What is a strategy session? Is it a meeting of the minds where participants drum up and pontificate elaborate plans that are then distributed to teams to “scratch their heads” at as they try to execute? Unfortunately, in many cases, yes. These sessions or workshops are oftentimes underutilized as they lack the planning and facilitation to drive less pontificating and more productive thinking. In a recent one of our company Thought Meetings, where we discussed thinking practices, a question came up: “Are strategy sessions really helpful?” Well, it depends, but they can be.

Let’s be honest. They can be quite helpful, but they can also create an abundance of strategic momentum behind initiatives that cannot be executed to fruition. To support this thought, I sought out research that may have examined this phenomenon further. The findings sum up to one core conclusion: although strategy sessions are used broadly across organizations, very few studies exist which examine the nuts and bolts around how to make them truly effective. Even those that purport to assess the various dynamics of a company or organization and the effect those dynamics have on their strategy sessions, still tend to only deal in generalities or theories. However, in an Organization Studies article written by Gerry Johnson, Shameen Prashantham, Steven W. Floyd, and Nicole Bourque titled “The Ritualization of Strategy Workshops“, the researchers offer up a theoretical model to highlight strategy workshop dynamics and outcomes by drawing on theories of ritual and ritualization:

“Our central argument is that variations in characteristics of ritualization such as the degree of removal, the use of liturgy and the role of specialists influence behavioral dynamics within workshops and thereby the extent to which their purpose is achieved. This perspective extends research on the episodic nature of strategy development and contributes to a theoretically informed view of strategy practices.”

Great insights, but how does that information apply to you, the reader? I do like the thought of a deeper dive into session dynamics to understand how to make your strategy sessions more impactful, but here are a handful of quick win items, which you can take on as “low hanging fruit” to attack immediately when thinking about your next strategy session:

  • If you want your strategy to change from its current incarnation consider taking your participants somewhere other than their current location – Though not critical, having a session focused on changing your strategy can generate more creative and diverse outputs if the session is held outside the everyday norms of the office
  • If you want to get the most out of all your players then be sure to level the playing field – If roles, titles and social status are all stripped away prior to starting your session you can ensure a more open and committed level of involvement from all participants, and coupling that with holding your session in a unique location can help participants feel free to engage without the constraints of the daily org structure
  • If you don’t make the purpose and proceedings of your session clear then you can expect the results to be equally unclear – This is big, if your session’s purpose and the proceedings you follow in order to achieve that purpose are not commonly understood and seen as legitimate by all participants then they will not be able to focus or contribute to their full potential
  • If you want to be sure to legitimize your session’s process and increase your likelihood of success get a legitimate specialist to conduct your session – Having an objective third party expert to help organize, design, and facilitate your strategy session not only brings another level of legitimacy to the process and purpose of the session, but also increases its chances of a successful outcome
  • If any of this is going to work, internal leadership must support every aspect of it – The leadership involved in the session must openly endorse the process and the facilitator in order for the sessions to be successful; if leadership diminishes the value or legitimacy of the process or the facilitator in any way they will be hindering the session’s ability to achieve success
  • If you want long lasting results you can’t just set it and forget it – A truly valuable strategy session is part of a set of sessions that all tie into a larger strategy development process; carving aside a single day to look at a strategy isn’t enough to make real organization wide and effective change

I’ll focus a moment on the part about bringing in a specialist. One would think that spending a few thousand dollars to have a third party facilitate you through a series of strategy sessions is a waste of dollars because, “We are smart enough to do it ourselves!” But think about this, you have a lot of brainpower (and money) in the sessions through your participants, don’t you want to ensure that you make the best use of their time and those dollars? Internal facilitators will typically view the session through a myopic lens, as many attendees may, driving participants toward their own personal answers or goals. However, an outside facilitator can help you view your future landscape through an enriched and objective lens driving more optimal results for the business at large. On top of that, bringing in a specialist tells your team that the process is important, important enough to bring in someone to help manage it. Not to mention it helps break down barriers and roles when participants can freely ask critical questions or throw divergent ideas at someone who isn’t their boss.

At the end of the day, we would all prefer that our strategy sessions provide a forum for facilitating idea evaluation, knowledge sharing, and strategic consensus. But, if you don’t approach the session correctly the only thing you can truly count on is strategic paralysis setting in.