For the last 10 years of my life, I’ve attended, designed or facilitated countless strategy or planning days.

These have varied from a few leaders at a hotel in the city to major productions of hundreds of senior managers at exotic locations.

And most of the time, a lack of focus or follow-through means their little more than a wasted opportunity.

Here’s how to make sure your conferences don’t just waste everyone’s time.

1. Themes help everyone focus

It takes a bit more work, but every away-day should have a theme which captures the key reason why the event is being held.

I recently presented at a conference with a leadership team of a major packaged good brand and the theme for the second day was people engagement. This presented a unified rallying point for all the presentations, workshops and action plans as the group discussed what was working and how as a team they could improve the engagement levels.

Branding your event makes it more memorable, focused, and helps you decide what should be included, and what doesn’t.

2. Start with the end in mind

This is one of Steven Covey’s principles. I believe a successful strategy or planning session should end with a clear understanding and action plan with no more than three big ideas, initiatives or opportunities.

Not a shopping list of 87 or 126 actions.

These sorts of tactics are better kept to the usual business plan.

If you are going to take the senior leaders away for a few days why not challenge them to focus on a few items that are going to make a real difference to the business!

3. Follow through: Make the 1-3 big initiatives part of everyone’s collective KPI’s.

This is a big idea. I have attended many away-days where the group has been very excited at the ideas they have developed.

Unfortunately when I follow up a few months later not much has been done and momentum has been lost, as the leaders have returned to an ever-increasing everyday work-load.

Now imagine a different scenario.

What if, these 1-3 priorities became part of the collective KPI’s of the entire leadership group?

That’s a real incentive for each and every leader to work together and try and realize the big opportunities.

4. Why you need a series of quarterly follow-up sessions

Most leadership teams have an annual planning process with the highlight being a few days away to really think about the long-term success of the organization.

But in a fast-moving world I believe it is better to have a few days away followed by an update every quarter.

This also has the benefit of keeping the leadership team accountable for their plans.

5. Every single presentation should end with a challenge

I often sit in amazement at what a wasted opportunity most conferences are.

For a limited time the best and brightest minds in the business are in the one room, but they’re bored as the presenter moves on to their 101st power-point slide.

My suggestion is this: set a maximum limit in terms of slides (9 or less is plenty), with the final slide being ‘my biggest challenge is …………..’

Then ask the group of leaders to work on this challenge (they could Blitz it for example).

That way the delegates are more interested in the presentation, knowing they only have to sit through a few slides, and then they’ll come together and try and sort out an answer to the problem posed.

Over two days you might have 10 presenters. Imagine the power of the away-day if 10 big problems were solved on the spot!

6. Have future leaders design (and run) the day

This is a controversial suggestion, but what better way to gain leadership experience for any group of high-potential managers than by asking them to design and run a strategy session.

This also has the added benefit in that the young leaders will have the opportunity to stretch and challenge their more experienced managers through the use of new technology (e.g. twitter) or a new venue, for example.

Strategy and planning days should be eagerly anticipated and should make a significant difference to the business.

In my role as a strategic planning facilitator i hope these tips will help you design and run an event that leaders will love to attend, that’ll be engaging, and that brings your best heads and hearts together to solve your problems.

Ken Hudson


Dr Ken Hudson is the inventor of Speed Thinking and Blitz – its practical application for groups and teams. Dr Hudson was a former marketing director at American Express, has published three books in eight countries and has a PhD in organisational creativity.

* First appeared in Leading Company 27/3/13

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