Think Leadership Ideas

Big Planning Retreat Errors #2

the reason retreats underperform is not what you think….

As soon as planning for a retreat begins, smart leaders can start avoiding three big and all-to-common mistakes.

I’m not talking about having a long meeting but never crafting a plan, or making a plan but not specifying a time-frame or accountability in their action steps to accomplish objectives. Most enterprises organized enough to have a retreat at all get these basics.

Actually, getting the basics right can be a problem. The errors I see organizations perpetuate - again and again - often go unseen because the organization has the basics right and never look beyond them. And this can keep an organization - whether business, public agency, or non-profit - mired in mediocrity. Don't let these errors creep into your leadership or board retreat!

retreat error #2
Action List, but NO STRATEGY

What the error looks like….
The retreat consists entirely of listing problems or issues - maybe even putting them in priority order - then one by one discussing particular solutions. The group then creates an action plan to implement each solutions.

What’s so wrong with that?
Action items are handled independent of each other, without attention to how they are interdependent or how they work in combination to produce results.

Checklists are an awesome tool, but do not a strategy make. Think about it. Strategy is not about listing the work to be done, rather it’s about the ‘game plan’ for winning, about how the organization will make choices among options. Strategy is the set of activities that, in combination, outline the distinctive way the organization will achieve goals. Strategy clarifies what to do…..and what NOT to do.

Examples of activity sets that differentiate organizations.
  • McDonald's meticulous production-line processes for procurement and food preparation combine to provide an inexpensive meal that is dependably consistent - worldwide;
    • Southwest Airlines’ fleet of only one kind of airplane, engagement of employees and customers alike to master quick plane turnaround, and point to point scheduling, combine to provide a distinctive low-cost transportation alternative;
    • Habitat for Humanity’s use of volunteer labor, plus sweat equity and zero or low cost financing for home recipients, combine to generate enormous community support while advancing their mission to move low-wealth people into home ownership.

In my experience, organizations that work from a ‘to-do’ list without a strategy look and act “generic” for their industry. Often well-intentioned leaders erroneously think that big success is just around the corner if only they worked just a little harder, if they just did everything on their list, or if they can get the attention of the right people - when what is really needed is a clearer strategy.

How to avoid the error...
Include in your agenda strategic thinking about the distinctive way the organization could conduct its operations, and how the various activities of the organization link together.

….to be continued

by Tom Stevens (c)2012
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact Tom, visit or call 800 727-9788

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