STRATEGY AWAY DAYS. LOVE THEM OR HATE THEM?

away day

I’ve been facilitating strategy away days for many years now. But I’ve also been a participant, as a director/manager within the various organizations in which I’ve worked. So I’ve been able to look at them from both sides of the fence.

I’ve been interested in what people think about these events, so I recently decided to search for “away days” in the FT. I came across a great article by Andrew Hill  from 2016  – “Strategy days away days are an absurd but useful ritual”. Still very topical.

Burj al Arab

His premise was that away days are becoming ever more complex, increasingly whacky (“I’ve brainstormed, flipped charted, post it noted and erected spaghetti and marshmallow towers with colleagues”) and the destination (hotel/resort) is seemingly more memorable than the discussions! He quoted a couple of predictable, if depressing statistics. 39% of managers felt away days had no impact on productivity and nearly 1 in 10 thought they were negative or very negative.

I’ve looked at my experience of away days and what I typically found as a participant was that they were either run by an ill prepared CEO or outsourced to some larger than life character who just didn’t seem to understand either the business or the culture. Either scenario resulted in increasing discomfort amongst participants.

I’ve also noticed how away days have become some sort of strategic sheep dip! 200 managers; divided 25 groups; syndicate rooms plastered with post it notes; some unlucky people from training and development assigned the impossible task of making sense of the “brainstorms”. Everyone starts to feel a bit disenfranchised. What was the point?  Roll on the bar!

This is all fine if away days are symbolic jollies. But what a missed opportunity.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Strategy away days can be a real force for good. But only if the participants have played an active part in formulating actual outputs. Here are five pointers:

  • Define the territory. For an SME it can cover the whole business. For a larger organisation maybe a function, a product or a segment.
  • Define the purpose – focusing on something completely new or reviewing an established product/service.
  • Adopt a formal process for the day/s – incrementally building to some options and decisions. Ensure that everyone is comfortable with the process.
  • Small is best. 20 max, preferably 15. Can work with 10.
  • It’s fine for the CEO/chairman to be involved but they should be equal participants, not facilitators.
  • Create a decent working environment – rooms with windows and access to fresh air are more important than compensatory two-hour lunches and never ending Danish pasties.

My experience of away days has led me to design my own away day process. My approach is built around the premise that success is dependent on the participants developing the strategies themselves, but through a logical and tested process. The process is based around practical application of very accessible academic models.

The models (which are taught at different times of the day – about 15 minutes per model) help participants to make sense of the world around them and create strategies with a logic to them. They are the opposite of post it note brainstorming which sounds good but tends to go nowhere.

managers

At the end of the day or the days, the managers themselves will have reached some interesting conclusions – and owned them as well. Then it’s up to them to work out how to apply. And, they’ll also have learnt the basics of the strategy process which can be used in future activity.

I’ve seen some dramatic results come out of away days. New product launches reassessed, in one case cancelled; directors realising they need senior admin support to free up earning time; management teams re-focusing on competitive advantage; over wordy strategic plans cut down in size so that the strategy, not the planning, stands out. Away days really can work!

Julian Rawel is an expert at facilitating away days. Please visit www.marketechoes.co.uk to find out more.

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