Henri Eliot: Do off-site strategy days work and can they be more effective?

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How do boards know if the strategy off-site has been successful? Photo / iStock
How do boards know if the strategy off-site has been successful? Photo / iStock

The annual strategy day off has become quite routine on the governance calendar.

The annual strategy off-site is when a board conducts a deep dive into strategy which is a critical component of their governance role.

British academics from Warwick Business School considered the value of off-sites in the paper, Off to Plan or Out to Lunch? Relationships between Design Characteristics and Outcomes of Strategy Workshops, published in the British Journal of Management.

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They found that nearly four out of five organisations in the UK use workshops for strategising, and they are a key part of executive calendars in the US and France.

In New Zealand, listed company boards and large private company boards have a formalised annual strategy offsite.

The authors of the academic paper wrote:

"Many organisations view strategy workshops as a means of stepping back from the daily grind to consider wider issues critical to their future. Despite their popularity, we know little about the outcomes of these events or the factors that contribute to their effectiveness."

In simple terms, how do boards know if the strategy off-site has been successful?

The British authors surveyed 650 participants in numerous workshops.

They concluded that many strategic planning off-sites leave little lasting impression on the organisation. "Where workshops do influence firms' strategic direction, this is because the formal event provides a rare forum for examining and changing strategy content - for example, refining the organisation's goals or mission, adjusting its strategic plan or communicating a new vision."

These off-sites in the end have other benefits such as providing "interpersonal outcomes by bringing people together and creating a shared sense of purpose"; and "they have cognitive outcomes by helping people understand the firm's strategy direction". For boards, the opportunity to spend more time with executives and hear the strategy in detail can be highly beneficial.

The academics hypothesised several predicators of off-site success:

1. The clearer the workshop objectives, the more positive the perceived organisational outcomes, interpersonal outcomes and learning outcomes.

2. Workshops undertaken for the purposes of strategy implementation will be associated with organisational outcomes that are perceived more positively relative to workshops undertaken for strategy formulation purposes.

3. The greater the degree of workshop removal (from the firm's day-to-day work), the more positive the perceived learning outcomes.

4. The greater the range of stakeholder groups involved in workshops, the more positive the perceived interpersonal outcomes.

5. Although the findings appear obvious, the research has important takeouts for boards when planning off-sites.

Consider how the off-site's objectives are communicated before the event; focus more on strategy implementation than strategy creation at the event; ensure the off-site is sufficiently detached from regular activities; plan the duration and scheduling of meetings; and invite a variety of stakeholders to challenge strategies and any biases.

In the end, it's important to be clear about goals for the strategic offsite, and create an agenda that reflects and reinforces those goals.

For example, the board may want to do the following:

• Engage in reflections about past performance to consider what the management team has done well and areas for improvement.

• Discuss and debate current and potential opportunities and challenges for the organisation.

• Develop strategic roadmaps to drive the short medium and longer term future of the organisation.

- NZ Herald

Henri Eliot is CEO of Board Dynamics.

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