Feb 16, 2012. By Keith Ferrazzi contributed to hbr.org
When I was the chief marketing officer at Deloitte & Touche, we would have our annual leadership off-site in Las Vegas or Orlando. I remember people practicing their presentations far into the night, and the next day we’d sit for hours in uncomfortable chairs in a huge room listening to our leadership talk about the future of the business. Looking back at those meetings, I have to wonder: Were they truly effective?
Today, I am convinced that videoconferencing and other virtual technologies give us a much better way to conduct strategic off-sites. I realize that numerous companies have held “virtual off-sites,” but typically for the wrong reason (saving money) and with the wrong goal (to replicate physical off-sites). One idea was to encourage spontaneous conversations by simulating a “virtual cocktail hour.”
Wrong! Replicating traditional physical off-sites results in a “poor man’s” version of the real thing, like online training courses that consist of nothing more than a video recording of an instructor followed by a test. Instead, companies need to be much smarter about how they conduct virtual off-sites. They need to leverage virtual capabilities that overcome the shortcomings of a physical setting and vastly improve the process. The result: A new type of off-site that is actually superior to traditional off-sites. Why? Because it elicits honest feedback, encourages candid pushback and, eventually, obtains true buy-in from the entire organization.
The Ferrazzi Greenlight Research Institute has interviewed dozens of people about this, and we’ve come up with a formula that works. Here’s what we found.
Let’s start by remembering why companies have strategic off-sites in the first place. The overall goal is to figure out the best strategy for a business, a process that can be broken into five major steps, each of which can be performed better in a virtual environment:
1. communicate strategy, direction, and issues of importance;
2. engage the broader organization for feedback;
3. finalize strategy and build consensus;
4. cascade strategy into the fabric of the company; and
5. motivate employees and build camaraderie.
Communicate: Different people absorb information in different ways. Some are very quantitative and prefer spreadsheets of raw data. Others are more visually oriented. In a virtual environment managers can communicate in multiple forms, utilizing everything from plain text to video and multimedia. Another advantage is greater inclusion: Managers can invite many more individuals to participate in the off-site because of the low cost of adding people. And unlike a traditional off-site, where a handful of executives must translate and relay important information to the field, everyone will hear the exact same story with the same urgency. We avoid the classic telephone game problem in which a message is repeatedly passed along and can easily lose power or accuracy until it bears little resemblance to the original.
Engage: In many traditional off-sites, executives ask for honest feedback but in a one-to-many format that serves mostly to push through their agendas and get everyone else to march in step. Participants suppress any pushback and offer subdued comments that result in a polite consensus, regardless of whether it actually exists. But what would be much more beneficial to the company is true, frank feedback, especially from those employees at the front lines. One of the beauties of a virtual off-site is that it can be conducted in separate sessions spaced out over weeks. This allows each business unit enough time to evaluate a proposal and respond with the unvarnished truth about any potential obstacles. Everyone can participate, and the top leadership will get a better feel for the real challenges from all angles and levels. Also, as good ideas bubble up, management will learn who the truly innovative and insightful employees are, even if they might be buried deep in the organization.
Finalize: After receiving honest and thoughtful feedback, executives have the rich communication channels they used before to respond with, “We heard you and here’s the input that we’re incorporating into our strategy; here’s what needs further investigation; and here’s what we’re rejecting and these are the reasons why.” Such transparency and candor as the strategy is being modified and finalized can go a long way in building true consensus for the final strategic initiative so that everyone will eventually be rowing in synch, stroke by stroke.
Cascade: Now comes the work of turning strategy into action, often left for after the off-site without sufficient attention given to it. But what if it’s instead performed before the virtual off-site’s conclusion? The goal is to cascade the strategy throughout the organization and encourage employees to brainstorm ways in which they could best contribute to that strategy. A contest could even reward the business unit that comes up with the best plan for implementation, turning the process into a friendly competition that engages employees and helps ensure their ownership of the new initiative.
Motivate: At the end of the contest, the company could host a celebratory banquet to recognize the winners with awards such as “Most Innovative” implementation plan. This could be the first time that participants meet physically instead of virtually and should receive high visibility to help motivate employees and build camaraderie, which then prepares the organization for the tough work of strategy execution.
Make no mistake: I am indeed calling for a major overhaul of strategic off-sites. The truth is that far too many traditional off-sites simply don’t work. They are well-orchestrated gatherings conducted mostly for show after important decisions have already been made by a small cadre of executives in backroom deals. It’s no wonder so many companies end up with “let’s do more of the same” strategies that lack innovative thinking and fail to muster enthusiastic support. To devise strategies that are based on keen insights and breakthrough ideas, companies need to open up the process, bringing in the entire organization. And the best way to do that is through the use of virtual technologies.