The ideas about what strategy is and how to generate and execute it have hardly changed over the past four decades. This is a problem because the world has changed. And it is even more of a problem because research shows consistent low success rates in strategy. So, why do we keep on approaching strategy in the same old way while we know it doesn’t work? The main reason, I think, is that we are clung to no less than ten strong myths about strategy. In this article I zoom in on Myth #9: Strategy Requires Offsites.
There has emerged a rather standardized ritual for making strategy that is used throughout the world. When I describe it to my executive MBA students I usually get instant and close to unanimous recognition, including a half-smile that tells me that they are a bit embarrassed that that is indeed how their company does strategy as well. It goes like this.
Once every year, the key leaders of the company go to a nice hotel or resort for a day or so. During that day they do some serious work in the morning. Facilitated by a consultant they do one or more brown paper sessions, organized around a SWOT analysis or—since a couple of years—a business model canvas. And in the afternoon they do a team building exercise to bond and have fun together. After the day everyone goes home full of energy and optimism. The next day everyone goes back to work and forgets about the offsite until next year’s offsite is there.
Of course there are numerous variations and of course this description is a bit of a caricature. But in many cases it is not far off. So, the myth is that strategy can, or even should be made during occasional offsites of a day or two. It should be off-site because that takes people out of the ordinary and thereby stimulates creativity and focus.
Why It Is Wrong
The idea that strategy can be effectively made in this way is attractive. It makes strategy making a contained activity that doesn’t interfere with business as usual. But there are five reasons why this is a myth.
- It disconnects strategy from everyday business. What is seen as one of the key strength of strategy offsites—the fact that they are held off-site, away from the organization’s premises—is actually one of their key weaknesses. It literally disconnects strategy from normal business and thereby makes strategy something special. But oftentimes strategy is already strongly hindered by not being connected enough to organizations’ daily operations. Offsites just make this worse. Therefore, I am a strong proponent to do everything on-site. Of course with rules so that people are actually present and focused, but you don’t need to go elsewhere for that.
- Not everyone can be there. Having offsites like this creates an artificial divide between those who are there and those who are not. As argued before, strategy concerns everyone in the organization. By literally taking one group of people elsewhere to discuss strategy, the aforementioned divide is just enlarged. This is especially the case, as it often happens, when the in-group is instructed not to talk about what has been said during the offsite. This stimulates rumours, speculation and gossipping rather than effective dialogue.
- It is based on an illusion of knowledge. When you think about it, it is pretty absurd to assume that strategy can effectively be made in one or few days with a select group of people siting in a room. Strategy is amongst the most complex topics in an organization. The oversimplification problem referred to earlier is just kept alive by pretending an offsite would be enough to generate strategy. Effective strategy making, however, requires constant interaction with the outside world—to listen and see as well as to experiment and learn.
- Good ideas don’t just pop op. Offsites are based on the idea that the best ideas come from short brainstorms and pressure cooker workshops. Sure, those can be inspiring and fun. But the best ideas usually don’t come up like that. They can’t be timed to pop up exactly during an offsite. They gradually build up and emerge as side effect of people’s day-to-day work. Especially short breaks after periods of hard work are typical moments when the best ideas pop up in our conscious brain after having cooked for a while in our subconsciousness.
- Strategy is a continuous process, not an event. Offsites suggests that strategy making is an event, something that happens every now and then and that has a clear beginning and end. While we might have made ourselves believe that is the case, strategy is not like that at all. It is a continuous process that goes on 365 days a year. After all, organizations and the world move on continuously as well. Making sure that your strategy is up to date on an ongoing basis, as well as executed effectively, requires a continuous approach to strategy.
There is nothing against having meetings with groups of people to talk about strategy. In whatever way strategy is made, that way of working always has its value. After all, strategy is a people process that requires people to interact. But as the five points above indicate, that doesn’t mean this should happen during isolated and occasional offsites.
From these points, as well as the eight previous articles in this series on strategy myths, the alternative slowly comes to the surface. In this alternative, strategy is a continuous process involving people throughout the organization. Rather than being something special, strategy is part of everyone’s day-day-to activities.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty