Importance of Pre-Offsite Meeting Consultations

September 8, 2015

CEO’s of organizations regularly hold offsite planning meetings with their executive team and/or with the Board of Directors. Likewise, Department Heads sometimes bring their teams together especially if they are geographically dispersed.

Often, these sessions are held on an annual basis, and the topics can be varied such as strategic planning, annual plans or to address operational issues.

I have found that holding pre-offsite meeting consultations with attendees, and sometimes with non-attendees, can dramatically improve the outcomes of the sessions. I have compiled the listing below of eight reasons why the consultations can be so effective:

Reason #1

Effectiveness – Maximizes the value of the time spent at the offsite meeting

When the pre-meeting consultations are complete, a summary document is prepared and I typically call it “What We Heard”. This is then presented at the start of the offsite sessions. Sometimes the offsite agenda will include a reception and dinner the night before the actual business portion of the offsite meetings. In this case I recommend that the presentation of the “What We Heard” be done before the reception. It gives participants the evening to absorb the information and be prepared for the following day.

The payoff of the consultation summary is the ability to outline the many issues that have arisen and to identify the several truly key issues that will be the focus of the discussion. And this allows the time spent at the offsite session to be focused on debate and discussion, not on presentations.

This provides for the optimum utilization of the time the executive and Board Members commit to the offsite. In fact, the pre-offsite consultations and the report thereon allows the business meeting to commence with the attendees to be well along the way to being able to make concrete decisions. I typically state to attendees at the start of the business session that “they are already 80% of the way there!”

Reason #2

Agenda – Provides key insights that assist with setting the meeting agenda

Following the consultations, there is a deeper understanding of what meeting attendees truly think are important items for discussion on the topic at hand. Typically, I will meet with meeting organizers to help set the agenda after the consultations have been completed. The agenda will reflect both the needs of the meeting organizers and meeting attendees, as much as possible.

For instance, in several instances, the consultations revealed a need to discuss the topic of Board of Directors Roles and Responsibilities and, accordingly, this was added to the agenda or it became a sub-topic of another agenda item.

Sometimes the consultations have led to requesting the attendance of someone who was not on the original invite list for the meetings. This could be as either a participant or as a presenter of information relative to an issue that the attendees thought was of vital importance.

Another impact on the session that may arise is the need to include certain material in the pre-meeting package of materials sent to attendees.

For instance, on a recent engagement a number of people consulted brought up the issue of how the organization might best link activities to the goals outlined in The Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy – “The Ivany Report”. A copy of the Report was sent to meeting attendees and a discussion on this topic took place at the off-site meetings.

Reason #3

Non Attendees – Enables non-attendees to contribute effectively and to have their voice heard

Conducting pre-meeting consultations can, and often should, be expanded beyond the group of people that will be attending the sessions themselves.

Getting information from staff on the topics to be discussed at the offsite can be tremendously valuable. Depending on the size of the organization, obtaining input could be from all staff or from a representative sampling, most often through focus group sessions. Employees are well aware of when the leadership group goes offsite and they have a vested interest in the outcomes. Furthermore, if staff buy-in is important the ability for them to contribute their opinions in advance is very important. One client that I work with always provides an overview of the offsite proceedings and outcomes within weeks of the conclusion of the offsite meetings.

If the offsite are Departmental sessions, then it may be appropriate to solicit the input from the leadership team/executive of the organization. Two examples:

The Human Resources Department of a large organization was undertaking the development of an HR Strategy for the firm. In addition to consulting with the HR representatives prior to the sessions, one-on-one consultations were held with the CEO and all members of the executive team. The input of the executive provided their expectations surrounding the strategy. In addition, the CEO kicked off the two day working sessions and returned at the end to receive an overview of progress made.

The Finance Department of this organization was undertaking a review of the budgeting processes that were felt to be cumbersome and needlessly time consuming. In this case, input was again solicited from the executive team on their expectations of a revamped budget process and the resultant changes were on point ensuring a more effective and efficient process meeting everyone’s’ needs going forward.

Reason #4

Confidentiality – The value of “in confidence” consultations

Whenever I undertake pre-meeting one-on-one consultations, I always conduct them “in confidence”. If focus group sessions are held with employees, no attribution of who said what is made. The statement is made for both the consultations and group sessions that their collective voice will be presented at the offsite as “What We Heard”.

This provides the ability for participants, as well as non-participants, to truly speak their minds something that may well not be forthcoming at the offsite sessions themselves. Following the opening comment re confidentiality, I usually state “so please be candid” and people generally are.

It is critically important that no individual’s comments can be associated within the contents of “What We Heard”. They themselves can often see their voice but others cannot. This environment based on trust provides a solid base for the information presented at the commencement of the offsite and for the subsequent discussions and debate.

The value of this approach leads to a much more open and honest discussion at the offsite sessions on topics that are truly important to the individuals in attendance.

Reason #5

Short Meetings – Provides ability to have very effective short meetings

Undertaking the pre-meeting consultations creates the ability to have very effective short meetings that otherwise would have been much longer. The following two examples cover meetings that were 1.5 hours in duration that typically would have taken most of a full day. Each consultation took about half an hour. So each meeting participant spent 2 hours of their valuable time on critically important issues rather than a full 7 hour day

A university president wanted to have a “blue sky session” with the Board of Governors at an off-site location. However, only an hour and a half was available for this topic. Leading up to the offsite one on one consultations were held with most of the meeting attendees and the “What We Heard” presentation covered the broad spectrum of what they individually thought were important issues facing the university over the next few years. At the start of a short presentation, I stated that what you will see is the same as if we had spent the whole day together covering the walls up with flipchart paper. I went over all of the issues but was able to zero in on the collective views of what was really important. In the short time available we not only came to agreement on the goals and objectives for the next 5 years but also were able to outline the strategies required to achieve the desired results.

The CEO of a fledgling, complex organization with stakeholders representing both a wide geographic area as well as a variety of types of organizations wanted to have a session to get agreement on a Vision Statement and a Mission Statement starting from scratch! The meeting would have some 25 people in the room and another 5 on the phone. In this case, generic vision and mission templates were sent out in advance of the consultations to assist with information gathering. The “What We Heard” presentation covered the wide range of thoughts and views as well as three draft representative Vision and Mission Statements. By focusing on the draft statements we were able not only to collectively create final statements but also to garner formal approval thereof, as well. We went 10 minutes over but job done!

These are two great examples of how to efficiently and effectively accomplish full day tasks in a fraction of the time that would normally be spent by conducting pre-session one-on-one consultations.

Reason #6

Focus Shift – Sometimes results in a major shift in focus

The agenda for an off-site meeting is typically set following the completion of the consultations, as noted in Reason #2. The consultations impact the order of the agenda and often agenda items are added as a result of the information gathered during the consultation process. However, on occasion, the feedback from the consultations will result in a major shift change to the off-site agenda, an outlined in the following example.

A new CEO was hired into an organization that had a history of holding annual off-site planning meetings. The CEO asked me to facilitate this person’s first off-site session and the preliminary concept was to focus on the long term – a shared visioning exercise and the start of developing a new strategic plan. During the weeks leading up to the off-site I held one-on-one consultations with all meeting attendees as well as small group sessions with employees.

I still remember walking into the CEO’s office and making a timeout gesture with my hands. I stated that the input from the consultations revealed a situation wherein client due dates were being missed, often with significant rework required, resulting in a degree of client dissatisfaction and not surprisingly employee morale was at a low level. After a discussion of the situation the agenda of the off-site changed to focus on 1) client service; 2) employee satisfaction and training and 3) delivery processes.

The off-site was very successful – everyone rolled up their sleeves and the degree of discussion, debate and participation was extremely high and positive. A major output of the sessions was a detailed action plan broken down by the three topic areas. Within a week following the off-site there was an all employee meeting to go over the results of the planning meetings including an overview of the action plan.

A year later business processes had been revised significantly, rework was negligible, client satisfaction levels were rising substantially, as measured through a client consultation process, and employee morale was definitely on the upswing.

And the off-site planning session that year was focused on the long term – a shared visioning exercise and the start of developing a strategic plan.

Reason #7

Key Question – The value of one open ended question

One-on-one consultation questions are very focused on the topics to be covered during the planning sessions. Except for the open ended last question that provides the interviewee the opportunity to express his or her thoughts on anything that they feel is important. The question can be phrased various ways but I like to use “Anything else that we haven’t covered but you would like to mention?” or “If you could change one thing what would it be?”

Often the comments are very linked to the topics at hand and just as often there are comments made about general issues such as the need for more and better training, morale issues and need for more effective communication, etc. This information is included in the “What We Heard” presentation but the items are typically addressed subsequent to the off-site in a variety of ways.

On occasion, however, sometimes the issues arising from the open ended question are addressed at planning sessions, such as the example noted below.

The off-site meeting topic was strategic planning and the attendees included the Board of Directors and senior and selected staff members. Almost half of the interviewees commented in response to the open ended question that they felt that the Board was becoming too hands on and less of a governance Board. This was too important a topic not too be addressed so the agenda included a discussion of this topic and it was agreed that there had been some deviation from the roles as outlined in the Board mandate and remedial steps were undertaken to fix the problem right away.

It would be very unlikely that this issue would arise from the planning sessions themselves and so another reason to undertake the pre-meeting consultations including that Key Open Ended Question.

Reason #8

Facilitator Participation – Creates ability for facilitator to contribute (August 24)

One of the benefits of holding the pre meeting consultations is that the facilitator becomes very knowledgeable about the items to be discussed at the offsite sessions. This knowledge base is further enhanced if the facilitator has worked or been involved with the organization previously. The facilitator then brings an understanding of the culture and how things work at the client. This knowledge also can be enhanced by any professional qualifications that the facilitator may have.

In one particular assignment, the facilitator had been involved with the organization for over ten years. The input from the one-on-one consultations indicated that something was amiss. During the planning sessions the facilitator was able to probe a bit more into the perceived problem and as a result made several recommendations, not directly related to the topics of discussion during the meetings, to the client in the post meeting report. It was a bit of an “aha moment” and the recommendations were implemented.

In another example, the planning session was focused on improving a company’s budget processes. Having conducted the one-on-one consultations the facilitator was able to leverage his professional accounting designation and corporate experiences in this area both in setting the agenda and contributing to the discussion.

The ability to contribute to the discussion must be managed very carefully however. There is a need to balance active participation with facilitating the session to ensure that it truly remains the clients meeting.

I hope that you have found these insights to be useful and will help you to have more effective and efficient offsite planning sessions

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