July 21, 2020

Ep 1: So, About That Planning Retreat...

Ep 1: So, About That Planning Retreat...

Small and mid size businesses have had to rethink many things - perhaps almost everything - amidst the shutdown. For the first few weeks, even months, cancelling or delaying strategic planning efforts made good sense. Months into the pandemic, with "normal" on an uncertain time horizon, business leaders need to find new ways to approach business planning. In our first episode on this topic, we will explore what to do "About That Planning Retreat", as management offsites have disappeared - but the need hasn't.

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{"version":"1.0.0","segments":[{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":0.0,"body":"Companies have so many questions about planning right now. Most organizations have not seen this magnitude of uncertainty at any point in their history. There are a number of topics we could and will cover about successful strategic planning. But today, we'd like to focus in on one of the key tools often used in the planning process; the management retreat.\n\nWelcome to Right in the Middle of Market, a podcast about pragmatic perspectives on running, growing and selling your business. We talk about the challenges, decisions and most importantly the actions business owners can take to create long term value in their companies.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":45.0,"body":"Today, I'm delighted to talk with Stephanie Chambliss Gaffin, a managing partner of the Gaffin Group to explore this issue. To kick us off, along with most other in person events, I'm guessing that most management retreats have been canceled, the past few months. What are you seeing?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":61.0,"body":"You know, companies have retreats typically planned at different points in the year. There's often a regular cadence, some do there's in the Spring, some do them in the Fall, it's often tied to their budgeting process, or to whenever their fiscal year is beginning, or other natural rhythms in the business that they're in. So if anybody who had something planned in the late spring, or quite frankly, anytime in the summer, went ahead and cancelled it. And I think especially in those early weeks when we had no idea what was happening, and you may remember, there was a time when we thought this might be just a few weeks that we were shutting everything down. So at that point, just say, well, let's just kick it out a few weeks and surely by July, we'll be able to get together this summer. Now, I think it's been long enough that people are from what I'm hearing still nervous to plan in person events, still nervous about getting together regularly. So they're starting to say, gosh, we need to come up with a different option. Can we hold it virtually? Should we cancel it altogether? But we certainly can't proceed the way that we originally planned.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":130.0,"body":"Let me pick up on that last point. Is this a great chance to get rid of the habit of a boondoggle? Or is there still value to be had?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":140.0,"body":"You know, I think there are many different experiences that people have had with management retreats over the years and certainly in some organizations it can be perceived as, or it can actually just be, you know, a chance to get away and not really accomplish much business. But fundamentally, for the retreats that are well done, well planned and really add value, the two biggest reasons that I consistently hear and that I work with my clients on, to have a management retreat; number one, is relationship building. That can be a phrase that's easy to throw around, but it does matter when you are trying to work through business issues. The stronger the relationships between the people on your team, the easier it is to navigate those issues that inevitably come up throughout the course of business. The second piece, and second reason to have a retreat, is to create the space for deeper dialogue and discussion about more complex topics. These are the things that you're allocating 20 minutes on the weekly hour long agenda of the management team, you're just never going to get to the depth of should we enter a new product, what's happening with disruption that we're seeing from a competitor or those types of issues that really do require deeper thought and deeper interaction when you want to get a lot of people involved and come out of it at the other side, with a unified perspective and an agreement on action. I would argue both of those needs, the relationship and the need for deeper dialogue are still very critical. You know I hate the phrase, \"now more than ever\", but it does apply a little bit here to say, in a time when each of the individuals are stressed, because of what's happening in the world, what may be happening in their personal lives. And we have this degree of change in the environment. There certainly there are a lot of tough topics to be talking about. So I would argue that the need is still very much there, we just have to figure out a different way to go about it.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":270.0,"body":"Are retreats just for big companies?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":273.0,"body":"Companies of all sizes need to have their management teams aligned around key issues, doesn't necessarily have to be a retreat that gets you there, but any well run company has some kind of a forum that they use some mechanism, a place that they're getting together the key people in leadership roles across the organization to talk about important issues, sometimes tough issues that are facing the organization. They need a chance to be able to get input, to be able to debate things back and forth, hopefully in a very healthy way. And then what I always am most focused on, is determining what is that course of action? What are we going to do about it and come out of it with everyone may be not in 100% agreement about the topic, but an agreement on a course of action. I think the other thing that I would say is, again, back to my point about relationships, they do matter, and they take intentional care and feeding. So doesn't have to be a retreat. But there needs to be some kind of a function, no matter the size of the organization, to be able to establish connection. I think over the past several years, we've seen this to be very true, always between and among cross functional teams, but also in increasingly geographically distributed teams. When you look at what's happening right now in the way that many companies are having to operate, with some of them for the first time, not being physically together in the same environment, they do need a mechanism to be able to make sure that they're coming together and keeping those relationships among leaders in the organization very strong.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":371.0,"body":"Okay, so where do we start? \n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":373.0,"body":"Well, I think part of this depends on where you've been. The first thing that I would say, is if you have had retreats in the past, and if you had a good discipline around them, certainly a best practice, of having clear objectives going into those events, then you are already well on your way, and you can start with revisiting those objectives. What was it that you wanted to achieve? Hopefully, they were specific, they were tangible. And I always find that when you write those down, it starts to be able to clarify thinking and actually open up creativity around well, gosh, given the new constraints that we have, how else could we start to to achieve those. You also want to revisit those objectives and say, What's different now? What new gaps are you seeing based on the way your company needs to operate in this current environment? And are there different things that you might need to achieve? For those companies that maybe haven't been as disciplined about objectives in the past ,or haven't done retreats in the past, again, starting with those objectives, really think about, gosh, if I could put my leadership team together in a room for two days or for a day, again, not that that's what you can do right now, but start with that mental construct. What would you want to get out of it? What would be most important? Another way to think about it, is to think about what is it that you're missing in the way that you're operating? Compared to the time when we all had the opportunity to be physically together in a much more frequent way, what are the gaps that you're finding? Where is the organization struggling for that lack of more casual and unstructured interaction? That can help you to guide the objectives. The final thing that I'll say in this point, is, I think it's really important to prioritize. It is so easy to come up with objectives. So easy in fact that you may end up with a laundry list of them and then you won't actually be able to achieve it. So it's not only coming up with the objectives, but then prioritizing down to what are the most important things you really want to achieve.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":506.0,"body":"Okay, we'll be right back with more of Stephanie Chambliss Gaffin talking about that planning retreat. Very good topic today. We'll be right back after this message.\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":516.0,"body":"Right in the Middle Market is brought to you by the Gaffin Group, a full service business consulting firm. The Gaffin group works closely with middle market companies tackling the big challenges of today's environment and capturing the value enhancing growth opportunities of tomorrow. Too often, dogma, platitudes or wishlists get confused with strategy, then it's no small wonder that execution can be muddled. The Gaffin Group principles work closely with company boards, executives and their teams to seek pragmatic, tangible results. They provide comprehensive advisory services across strategic, financial, operational and merger and acquisition capabilities. All framed by the fundamental belief that real strategy drives real results. The Gaffin Group is focused on delivering robust practical insights and fact based pragmatic solutions. Their services are designed to support their clients profitable growth and sustainable long term value creation. Go to gaffingroup.com to learn more about how the Gaffin Group can help you and your company.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":578.0,"body":"So welcome back. We're talking with Stephanie Chambliss Gaffin about that planning retreat. Great topic. Question for you, are organizations approaching the actual retreat differently, or is it pretty much the same but just now all on Zoom?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":594.0,"body":"So, if you think about the retreats that we had before, even the ones that weren't as clear about objectives, at some level, especially in organizations with groups that get along pretty well, you could kind of just throw everybody in a room and at some level trust that the right conversations were going to take place. Again, not that that was a best practice, but there was some element to that. I think what we're seeing now, is that there has to be a much greater discipline in planning. You have to know what it is that you want to achieve, and really think about how you're going to get there. I think the second thing I would say is we're seeing differences in schedule and structure. An all day meeting at a retreat is one thing, but there, you're able to read the energy in the room, you're able to feed off each other, people can get up and walk around. We've all heard about Zoom fatigue at this point, and it's very real. And so, what I'm finding is most people will cap out at about two, maybe three hours at a stent with some breaks in between, no matter how great the content is. I think you also have to recognize that people may not be able to break away from their personal responsibilities as easily as they could in other times. Before it was easier to say, make your arrangements around personal responsibilities or family, you're going to take two or three days away, and then come back, right now as many working parents are facing schools that are closed, daycares that are closed, camps that are closed, that can be much more challenging to do. So for example, you may need to think about a series of conversations in two to three hour chunks, rather than a single one to two day stent. I'll talk about this in a minute, but that also comes then to the importance of having a really strong facilitator to connect the dots across those conversations. The third thing then is the planning and the pre wiring. We already talked about the importance of objectives, and then you want everyone to be heard and with shorter timeframes that may be hard to do. So really think about how do you pre wire some of these conversations? How do you have some of the background conversations ahead of time? On the day of or the days of, manage the conversation. You really need to think about how do you bring in someone with strong facilitation. If you need to, to find that skill set, go outside of your team, or even bring in an outside resource. But you need to make sure that you have somebody that has a really strong facilitation skill set to help you get the most out of this conversation and out of this time together. And then finally, no different than an in person retreat, be clear about the action items and the follow up\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":763.0,"body":"All great points. You mentioned how important it is to manage the conversation. Are there best practices to that?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":771.0,"body":"Yeah, one of the things that I see most frequently is that let's call it the sponsoring executive, who is the individual who's bringing together the agenda. They're pulling together the team, they're really encouraging people to participate, making sure that calendars get cleared for people to be able to join, that that person thinks that they can also be the facilitator. Now, this is not a limitation of skill. But it is truly that the person who is in that leadership role, can't be the same one to facilitate the conversation. It's interesting, I actually saw this in a retreat that I facilitated a couple of years ago, where the leader if this particular team had originally been planning on leading the retreat. He actually is a very skilled facilitator and was doing some great pre wiring talking with a lot of different folks ahead of time, and as he and I started to chat, we were talking about the dialogue and he started to realize that he couldn't play both roles. I ended up joining to facilitate this retreat on their behalf. There was a very Interesting point where he stood up to present some information. And both of us saw that dynamic in the room change starkly. We went from people asking questions around the spirit of open dialogue, to asking questions looking for an answer, because they knew that he was the one in charge. So I think that's the kind of dynamic that you actually want to try to avoid, and that you need to have a facilitator who can be impartial. The reason that it's so important to have that designated facilitator. The skill set, somebody who doesn't have, if you will skin in the game of what's being discussed, as always, most helpful. Often you can find this kind of a person within the organization, perhaps from another team, and if not, it can be well worth it to invest in an outside facilitator to help you get the right kind of outcome. A good facilitator will also be able to help you think about what is the right structure, how do you plan, how do you do some of those pre wires. And then finally, obviously, you want to make sure that you have a scribe. Again, I think even more important when you're on Zoom, where typing, or writing while you're on video can be very distracting and very challenging.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":914.0,"body":"So what are some of the ways that you have worked with business leaders to help them have successful retreats?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":921.0,"body":"Well, I think Mark is, you know, this is truly one of my favorite things to do. I think, I've been known to describe this as the candy in my job, if you will. I think, for me, it starts with really exploring with that sponsoring executive, what it is that they want to achieve. Secondly, then it's understanding a little bit about the culture of the organization. Understanding how is the dynamic going to play in, what is this group going to be like? Are they going to be opposed to this topic? Do we need to figure out how to get them engaged or they're going to come in bustling with energy? And how do you come up with creative approaches that are still consistent with the culture of the organization. There's one organization that I worked with, we were doing a fairly major process redesign over a series of three retreats. And I actually ended up using Legos as a kinesthetic tool to help them really become creative and if you will think out of the box to break the mold of the way things have always been done. It worked in that organization, because it was a culture that was kind of fun and pretty open. So they thought this was great. In another organization, while it was very effective in one, it may not have worked as well somewhere else.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":1002.0,"body":"So question for you, especially with the pandemic, the dynamic environment that we have now. I can see how people may have gotten locked in the past to doing things on an annual basis. You know, took a while to get people together. But the question I'd have for you is, doesn't it make sense if you have a kind of environment we had now, like if I had a planning retreat November or December of last year, it's kind of at best stale now. Does it make sense to keep things a little more dynamic, especially using technology, maybe to address the market moves and things like that. What's your thought on that?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":1043.0,"body":"I think two things. I think, first of all Mark, it's kind of what you is tell me about dynamic budgeting processes. And the benefit of rather than doing an annual budget that almost inevitably by the end of the first quarter is outdated, that there's a real benefit to doing a rolling forecast. I think that is very much true and definitely in this environment. The second thing that I would say, is go back to your objectives. Think about what it is that you want to achieve, and then design a structure that will help you achieve those objectives. So it may be that you're going to have more regular interactions, it may be that you have a series of more frequent or intense, you know, spread out over just a couple of weeks, you do a number of sessions in rapid succession. And then, once a month, you need to have a tune up, we need to check in again and watch what's happening in the environment. Check back in on what we tried and what we planned. Is it working? So I think this is one of the ways that organizations can try to be more nimble and make sure that we're keeping everybody on the same page. I think the last thing that I would say on that, is that for organizations that came into this pandemic with very strong relationships among the team, they came in with an advantage, no question. But there is something that matters about in person interaction, and the further that we are getting away from that, the more intentional you as a leader need to be about making sure that there is some kind of a mechanism, some kind of an action to continually strengthen and nurture those relationships among your executive team among your leadership team. Because otherwise we can't just rely on I'm going to run into you in the office, we're going to chat a little bit and those relationships will naturally strengthen. So really be thoughtful about how you're doing that.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":1166.0,"body":"We like to focus on pragmatic advice and action here. So to summarize, what are two or three actions that business leaders can take now, if they are trying to figure out what to do about their upcoming retreat?\n"},{"speaker":"Stephanie Gaffin ","startTime":1181.0,"body":"Let me focus in on two to make it really easy to remember. I think, number one, sit down and write out your objectives. And quite frankly, this can be helpful to even help you decide if there if you do need to have a retreat or a retreat, have some kind of a format. Prioritize on those top few and I think as you write those out, you'll start to identify if this is something that is important and is worth the effort. Number two, assuming the answer is yes, identify a facilitator to help you structure and plan. It is always going to be challenging to keep this on, it is inevitably one of a number of things. So identify that facilitator early, who can really help you think about what is a way that I can structure this in the given environment with the constraints that we have to be able to achieve those objectives that you've set.\n"},{"speaker":"Mark Gaffin ","startTime":1232.0,"body":"Well, Stephanie, this has been a great, great topic, very timely, and I think very important advice for people to sit down and think about ways forward in this environment. Thank you very much. I'm Mark Gaffin. You've been listening to Right in the Middle Market, a podcast about running, growing and selling your business. We'd love to hear your comments on today's episode or ideas for topics you'd like to hear in the future. Send me a message at LinkedIn or drop me an email at podcast@gaffingroup.com. Until next time, be well and be focused.\n\n"}]}