Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

6 Keys to Effective Strategic Planning

mini-peepsI am currently preparing to facilitate three strategic planning meetings, for an association, a technology company and a Fortune 100 client. Here are a few things that I see as foundational for creating an effective strategic plan.

  1. The key to a successful strategic plan is: FOCUS. Every company, regardless of size, has limited resources and strategy is all about effectively deploying an organization’s resources where they will have the most positive impact in the marketplace.
  2. To mirror my first point, one of the most important things a great strategic thinker does is figure out what to say “NO” to. What markets will we not compete in? What products or services should we not try to sell? What current projects should we abandon?
  3. If you have 10 strategic objectives, you do not have a strategy. All of the successful companies I’ve worked with were able to focus in on 3 to 5 major strategic initiatives. Anything more than that causes a lack of focus and ultimately a lack of success.
  4. When examining business issues, are you trying to solve a puzzle or a mystery? With enough data and information, you can find the right answer to a puzzle, but no matter how hard you try it is impossible to find the exact right solution for mystery. Because of this, as much as I hate to admit it, a large part of strategy is simply an educated guess about what might happen in the future.
  5. Alignment is critical. If the senior team is not 100% committed to strategic direction of the organization, the plan will fail.
  6. It’s an age-old business cliché, because it is correct: What gets measured gets done. A major reason that many strategies are not effectively executed is because there is no way to determine exactly what the expectations are. Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity.

Those are just a few of the key ideas I try to help my clients keep in mind as we move through a strategic planning retreat. I will also add one more critical point; to make sure you follow through and implement your plan, you should spend just as much time on strategic execution planning as you do on planning the strategy. This is a very important idea that few companies truly embrace.

What are your thoughts?

The Six Fundamentals of Business Success

blog-money-1This evening I’m giving a speech to 350 CEOs of small to medium-size businesses and I’ve been asked to talk about some of the fundamental elements necessary to build and sustain a highly successful organization. After running several companies and spending the last 22 years of my life helping businesses around the world be more successful, here are a few things I think every business owner needs to focus on:

1. Start with a clear vision and purpose for why you are building the company. By the way, if the only reason you’re starting the company is to make money, there’s a good chance it will fail. Success comes from a genuine passion to help your customers, if you are focused intently on that and charge a price that allows you solid profit margin, everything should work out fine in the end.

2. Solve a real problem. You also have to make sure that your vision and purpose are focused on delivering products and services that the market eagerly wants to buy. It does not matter if you think what you sell is really cool, the only critic whose opinion counts is the customer.

3. Build a world-class team. Competitors can copy your products, beat you on price, outspend you on marketing, but one thing they cannot do easily is beat a company that truly values top talent and gets them engaged and passionate about serving their customers.

4. Extreme Customer Focus. I have said this a million times and I am more than happy to say it a million more: whoever can attract, grow and retain the best talent, and also “owns the voice of the customer,” has a huge market advantage. Fantastic employees who build great customer relationships are a key to success in every business.

5. Quality and control. This one is very fundamental, but without it the other things above can’t work. You have to have very high quality products and services, deliver consistently superior customer service and manage the financials of your business with extreme discipline. There is a reason that one of the most often used clichés in business is: Cash is King.

6. Disciplined Execution. Once you’ve got all of the above factors in place, then you must be incredibly vigilant in always focusing on the most important things in your business and making sure they get done. If you do not take the time to make these things your top priorities, then you will likely have to make time for bankruptcy court.

Leader of the Future = EQ + Technology

How-to-Become-a-Better-Leader-730x493I have just returned from two weeks of working with clients in New Zealand and while I was there I was asked to give lectures at the University of Auckland and the University of Canterbury. The topic they asked me to address was, “Leading in a Time of Disruptive Change.” This is a topic I know pretty well, but I decided it would be nice to get some additional opinions to add more depth and credibility to my comments, so I sent a note asking for input to some of my friends including Marshall Goldsmith, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, Tim Sanders, Jim Kouzes, Tom Morris, Joe Calloway and several other top thought leaders, asking what they would share around this topic.

Everything they offered revolved around two key ideas: EQ + Technology


EQ = Emotional Quotient

The next 10 years will mark one of the most explosive eras of technological advances in the history of humankind. It is hard to believe that the smart phone was invented just 10 years ago and in that time span people around the world have downloaded more than 2 billion apps. Connection by computers is increasing at a dizzying rate, whereas connection between people seems to be decreasing at an equally alarming rate. A successful leader of the future must be superb at collaboration, personal connection, empathy and interpersonal communications. They need to be effective at bringing people together, creating high-performance teams, developing deep levels of trust and building real relationships with the people they lead. For some people EQ comes naturally, they are great at working well with other people and showing genuine concern, caring and empathy. For others of us (me included) EQ is just not something we were born with, however, through study and practice I have been able to increase my level of EQ significantly and so can you. Either way, natural or learned, the skills necessary to display EQ are essential for tomorrow’s leaders.


I mentioned it briefly above, but it bears repeating, in the next 10 years we will go through a truly overwhelming influx of new technologies that will be highly disruptive to every business (and person) in the world. That might sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. Last year I attended the Abundance 360 Conference (an offshoot of Singularity University) where some of the world’s top technology experts outlined the eight major areas of technological change that would have the most impact on the human race in the next decade.

  1. Computer speed / deep learning
  2. Artificial intelligence (AI)
  3. The Internet of Things (IOT)
  4. Advanced robotics
  5. Augmented reality
  6. Virtual reality
  7. Synthetic medicine
  8. Genetic decoding/recovery

As just one example, the director of the business school at the University of Canterbury explained that in 2026 you will be able to buy a laptop for $1,000 that surpasses the brainpower of a single human, and by 2046 you will be able to buy a laptop (if they even exist anymore) that will exceed the brainpower of the entire human race. When you apply this computing power to the areas I have listed above, the impact is literally unfathomable. Therefore, to be effective, future leaders don’t need to embrace change, or even revel in change, they need to DRIVE change. They will need to be visionary in their ability to predict how these seismic technological shifts will impact their industry, their individual businesses and their customers. As another example, a good friend of mine who is the president of a prominent university here in the US lamented to me, “We are training students today for jobs that don’t exist on equipment that has not yet been invented, which means we are going to have to completely change the way we educate our youth.” Now if that isn’t a disruption, I don’t know what is – and the same thing is going to happen to you.

Leader of the Future = EQ + Technology

What do you think?


*** Also, I am very pleased to announce that my blog has been named one of the Top Small Business Blogs to Follow in 2016.
To check out the other winners and their superb blogs click HERE

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Loose-Tight Controls for Business Success

37827-watches_teaserI recently presented several workshops for client company with an absolutely brilliant CEO, among the best I’ve ever met. He was a new to the organization and had been brought in to turn around the company, which was facing very severe financial troubles. This was very bureaucratic organization whose main customer was the government. They were slow to make decisions, reluctant to take any risks, complacent in their attempt to grow their business and keep margins strong, which landed them to more than billion dollars in debt. The CEO gave an impassioned speech about the need to be more entrepreneurial, while still having a culture of disciplined execution around the core strategies. He described it, much like Tom Peters did in his wonderful book In Search of Excellence, saying that the company needed to have “loose-tight controls.” They need to have elements of loose  control around entrepreneurship, innovation and prudent risk-taking, while maintaining areas tight of control around their values, strategy, alignment and accountability for positive business results. He told them that in order to be successful they would have to balance a strong entrepreneurial ethic while still embracing a focused culture of discipline – and summarized his idea in the graph below.

So, where does your company sit in this matrix?

Best Managed Companies graphic

Four Things That Kill Companies

business conceptI am doing a strategic planning retreat for a multi-billion dollar company tomorrow and another similar retreat next week. In 2015 I facilitated perhaps a dozen such meetings and here are four key things that I have seen companies struggle with time and time again as they looked at their current performance and began planning for their future success.

Lack of Focus: This has got to be one of the major issues that many businesses have a hard time with, trying to do too many projects, working in too many markets and trying to serve too many different types of customers with too many different types of products. Here is a phrase I just learned that sums up my thinking on this issue, “Simplicity Now – Fancy Later.” Heck, I wrote a book on this topic so it’s pretty clear I believe it is hugely important to keep the focus of your business Awesomely Simple. Another way to put this powerfully is:

Deciding what NOT to do is just as important in a strategy as figuring out what to do.

Lack of Execution: This is a problem I have been tracking for the last 15 years, and in the last five years it has become the leading issue in almost every company I work with. There is no shortage of cool, innovative, bold strategies, but there is a massive shortage of organizations that can take those strategies and execute them with discipline.

Lack of Agility: Let’s face it, the marketplace has never moved faster and it is not going to slow down anytime soon. When I began leading strategic planning retreats more than 20 years ago it was not uncommon for us to work on a 10 year planning horizon, today I rarely work with a business that looks out more than three years. Wildly volatile economics, changing customer expectations, nontraditional competitors, global competition and the incredible velocity of technological change are just a few of the factors that demand companies be agile, nimble and highly innovative – just to stay in business.

Another factor around agility is the failure to make decisions quickly. Too much hierarchy, aversion to risk, resistance to change and the need to get consensus on every major (and sometimes minor) decision is an all too common obstacle for many organizations.

Lack of Talent: It is one of the key themes in all my work, “The future success of your business is directly proportional to the quality of the people that you can get, grow and keep on your team.” However, I run into far too few companies that take this idea seriously and actually look at talent acquisition, talent development and talent retention as a strategic objective. Although it is essential to have a deep bench of talent in order to run a sustainably successful business, I have had too many clients tell me something like, “We are being held hostage by our worst employees, they know that we don’t have anybody to replace them with, so they feel secure that no matter how poor their performances is they won’t get fired.” It almost makes me cry.

So in working with dozens of companies all over the world those are the four major issues I see companies grappling with when attempting to create a thoughtful strategy that has a high potential for success. My advice to you? Make sure that you have a strategic plan that addresses these issues and makes them a strength in your business that creates opportunities not a weakness that exposes you to competitive threats.

The Top 4 Business Trends of 2015

Last day of 2015I have literally just walked off the stage from my last presentation/workshop for 2015. It’s been an extremely busy year with more than 200 days on the road, zigzagging across the United States and Canada and delivering programs in Australia, New Zealand and most recently Poland. As I look back over the year here are a few big takeaways that I think you might find of interest.


  1. Culture and talent are critical. In most of the businesses I worked in this year the single biggest place where they could reduce waste, reduce costs and increase revenues and profits was in the quality of the people on their team and the culture in the organization. I believe that companies need to put more focus on hiring, growing and retaining top talent – and building a winning culture of engaged, satisfied and loyal employees who are highly results driven, customer focused and accountable. To me, these should be major strategic objectives in almost every business.


  1. Lack of accountability and disciplined execution are the biggest problems I see in almost every organization worldwide. There is no shortage of bright, sharp, talented people who can develop highly innovative strategies and ideas – but there is a huge shortage of people that can take those ideas and effectively turn them into results in the marketplace. Again, another place to see major revenue growth and profitability in many companies is focusing more on execution.


  1. As I look at the programs I was asked to deliver, there is a clear pattern of a handful of workshops and keynote speeches that the majority of my clients asked me to focus on:
Advanced leadership, especially leading organizations through change

I delivered this program for a number of companies whose industries were undergoing massive change and were challenged to get their employees not just to embrace change, but to drive change.

Winning culture

Many of my clients requested that I help their organizations learn more about how to create higher levels of engagement, commitment, teamwork and collaboration – what I have come to call creating and “ownership mentality” throughout the organization.

Business excellence/strategic thinking

I spent a good bit of time this year helping companies take a hard look at their current operations, benchmark against best practices and fine-tune their strategies to be successful in the future.

Consultative sales

Although I started my career doing high-level sales training, I stepped away from it for a few years, but now many of my clients are asking me to help their entire organization become a sales organization focused on being trusted advisers to their customers.

My recommendation would be to look closely at your organization and make sure that none of these are areas that you are neglecting.


  1. Lastly, I am becoming more and more aware that building a strong network of people that want to help and support you (because you are helping and supporting them) and then using that network to generate strong positive word-of-mouth… should also be one of your major strategic objectives. It has become obvious to me that social media, combined with social proof, are the future of referrals and word-of-mouth marketing. But all effective networking and word-of-mouth marketing is based on, delivering massive value and being so incredibly remarkable at what you do…that people want to remark about you, that is, tell other people about how great you are. Just trying to build up your email list or the number of contacts you have on LinkedIn is not an effective strategy, it only works when the connections are created through trust and strongly demonstrated competence.

So those are some of the major things I noticed about 2015, which means they will probably continue to be big issues in 2016. Are you seeing anything different?

I very much look forward to your thoughts – John


Strategic Partnerships as Effective Business Growth Strategies

j0302925One of the best business growth strategies that will extend the reach and revenue of your company is creating strategic partnerships. By forming strategic partnerships with other businesses that offer complementary products and services, you can cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship that will help both of your businesses grow. However, as powerful as a great strategic partnership can be, the downside of the failed partnership can be very painful both emotionally and financially, so here are a few ideas to help you make sure that you put yourself in the best possible position for developing a positive and successful strategic partnership.

How to Use Strategic Partnerships as Business Growth Strategies

Go for the Win-Win

The first step is to make sure that there is truly a synergistic, win-win relationship between the products and services your business offers and what the partner’s business offers. Some classic examples might be:

  • A tire store that creates a partnership with the detailing firm
  • An accountant and corporate attorney who refer business to each other
  • A fitness club that creates a partnership with an athletic clothing store
  • A house painter who strikes up a partnership with a handyman

The goal is to figure out with whom you share the same customers and find a way to combine your services for even greater value to those customers.

Connect on Core Values

Once you have determined who would be a good strategic fit, the next step, which is possibly the most critical, is determining if you would have a good “values fit” with that company. How well your businesses complement each other will not matter at all if your strategic partner does not share the same core values that focus on honesty, integrity, customer service, and business professionalism. Therefore, it is essential that you take the time to truly discover as much as you can about the potential partner and to share as much information as possible with them in an effort to know and understand each other deeply, all before you begin a partnership.

Plan for Every Possibility

Once you have established that you have an absolutely superb fit with the core values of your companies, the next step is to discuss and write down extremely clear expectations for what the partnership will entail. It is imperative that you do this at the very beginning of the relationship, before anything has gone wrong and before there is any emotion involved. Unclear expectations about how the partnership will work, such as how the money will be divided, how you will deal with problems and issues, how you will share customers, etc., is the single biggest cause for partnerships to end in litigation. Sit down together and write out every possible scenario you can think of and then come to VERY clear agreements on exactly how you will address each of these circumstances. If you do this before you do any business at all together, you will spare yourself many sleepless nights and many throbbing headaches. Shared values, transparency, and clear expectations are the hallmark of lasting business partnerships that serve as successful business growth strategies.

Communicate Regularly

Lastly, it is important that you keep the lines of communication open between your organizations by scheduling regular meetings to check on progress, review issues, and revisit your partnership agreement. These meetings help to make sure that everybody is on the same page and is highly pleased with how things are moving forward. These meetings should be held weekly, or at the very least monthly, to make sure that you catch problems before they become big and messy. A phrase I have used for a long time to describe this thinking is: “Kill the monster while it is small.”

Strategic Partnerships For Strategic Growth

When done correctly, strategic business partnerships can have a huge and positive impact on your company’s success by allowing you to increase value to your customers, increase market share, and increase wallet size. However, when done poorly, they can also destroy a business. So follow the steps listed above to help optimize your ability to establish successful and enduring strategic business partnerships.

Picking the Perfect Professional Speaker for Your Event


Hiring a professional speaker for your event is a big decision. Not only is the actual speaker expensive, but the overall costs that include all of the attendees, the hotel rooms, the food and drinks (especially the drinks!), the AV company, and everything else that goes into hosting a conference or corporate meeting can be wasted if the keynote speaker is a flop. So, after more than twenty years of attending and speaking at major conferences around the world, I have taken the time to provide my best advice for how to pick the right speaker for your event.

Determine the Type of Speaker

First, answer the question, “Why exactly are you hiring a professional speaker?” Typically, there are four different services that a speaker can deliver for your audience, so you must decide which one are you seeking.

  1. Motivate/Inspire: A speaker tasked with motivating and inspiring others gets your people pumped up. They tell amazing stories, and they challenge people to think bigger, to dream bold dreams, and to put a dent in the universe! After a talk from a speaker like this, your people will be energized and excited.
  2. Entertain: A speaker expected to entertain puts on a great show. Usually, an entertaining speaker could be a magician, hypnotist, artist, ventriloquist, or some sort of a musical act. Your people will enjoy the session, will be surprised and delighted, and will have fun.
  3. Inform/Persuade: For this service, you want the speaker to deliver critical information that will expand and direct the thinking of the audience. This speaker is an expert in your field, such as an economist or futurist, or a business leader from another industry. The goal here is to give your people new information and make them think in a fresh or different way.
  4. Teach/Instruct: This sort of keynote speaker is there to deliver ideas and information that your people can absorb and then implement in their jobs. The audience will learn new skills, tools, and techniques that they can apply while trying to improve their work, their careers, and the company. Teaching and instruction is often achieved through a main keynote speech accompanied by an additional breakout workshop.

It is extremely important that you be very clear on what sort of result you want from the speaker’s presentation. The question I always ask my clients to understand their needs is: “If you stopped one of your people in the hallway after the presentation and asked them what they took away from the speaker, what would be the four or five things you would want to hear come out of their mouth?” All four of the above outcomes are excellent: just make sure you know which one you want and hire a speaker that can provide it for you perfectly.

Determine the Level of Speaker

The next thing to figure out is the level of speaker you need for your event. To me, there are basically three levels of professional speakers that are delineated by their price structures.

  • Level 1:  This is typically someone who is new to the professional speaking business and has a fee range between free and $5,000. They have some experience at the podium and might have some very good content, but as the old saying goes: “You get what you pay for.” Although this advice applies to every level of speaker, it is especially critical for this level of speaker that you make sure to get a video of this person presenting and to check their references.

**Quick note about references: do not allow the speaker to simply give you a list of hand-picked references, as they will only give you the ones that were very happy with them or the ones that are their friends. Instead, ask for a list of references from the last five speeches they gave in date order so that you can check on how they have actually performed for recent clients. This information will also give you a good indication of how busy they are. If the last five speeches occurred over the last three weeks, the speaker is likely very good; if they are spread out over the last eight months, then the speaker is probably not so good.

  • Level 2:  This is a speaker with a good deal of experience and a fee range of between $10,000 and $30,000. This is a real professional speaker, someone who does it for a living and does it well. They should have an impressive website, a long list of notable clients, probably have written a book or two, and be considered an expert in the area you want them to speak about. A Level 2 speaker should have an extremely professional high-definition video of them speaking to large audiences. As you watch the video, you should find it compelling and exciting, and you should find that their style matches well with your target audience. Level 2 speakers usually have a professional staff that assists them, and you should expect that both the speaker and the speaker’s staff are easy to deal with and willing to be flexible in customizing a program to meet your needs exactly. If the speaker or their staff is difficult to deal with or seems uninterested in truly working closely with you to customize their presentation, you and your audience will likely be disappointed.

**Quick note about professional speaking credentials. Lots of speakers belong to an organization called the National Speakers Association (NSA). Many of the very best speakers in the world are members of this association…and many are not. It would be my recommendation to depend more heavily on the quality of the speaker’s website and video, the ease of working with them and their staff, and the references from their last five speeches. If they have a bunch of certifications and awards from the NSA, that is great, but it is not a guarantee that they will be great with your audience.

  • Level 3:  This is a big name celebrity or political figure with a fee range of between $50,000 and $150,000 or more. You are not necessarily hiring this person for their expertise at the podium but rather for their Star Power. Typically, this is a very popular actor, big time sports star, recent Olympic gold medal winner, or top-tier politician. Many of them can deliver incredibly powerful presentations, and many of them are absolutely horrific public speakers. Watch some of their videos carefully and then decide if the name will be a big enough draw even if the quality of the presentation isn’t superb. They will definitely have a professional staff and will probably be difficult to deal with because of the unique demands of people at this level.

**Quick note about speaker fees. When you book a speaker, you can expect to pay their fee for the presentation, for any printed materials they might have for their presentation, and reasonable travel expenses (airfare, hotel, food, and transportation to and from the hotel and event) compared to the level of speaker you are hiring. For example:

  • Level 1 speaker = coach, cab, and economy hotel
  • Level 2 speaker = first-class, cab or limo, and business-class hotel.
  • Level 3 speaker = first-class or private jet for them and their entourage, limo, luxury hotel, full suite, and possibly a security detail as well.

**Quick note about speaker bureaus. Most Level 1 speakers handle their own bookings; Level 2 speakers handle a lot of their own bookings and also go through speaker bureaus; and Level 3 speakers almost always go exclusively through a speaker bureau. You will find that most speakers are represented by several different bureaus, but their pricing and contractual requirements are usually the same at every bureau. The real value of a speaker bureau is in giving you high quality options. If you can tell them exactly what kind of speaker you want, what kind of outcome you’re looking for, and what your price range is, they can give you several excellent options. Also, note that once you hire a speaker through a bureau, you should continue to go through the bureau if you ever want to bring them back. One of the main rules of the professional speaking business is that if you get a client through a bureau, you never book that client again without involving the bureau.

Determine the Specifications of the Speaker

What I have covered so far are the big questions about how to pick the right speaker for your event, but here are some other questions you might ask any potential speakers once you have narrowed your list down to a few:

  • Is your fee just for doing the one speech, or are you willing to do breakout sessions and other things for the same fee?
  • If you have books, will you sell them to us at a discount, or bring them yourself and do a book signing?
  • If we buy your books for everyone, will you hand sign them with a special salutation and our attendee’s names?
  • Do you have any follow-up videos or materials that we can send to the audience to reinforce what you taught them, and is there any fee for that?
  • If you arrive the day before or are leaving the next day, would you attend our cocktail party/dinner to mingle with our VIPs?
  • Will you give us a discount if we hired you for several events at once?
  • If your fee is too high for us, are you willing to split the fee if we can arrange for other paid speeches while you are in town?
  • If you are not available on the day we need you, can you recommend other excellent speakers that you feel could also deliver a superb presentation for our audience?

Here are a few more points to consider:

  • If you are holding your event at a ritzy resort, offering an extra day or two in the hotel as an incentive might be attractive for a Level 1 speaker, but most Level 2 and Level 3 speakers spend a good part of their life living in hotels, so this is not usually an attractive bonus to them!
  • If the speaker does not have a lot of repeat business, then they are probably not delivering great presentations. Superb professional speakers are typically hired again and again to come back and deliver more fantastic speeches for large client companies. So, ask them who some of their longest-standing clients are and how long they have been working for these clients.
  • If the speaker seems more focused on selling books from the back of the room and getting a copy of the attendee list, you will likely be disappointed, as they will focus more on themselves than on the audience.

Empower Yourself to Pick the Perfect Speaker

There is a lot more that I could say about how to pick the right professional speaker, but I know that if you start by using the advice I have shared with you here, then you will have a much greater chance of hiring just the right speaker who can deliver a world-class presentation for your audience, be easy to work with, and give you a fair and reasonable price for the quality and the value that they deliver.

I hope you found this helpful, and I welcome any additional comments. Thanks so much – John

Running an Effective Strategic Planning Retreat

shutterstock_18116173A very close friend called today to ask if I could facilitate an upcoming strategic planning retreat for his company, and unfortunately, the days he needed were already booked. So, I offered to send him a quick overview of what I feel it takes to put together a successful strategic planning retreat, and this is the information I gave him.

How to Run a Successful Strategic Planning Retreat

  1. Establish a Specific Deliverable. The best place to start is at the end. Therefore, the first step to presenting a successful strategic planning retreat is to create a very specific description of exactly what you want the deliverable of the event to be. What would a perfect outcome look like? How will it be measured? If you can figure out specifically what you want the retreat to achieve, it is pretty easy to go backwards from the finish line and build a program to that will accomplish your goal successfully. So, always begin with the end in mind.
  1. Bring in an Outsider. Use an outside facilitator, someone with superb experience in running many, many similar retreats. There are two main reasons to use a facilitator: process and people. Any truly qualified facilitator will have a proven process they have used for years to effectively get teams to their desired destination. It really does not make too much of a difference what process they use, so long as it is intuitive, easy, and effective. The other main reason for a facilitator is people, or better said, egos. You need someone who is NOT from the organization that can step in and take control if things get off track: someone who is not afraid of the political ramifications of telling the boss to be quiet! An outside facilitator can perfectly play the part of the “velvet hammer” by shutting down tangents and pushing back on overbearing individuals.
  1. Define the Purpose of the Retreat. Well before the retreat begins, decide whether this will be a “strategic planning” retreat or just a “planning” retreat. In other words, are the people in attendance actually going to take part in setting the strategy, or are they simply there to figure out how to implement someone else’s already developed strategy? I have seen a lot of retreats go down in flames when the participants thought they were going to be able to impact and influence strategy only to find out that it had already been set in stone and their only role was developing a work plan. Therefore, you should decide and communicate beforehand what type of retreat you are having.
  2. Evaluate the Condition of Your Team. Is the team ready to have a high-level retreat? Do you have the level of trust and professional respect necessary to have the sort of open, honest, and robust discussion that is critical for developing a truly effective strategic plan? If people do not feel extremely comfortable sharing opposing opinions, fighting for unpopular positions, and challenging the status quo, then you will never be able to have the intellectually rigorous debate needed to arrive at a superior strategic plan.
  3. Prepare Thoroughly. Try to get as much done before the retreat as possible. Typically, I do three key things a few weeks before the retreat.
    •  I deploy an internet-based “Organizational Effectiveness Audit” to every person who will be involved in the retreat. This is a brief, confidential survey to gauge the level of trust, openness, and respect within the team. If the scores from this audit are not high enough, I will recommend replacing the first day of the retreat with a High Performance Teams workshop in order to get the group ready for the rest of the work.
    •  I ask everyone to carefully review the current vision, mission, and values of the company (if they have them) and to come prepared with any comments and suggestions, but ONLY if they feel very strongly that changes need to be made. Opening up the vision, mission and values to general discussion is usually opening up a can of worms that you’ll never get shut again. The way I look at it, the vision, mission, and values of a company are sort of like a tattoo: they are supposed to be pretty permanent and are very painful to change, so you need to be completely certain you are not happy with what you have before you undergo the effort of working on it.
    •  I ask people to do a fair amount of the SWOT work before they arrive. I send them a survey with some key questions about Internal Strengths, Internal Weaknesses, External Opportunities, and External Threats, and ask them to fill in the answers. The key here is that the answers MUST be in the form of a statement of “fact”: things they either know or don’t know. No guessing, no estimating, and no assumptions: we need to deal with facts. And when we come to a place where we don’t have the facts, then we now know that we need to go find them! Here is a sample of the questions I typically ask on the survey:
      • What do you see as the top three internal strengths of the organization right now?
      • What do you see as the top three internal weaknesses of the organization right now?
      • What do you see as the top three external opportunities for the organization right now?
      • What do you see as the top three external threats to the organization right now?
      • What do you think are the top three most important areas of focus over the next three years?
      • If you were the CEO, what top three things you would change or fix immediately?
      • What is your single biggest concern about the business right now?
      • What are the top three things that must be accomplished in this meeting?

I then take all of the answers from the survey and combine them into an executive overview of the most common answers so that people can get a general feel for what the entire group is thinking.

  1. Answer SWOT Questions in Teams. Once we get to the retreat, it should only require a very brief discussion to determine if the vision, mission, and values are still relevant and on target. If not, I try to work fast to get a consensus on the appropriate changes. With everyone on board for the vision, mission, and values, then the next step is to break people up into groups to review the executive report on the answers to the SWOT analysis survey. I like to try to keep the teams small enough so that no one can hide and not participate: groups of four to eight people are just about right. I also want each team to have representatives from different parts of the organization, not all from the same department or managerial level – diversity is a key here. I will typically give them about two hours to work in their groups, and their task is to review the report and work together as a team to answer the exact same questions again, but this time, to get everyone to agree on what their team comes up with for their answers.
  2. Determine the Most Important Issues to Address. I then ask each of the small teams to present their answers to the questions, and I work as the facilitator to combine all of the answers from the various teams into one clear overview that everyone agrees represents a solid SWOT analysis of their company. I might not be able to narrow the list of answers down to just three in each category, but if I can get it down to four or five answers that everybody in the room agrees with, then we now have something very focused from which to work.

*** Side Note: I do not let the teams talk to each other once they start the SWOT process. I want them to work completely independently because I am interested in seeing how well the different teams are correlated on what they feel are the best strategies. If all of the teams come back and say pretty much the same things, then I am highly confident that a bunch of smart people looked at a lot of data and came to a general consensus on the appropriate course of action, and they did not do so through “groupthink” because the teams did not cross-pollinate! If all the teams come back and present wildly different strategies, then I know I have a problem. And if the teams come back with about an 80% overlap? Well, then that is where the facilitator earns their fee by working to mesh and mold the various ideas into a single, coherent, and agreed-upon strategy.

  1. Prioritize the Important Issues. Once I feel comfortable that we have pretty much exhausted the SWOT analysis and created some good thoughtful answers to each of the above questions, then I will ask the teams to review the new list of agreed-upon SWOT answers and prioritize these answers into strategic objectives. What, specifically, should they do with the information they now have in front of them; what actions should they take; and how will they prioritize their actions for time and resource allocation? I usually ask them to designate the issues as such:
    • An “A” priority is one that requires immediate attention. It is a critical issue and demands action.
    • “B” issues are important but require no action right now. They might need action in a month or two, or we might have to address some “A” issues before we can take any action on one of the “B” issues.
    • The “C” issues are important, but there is nothing we can specifically do to impact them. These might be economic, political, or regulatory issues that we need to watch carefully and possibly respond to, but there is nothing per-se that the organization can do to influence or control these particular factors.
  1. Select Your Main Strategic Objectives. Again, I typically give the teams about two hours to mold all of the SWOT information into a prioritized list of strategic objectives. I want them to think at a very high level here about the big picture issues: the most important things that will drive the success of the organization over the next twelve to thirty-six months. Basically, all strategy just comes down to making choices about how to allocate precious resources: time, money, and people. By looking at the SWOT analysis and figuring out what is most important, the company can understand how the strategy should take shape and what the most important things are for them to focus on in the near term in order to best prepare for the long term. The goal is to take all this information and boil it down to three or four key strategic objectives – a handful of mission critical areas for the organization to confront.

*** Side Note: you will notice that I said “three or four key strategic objectives.” Okay, I admit: maybe you could stretch it to five, maybe even six, but you cannot have twenty-three strategic objectives! Not even fifteen, twelve or ten. The key to effective strategy is FOCUS. You must get it down to the few truly critical priorities and then, most importantly, figure out what to say “NO” to.

  1. Make Plans for Implementation. In most one-day retreats, this is about as far as you can get, with possibly a little discussion about the tactical implementation of the strategies. This leads me to two VERY important issues. The first is that the diverse teams we created to develop the strategies are not good for deciding on tactical implementation issues. The tactical implementation issues should be developed by the people who will be held responsible for actually doing the implementation. I try to let the people who do the work every day figure out the best way to do it in the future. Yes, we give them some ideas and input, but ultimately, they need to decide on the best way forward for the projects on which they have the most expertise. The second key issue is that a strategic plan is NOT complete until you have also developed a “Strategic Execution Plan.” So, at this point, I usually complete the retreat and send the project teams off to work on their specific implementation plans.
  1. Finalize Your Strategic, Tactical, and Execution Plans. Perhaps several weeks later, after a number of rounds of sharing and editing the strategic, tactical, and execution plan rough drafts, the entire planning team gets back together to look at the final document. Here is where they hash out the last details and work to create a document that everyone feels good about and to which everyone is willing to commit.

What You Can Accomplish with a Strategic Planning Retreat

At this point, the plan is finally complete, and here is what you have accomplished:

  • You have given everyone a say in the outcome: a chance to fully participate in crafting the key strategies that will move the organization forward.
  • You have endured a thorough and exhaustive process to ensure that the best possible ideas and suggestions went into the plan and that the plan did not get hijacked in a groupthink session.
  • You have prioritized the key strategies to allow for the proper allocation of resources, people, funds, and time by figuring out what to focus on and when you must say “no.”
  • The people who will be responsible for actually implementing the plan have played an integral part in developing the specific tactical plan for effectively executing the strategic plan.
  • You have gained consensus and commitment to accountability in a very public and powerful way.

Now comes the REALLY hard work: the 100% disciplined execution of the plan for the next ten months or so before it is time to start the process all over again! Good luck running your next strategic planning retreat!

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