Secrets from a Facilitator: Planning an Effective Strategy Process

The first quarter of 2021 is in the rearview mirror, and you can see the year speeding up with each passing week. It’s time to prepare for your 2022 strategy process. The unprecedented nature of last year and the beginning of 2021 remind us that the usual approaches won’t do when complexity and uncertainty continue to shape the future. Who would have envisioned the GameStop mania or the Suez Canal freighter blockage?

I’ve facilitated hundreds of retreats and strategy processes over the years. My advice for 2021?

  1. Clarify expectations.
  2. Understand retreat limitations.
  3. Consider your facilitator.

Clarify expectations

I’ve seen it all—the rogue board members with conflicts of interest, the executive team members vying for the CEO’s job along with the interim, and a focus on the tactical disguised as the strategic. Group dynamics and process design can undermine or enhance success. The desired outcome? A consensus-based plan of action based on three to five strategic decisions.

I encourage you to optimize your approaches to people, processes, and products.

  • People – Take stock of your team. How ready is the group to make consensus-based decisions? Are there underlying personal agendas that might interfere with group decision-making? Has the team composition changed? How has remote work impacted relationships? Does the group have a track record of success in strategic decision-making? The greater the need to align, the more time required for an effective group process, especially when high-stakes decisions are involved.
  • Process – Take a look at your approach. An effective process yields the necessary decisions. Your first task in preparing for success is to get clear on the scope and scale of the decisions at hand. How clear is the group about the choices under consideration? Is everyone up-to-speed on the data? What are the strategic options at hand? Does the team agree upon the implications? Your team might benefit from an enhanced process to create a shared understanding of the data insights and prepare for effective strategy setting and planning.
  • Product – Give your classic framework a review. Your team may have a tried-and-true plan framework that is updated annually. Given the nature of change in 2020, now is the time to update the planning framework. For example, how well do you appreciate your customers as whole people? Their needs and expectations have likely changed notably, too, and you’ll want to update your assumptions. Now is the time to determine the pre-work required to understand the external context, competitors, and customers. It is also time to review and update your plan document to accelerate success into 2022.

Understand retreat limitations

Experience has taught me that companies typically expect more of their annual retreat than the day or weekend can deliver. Everyone comes into the day with high hopes for team cohesion, fresh insights, a breakthrough idea or two, and a detailed plan for the year ahead. Retreats are the perfect forum for some group activities and not for others.

  • Retreats are effective for brainstorming, raising issues, building cohesion, and getting a general sense of your team’s feelings and perspectives on issues. They can surface possibilities and confirm realizations.
  • Retreats are not ideal for making big decisions. The nature of group dynamics involves improvisation, the need to take the ideas offered and move them forward. Your group will fluctuate between diverging views and converging realizations. That natural give-and-take, and the real-time nature of groups of humans processing information in real-time, means your group will likely be less effective than you might assume.

Go into your retreat with a clear-eyed view of possible achievements and design a more comprehensive process to get you to success with follow-up tasks, plan drafts, and agreed-upon deadlines to complete the strategy process.

Consider your facilitator

A facilitator is a bit like a detective. We listen and look for clues. My goal is to ascertain whether my client’s desired outcomes are realistic and manage expectations to align with reality.

Making the most of your process begins with clarifying expectations. An experienced facilitator can help you determine what’s feasible and essential to accomplish during the retreat and the overall process.

  • What are the achievements? Where did your team gain traction? What goals remain unfinished?
  • What must you achieve this year? The last year was unprecedented, and this year is unusual too.

Given the new realities of post-pandemic growth, the right facilitator will make a big difference this year. Here’s to making the most of your retreat and planning process.


Author bio

Karla Raines is a master facilitator and accomplished strategist serving purpose-driven organizations in dynamically competitive industries. Her commitment to mastering the art of strategy led her to a career-defining eureka moment in 2018. The experience crystallized her intuitive process and inspired her to reverse engineer what she’d taught herself to do over years of hands-on practice. Karla’s book, Differentiated, shares the story of her inventive strategy process, Differentiation Zone®, through real-life vignettes and powerful lessons pulled from over two decades of consulting experience. Learn more at Differentiation Zone.

With a unique ability to see beyond what is, Karla leads her clients to discover authentic differentiation and craft plans to realize a competitive advantage. Abstract painting propels Karla’s professional creativity and risk-taking as it fuels her soul. Enjoy her work at Karla Raines Art.

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