Off-Site Logistics

By Kathryn Tyler Aug 1, 2008
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HR Magazine August 2008 CoverAre you the organizer of an off-site strategic planning retreat? Here’s a guide to a smooth, productive meeting:

Select a location. Off-site retreats at a resort hotel or conference center are expensive. However, most experts say the benefits of being off-site outweigh the expense. Being off-site “provides an impression of importance,” says Charlotte Anderson, SPHR, GPHR, managing director of Amethyst and Iris, an organizational effectiveness and talent development consultancy in Hillsborough, N.J.

Off-site strategic planning retreats typically “accomplish more than retreats held on-site. When a retreat takes place in an organization’s conference room, participants are tempted to run up to their offices ‘for a minute’ and then never fully return,” says Merianne Liteman, president of Liteman-Rosse Inc., a strategy consultancy in Arlington, Va. In addition, “Interruptions from colleagues who are not part of the strategic-planning group are more frequent. It can be hard to establish the informality that is helpful to the free flow of ideas.”

Gloria Hevia, recently vice president of organizational development for Home Mortgage Corp. and now managing partner at Vanguard Asset Management LLC, a financial planning firm in Tampa, Fla., can think of only two reasons to have strategic planning meetings on-site: if there is no other way you can get the meetings approved and funded, and if all participants have sufficient personal discipline both in work habits and thinking to stay focused and on task despite the environment. However, “Large corporate campuses with remote facilities designed for this kind of work might be conducive to successful strategy work,” she notes.

Moreover, holding a strategy session off-site can provide the change of scenery needed for creative thinking. “When colleagues get away from the office, magic often happens. They interact in session without being distracted from thinking deeply and strategically. They eat together. They take walks before breakfast. They start the next morning with fresh ideas, triggered by something they heard the evening before over a beer with colleagues,” says Liteman. “This is especially true at a retreat site that offers a view of nature from the meeting room and permits participants to take a relaxing walk in the woods.”

Choose the dates.
Don’t schedule retreats on Saturdays or Sundays, warns Liteman. “With rare exceptions, participants—no matter how reluctant they are to let work accumulate during their absence—resent being expected to give up one or two weekend days,” she says.

Determine the length.
Liteman advises, “A retreat should be ambitious, but expectations should be reasonable. Obviously, participants in a three-day off-site can be expected to accomplish more than those at a one-day retreat, but, even so, ambition must be tempered by reality. After three days, even the most dedicated participants run out of steam.”

Robert Bradford, chief executive officer for the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning in Ann Arbor, Mich., adds, “The best strategic planning meetings allow for time to prepare information for consideration later in the process. A single two-day program, while better than nothing, is poorly suited to this, as you are stuck with the information people arrive with. We prefer three meetings: one or two days for situation analysis, brainstorming and research planning; two or three days for data review and strategy formulation; and one or two days for implementation planning.”

For instance, when Hevia was with Home Mortgage Corp., she says, “Our strategic planning meetings usually took place over multiple one-day and two-day sessions to allow participants to do some homework and develop responses and proposals within their areas of accountability between meetings.”

The retreat environment “is not conducive to reflective thinking,” collecting information or weighing implications, says Joseph Cady, managing partner of the CS Consulting Group LLC, headquartered in San Diego. “There’s no time between the planning sessions to reflect on the information and ask and answer new questions.”

Consider the frequency.
“Planning meeting frequency should fit with the level of change you experience in your industry. In most companies, we find an annual cycle works best because it also creates a sense of routine and therefore constant adaptation of the strategy to changes in the environment,” says Bradford.

For instance, at The YMCA of Greater Rochester in New York, the strategy team meets quarterly but has an off-site retreat annually. “It’s an evergreen process. We review it constantly, [and] there are some key points on the calendar where we review it,” says Fernán Cepero, PHR, vice president of HR at the YMCA.

Summarizes Liteman: “It depends on where the company is in terms of its current plan. If [leaders] have done everything on their current plan or the plan is irrelevant and starting from scratch, it will have to be a deeper planning process. If the environment is stable and they’re just updating a living plan, a three-day retreat might be enough,” says Liteman.

According to Cady, “In some industries, conditions are quite stable. In those instances, a smaller organization may not need a huge formalized planning effort, and a one-day retreat may be appropriate.

But for the rest of the world, including larger organizations that have dedicated HR offices, they should be thinking about a road-mapping approach, where we break down the [strategic planning process] into steps” with time between each segment. “When you have time between the components, you have time to reflect.”

Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.

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