Originally published: Harvard Business Review

How many times have you walked out of a theoretically important strategy meeting—a leadership offsite, a C-suite pow-wow, a sit-down with the board—thinking, That was a great discussion, but I’m not sure we really accomplished anything? More often than not, the problem lies not in what did or didn’t happen at the meeting itself. You didn’t get anything done because the goals for the meeting were never firmly established in the first place.

We see this happen all the time when clients hire us to help manage offsite meetings. Often, they start by handing us a pretty well developed (and usually packed) agenda, full of already-booked speakers, and a finalized list of confirmed attendees. Beyond logistics, the actual substance of the offsite is nearly set. But then we always ask the meeting owner—the most senior executive hosting it—the same two questions:

What do you want to have debated, decided, or discovered at the end of this session that you and the team haven’t already debated, decided, or discovered?

What do you want attendees to say when their team members ask, “What happened at the big strategy meeting?”

In almost every case, the response is the same: “That’s a good question—I hadn’t actually thought about those things.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s an eight-person board meeting, a 15-person executive team strategy meeting, or a 150-person leadership conference—your first step when planning an important one-off or non-routine get-together should be to draft an initial set of goals based on the answers to the two questions above. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.” These objectives are not the activities you will be engaged in or the time slots on the agenda. They are more high level: your desired outcomes for the offsite meeting.

The list needn’t be very long or complicated. As a starting point, three-to-five short bullets or sentences that articulate what you want to accomplish is more than enough.

But this process may take some time. The meeting owner might go through two to three iterations before he or she has a straw-model set of objectives ready to be tested with other key meeting stakeholders, who should then be asked to review the list and identify any missing or unnecessary goals. Once everyone is aligned, agree and communicate to all other attendees that these objectives are locked in. This helps keep the agenda focused and gives the meeting owner cover if someone asks to add an unrelated presentation or discussion at the last minute.

Here are some example objectives from different types of meetings we’ve run recently:

Board meeting:

  • Provide Board input as Management formulates the new five-year strategy
    • Agree on how much runway remains on the current core strategy
    • Identify new strategies to potentially pursue
  • Finalize the operating model for strategic governance
    • Annual strategic planning process
    • Long-term (five+ year) strategic oversight
  • Agree on the topics and timing for additional Board input into the current planning cycle

Executive team meeting:

  • Develop a list of growth opportunities for the team to further assess
  • Begin to define select growth opportunities, including the future state description for each and potential measures of success
  • Confirm the accountable executive and team leader for each opportunity
  • Understand the timeline and activities over the next three months

Leadership conference :

  • Establish the purpose and positioning of the Extended Leadership Team
  • Impart a meaningful understanding of the company’s vision, mission, and strategy, including top priorities for the next three years
  • Understand priority issues surfaced by attendees and develop potential solutions
  • Align around next steps

Your list of objectives must also drive important decisions about aspects of the meeting:

Agenda. Draft an agenda and map each activity to your stated goals. Do all of them help you achieve one or more of your objectives? Are there any objectives that can’t be achieved through what you have planned?

Attendees . The number and identity of attendees should be based on the scope and objectives of the meeting. For example, if you need to make decisions, we recommend a smaller group. If your aim is to generate ideas or achieve broad organizational buy-in for an initiative, you should invite a larger group.

Pre-reads. Don’t overload people with voluminous meeting pre-reads full of assorted plans, reports and studies that aren’t directly related to your objectives. Instead use your list to organize, filter and focus the content you send in advance.

Location. The location of your meeting should reflect its objectives too. For example, if your goals focus on a specific region, go there. If an explicit objective is for participants to get to know each other better, make sure you pick a venue designed for socializing.

When you set out and share your objectives in this way, it ensures that everyone is “coming to the same meeting.” Attendees will be energized and ready to accomplish those goals.

For more information about Strategic Offsites Group’s approach to strategy meetings, visit the Strategy Development Page or contact us.