly changed the way the business is run. Most would agree with what a senior vice president at an Internet company said about his last strategy off-site: “It simply left no fingerprints on the business.”


The greater expectations, the higher stakes, and the unique nature of strategy discussions require special planning to ensure that meaningful and constructive conversations happen. Yet surprisingly little guidance exists for designing strategy off-sites. There is no shortage of advice for leaders about how to conduct a meeting. There are plenty of how-to guides for meeting facilitators. But there is virtually nothing to help the off-site designer—whether it is the executive who convenes the meeting, a subordinate, or an outside facilitator—that goes past the usual strictures about creating clear objectives and developing an agenda.


A successful off-site can align executives, galvanize corporate performance, and strengthen the company’s position in its industry. During two decades of designing and facilitating strategy off-sites around the world, we have worked with scores of firms, from family businesses to Fortune 10 multinationals. We’ve distilled some best practices from our experience that meeting designers can use to make the most of this annual opportunity.


Preparing for the Meeting

A strategic off-site’s success is largely determined by what happens before it convenes. To make sure the meeting generates tangible results, its designer must do three things. First, answer the most basic questions: Who should be there? Talking about what, when, and why? Second, compile and distribute relevant data. Third, create a structure for the meeting that will compel progress. Read more...

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