Jump-Start Your Strategic Planning Retreat — With A Briefing Document

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Fact:  Executive time is the most valuable and expensive commodity in your company.

So at every turn you need to maximize its investment in whatever you do.  But if you’re either developing a comprehensive strategic plan for the very first time or completely refreshing an outdated one, you know what a time sink planning retreats can be for your leadership team.

Strategic planning requires careful, thoughtful study, deliberation and consensus-building across a myriad of topics.  The issues involved are among the most critical to the success and future viability of your enterprise.  Consequently, they must be dealt with conscientiously and thoroughly and should never be rushed.  The implication of all this for your executive team? Lots of their premium and highly sought-after calendar time.

Needless to say, then, no company can afford to allow executive strategic planning retreats to be inefficient and non-productive, let alone dysfunctional.  So if you’re a smart planner you’re always looking for ways to maximize the outputs and value that result from the time your executives spend closeted together in planning sessions.  After all, they’re working on nothing less than the all-important blue-print for the future of your company – something on which everyone’s livelihood, including your own, ultimately depends!  So it had better be productive experience!

Given all this, how can you get even more benefit and impact out of your strategic planning offsite for the face-time executives actually spend together there?  In our strategic planning work with clients over some thirty years we’ve developed a mechanism that allows us both to “start the offsite before it starts,” so to speak, and maximize the effectiveness and output quality of the planning retreat itself.  We call it a Strategic Planning “Briefing Document.”

Our Rationale

The rationale behind our Briefing Document is simple:  It occurred to us that if we could get executives to come into a strategic planning retreat having already done some preliminary thinkingand writing – about the questions they were scheduled to grapple with there, this “pump priming,” so to speak, would expedite the process and make their interaction at the retreat more efficient and productive.  Instead of starting “from a blank sheet of paper,” they’d already be aligned on the basic terms and nomenclature we use.  And, even more importantly, they’d be equipped, right from the start, with their own individual “takes” on some of the critical questions that we knew they’d be discussing.  This would not only reduce generic “set-up” time, it would also allow us to move the planning group sooner into the more productive exchange of individual opinions, toward all-important consensus building.

The result is that the Briefing Document concept has been so successful, it has become a best-practice in our work with all our strategic planning clients.  And there’s no reason it can’t help you ensure that your strategic planning retreats are more effective and productive, too!

Key Elements of the “Briefing Document”

Essentially, your Briefing Document should be constructed based on the issues you know you’re going to be processing with your executives at the retreat.  So, for example, in our strategic planning conferences we know that executives will need to come to consensus, first and foremost, on the most critical, high-level elements of any strategic plan:  the company’s Core Values, Vision, and Mission.  Our Briefing Document, therefore, is built around those elements.

For each of these elements we provide our clients with the following:

  1. A clear, basic definition of the term, i.e., what are “Core Values”; what constitutes a solid, strategic “Vision” statement, a competent “Mission” statement, etc.
  2. Examples of each of these, taken from the real world, so they can see how other companies have wrestled with and resolved these questions.
  3. A written assignment or “exercise” to answer each of these questions for themselves, for their company, i.e., “What are (or should be) your company’s Core Values?” “What is (or should be) your company’s Vision for the future?”  “What is the Mission of your company?”

Of course, some companies have already defined some or all of these elements as a result of previous planning work.  We respect that.  If, however, they don’t meet our standards for what we believe constitute effective plan elements, we may comment and even challenge accordingly and urge executives to deal with our questions or challenges in their Briefing Document.  And in all cases, we encourage executives to recommend changes to or to completely replace existing elements.

After all, a strategic plan should never be a static thing.  Instead, it’s a dynamic response to conditions, events, developments that are, by nature, always in flux – society, markets, customers, technology, etc.  So you must always give your planners the chance to conclude, for example, that the “Vision” you defined for the company, say, five or ten years ago is just not going to “cut it” for the next five or ten.

Briefing Document Instructions

Once you’ve created the working contents of your Briefing Document, you’ll want to be crystal clear in your instructions for completing it.  We ask planners to be sure to complete their answers to each question “in writing” and to bring the document with them to the planning retreat.

We ask them to respond as thoughtfully as they can, but we also strongly emphasize that their Briefing Document work is preliminary thinking.  To ensure that they don’t feel constrained by their first “takes” in the Document, we assure them that key definitions will be expanded upon at the retreat itself, and that in no way need they, should they, or will they be constrained by what they write in advance.  This sets up a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario. It provides preliminary thinking to “lean on” and accelerates the discussion.  But it also assures participants that everyone not only can but should be open to adjusting their thinking as a result listening to the views of others during actual discussions.

One Last Question

So if you’ve had any experience at all with executive retreats, right now you’re probably thinking: “Fine, but how do I make sure that everyone actually completes the Briefing Document before the retreat?”

Here’s the answer:  In our Briefing Document instructions we always include the following paragraph:

“It is vital that you complete the following readings and pre-work ‘exercises’ carefully and thoughtfully so that you, personally, can be ready to contribute from a ‘running start.’ You will be asked to share your answers publicly at the session.”

This is not just a ruse; in fact, as a discussion-starter in addressing each plan element, we do begin with a “round-robin” sharing of individual “takes” on each important question.  Knowing this in advance ensures that executives “do their homework” before the retreat – no one wants to be publicly embarrassed! – and over the years we’ve always found this strategy to be fail-safe.

So we urge you to give our Briefing Document concept a try in the run-up to your next planning event.  We’re confident you’ll find, as we consistently have, that it’s a very effective tool for “jump-starting” and optimizing the effectiveness and productivity of any strategic planning retreat.