Three recommendations for an effective planning session?

Through the years I have facilitated and participated in many year-end strategic planning sessions (sometimes they take place early in the year).

Many meetings of this ilk fail. Let me share with you three suggestions on how you could conduct a successful year end planning session.

The first suggestion is to be clear about what the session is for and who attends. I’ll explain using four major mistakes as examples made before the agenda is even printed.

The first mistake is that there is too much on the agenda for the time allotted. Pick not more than three goals to accomplish and focus on the most important one first. That will help to avoid the frustration of not getting anything done.

The second mistake is that too many people are in the room. While well-intentioned to have many participate, most offer no value to the process and some actually impede progress.

I understand a leader wanting to solicit participation from people that normally aren’t included in this kind of meeting, or an owner desiring engagement from middle management. Those meetings are for another time, place and agenda.

The third mistake is that the topics on the agenda simply aren’t relevant to the decisions that need to take place. Focus should be on the “vital few” and not the “trivial many.”

The fourth and primary mistake is that the “altitude” of the meeting is too low. Too much time is spent in the weeds, analyzing the operations of the organization better done another time with other participants.

Summed up, most year-end reviews need to be strategic and forward thinking. Instead, they end up being time spent looking in the rear-view mirror spent on minor issues of little consequence. If you want a successful session, avoid these mistakes.

The second suggestion is to put physical distance between the location of the business and the retreat facility. I have three reasons for this.

The first is that anyone participating needs to possess perspective and one way to accomplish this is through pure geographic distance.

The second is that the expense of going away will limit the number of individuals involved. If the organization can’t afford for some people to go, perhaps these individuals should not attend.

The third is that going away forces people to make a commitment to attend and to take the event seriously. When the meeting begins, people will have done the homework required and will be in a framework to share their thinking.

The third suggestion relates to how to create the session agenda for maximum results.

Some facilitators believe that there should be a set process with a defined number of deliverables at the end of a session such as this.

I have long been a believer in simplicity for planning sessions, and I think that this is best accomplished through a series of questions.

I suggest the leader create a series of questions, in advance, that they want answers to for the time period in question.

Here are some of the ones I have used:

What needs to take place to make this a better company one year from today?

What will our business look like in five years?

What will our industry look like in 10 years?

What are five things we can do in the next six months about the future, other than wait for it?

What is the largest opportunity facing us today and what is the biggest obstacle facing us?

What are the redeeming qualities of our top five competitors?

What business experience has strengthened us the most?

If we were to clear everyone’s calendar for a week, what could we spend the time on that would make a difference for the organization?

What should we being saying “no” to?

Planning sessions are all about thinking. Using questions as an agenda frees the mind to think creatively to address the future, the unknown. The best sessions I’ve participated in had clear goals but most importantly, allowed the individuals in the room to look at the organization and the future with a clear head challenged by difficult questions.