Your strategy off-site can’t wait for the pandemic to be over.

Your strategy off-site can’t wait for the pandemic to be over. Here’s how to do it virtually, without allowing it to deteriorate into a webinar!

The good old days?

Ah the good old days of the corporate strategy offsite! The exotic locations, the open bar, the hungover eyes trying to take in what the consultant in the fancy suit is trying to share about “industry best practice”. Seems like a long time ago. Were they really that great?


This year the strategy off-site is even more crucial

This year there is an even more burning need for a high-impact strategic response to the way the world has changed. We need, more than ever, alignment on the priorities and overall strategic direction for the year. We, more urgently than ever, need to bring the team together to connect and engage around the way forward.


But how?

How do we create a compelling and inspirational strategy discussion in these times of social distancing, remote work and travel bans?

Having facilitated multiple, both fully virtual and hybrid strategy sessions over the last year, we have experienced the challenges and developed answers to some of these questions.

This is what I would like to share with you.


Getting it wrong.

Even before the pandemic, the (formal) return on investment of your typical consultant driven strategy session has always been low. The exorbitant cost of getting the whole (senior) team into one boardroom for two days or more just to listen, bleary eyed to a pre-prepared strategy deck presented by an all-knowing consultant, was never outweighed by the potential buy in & value created.

I put “formal” in brackets, because often the pay-off from these scripted events was in the breaks, the over-coffee and over-drinks discussions. Here team members at least had the possibility to network and really get to know colleagues more personally. Sadly this networking-effect has been one of the biggest casualties of a webinar strategy session.


The Strategy Webinar.

As the pandemic turned the world upside down we reached for the tools at hand – Zoom, if you were lucky – and Microsoft teams, if your IT Czar reigned supreme.

Faces around a table were replaced by faces on screen until folks got wind of just how boring these sessions were. Suddenly and ingeniously – as if in unison – everyone had “bandwidth problems” and the cameras were switched off.

That left a zombie gallery of initials on screen and freed up the passive “participants” in your strategy session to open some more windows on their desktop and get on with something more compelling like social media or on-line shopping.

The CEO, the consultant with the flashy slide-deck and a few of the CEO’s acolytes would interrupt each other and drop pearls of wisdom as the energy levels kept dropping.

The best way to ensure disengagement at such a crucial event s a strategy off-site is to turn your strategy “retreat” into a webinar.


Two lenses on strategy.

In one of his trademark canvasses Chris Rangen , StrategyTools founder, contrasts “Strategy as Analysis” – the traditional logical and analytical approach to strategy on the one hand with “Strategy as innovation ” on the other.

The difference is important, since the former relies on the brilliant analytical skills of a few – usually a consultant from a storied consulting house – to deliver brilliant industry insights that is then presented at a meeting.

Strategy as Innovation sees strategy as an emergent, creative and disruptive process which is facilitated rather than presented. Even before the advent of the virtual strategy session, the contrast was clear.

A strategy session facilitated in the Strategy as Innovation way looks different. Instead of a “sage on the stage” flipping through an animated PowerPoint presentation full of amazing insights.

The Strategy as Innovation approach consists of groups of leaders, pen in hand, grappling with the structured canvasses and templates provided by the facilitator and their brainpower and ability to raise and answer good questions is what allows for a great outcome.

It’s much harder work for the team, but since they have created the strategy collectively, the engagement and buy-in to implement is much more significant.


An important by-product of this kind of strategy process is that the team is respected, their insights, their views and their analysis drives the process, thereby not creating a dependency on the “sage on the stage”.

This difference is important, because it takes a lot more effort to make a Strategy as Innovation approach work in the virtual world. The “sage on the stage” can easily pivot to becoming the “sage on the webinar”.


The golden triangle of a successful virtual strategy session.

In the graphic accompanying this article I outline the 3 ingredients needed to have an energising and inspiring strategy session virtually:


The triangle:

  1. An approach to strategy that asks questions and calls for thinking rather than the absorption of pre-packaged content. (A.k.a A great set of strategy canvases)
  2. A virtual meeting room that allows for freedom of movement, networking, collaboration and creativity. (A.k.a A Virtual Conference Room)
  3. A shared collaborative workspace where participants can draw, post notes, upload images, complete canvasses and build something together (A virtual whiteboard)

And in the middle of the triangle:

  1. A facilitator that prepares, produces and facilitates thinking and creativity rather than try to be the brightest in the room. (A tech-fluent facilitator)


The solutions we have chosen for our Virtual or Hybrid Strategy offsite process:

There are quite a few similar tools which I will refer to in the description but this combination has worked well for me:

  1. Strategy Canvases from StrategyTools – a good start if you would like to facilitate in this way is the StrategyTools Global Coaches programme. There are many other great sources of canvasses and strategy dialogue processes. The wonderful work done by Alex Osterwalder and the Strategyser Team , is in some ways where it all started with the Business Model canvas and others. The good people at the Board of Innovation also have some great tools. The important part is to really know your toolset and select or create canvasses that would help participants think and create the future.
  2. The Virtual Conference Room from Remo has been one of my discoveries of 2020, to the extent that I became an affiliate. A big benefit of Remo is that it is a cloud solution & therefore less of a security risk than Zoom or other app based solutions. Yes I know that there has been some progress with Microsoft Teams (Still super clunky) and that where Zoom is allowed its a simple and intuitive tool. The main differentiator with Remo is that it allows for easy moving around tables (for a Knowledge Cafe or strategy review cycle) and during breaks participants can seek each other out freely and network. It’s a much more human experience! If you do use one of the first generation Video Conferencing platforms – use the breakout rooms liberally and insist on cameras on. And don’t expect too much energy in the “social events”.
  3. A Shared whiteboard. Where collaborative virtual whiteboards were seen as very advanced in the beginning of 2020, they are now stock in trade and the core workspace of a virtual facilitator. I have chosen to focus on Miro as my chosen platform, but Mural is one of many equally effective platforms. The virtual whiteboard has become the preparation workspace of the virtual facilitator and is where most of the investment in terms of time and energy goes in preparing for a great strategy retreat. One learning that all virtual facilitators share is that in the virtual space “you can’t wing it”! The facilitation process, working with teams preparing their areas of the process & the participants getting familiar with the tools all needs to happen on the whiteboard and it’s a much more labour intensive job than showing up and facilitating in person.


The role of the facilitator.

In this new world the facilitator has quite a few new roles & combining these into an integrated whole is at the heart of a successful session.

  1. The designer – Every strategy session requires a detail design with the activities, canvasses and process built into a whiteboard & significant work is often required up-front to help groups of participants to prepare their component of the programme.
  2. The tech support desk – There is often a very steep learning curve to get all participants comfortable with all the tools. Firewalls, security protocols, camera and microphone access, bandwidth & connectivity issues and event access are all issues to become good at solving. As a client, see your first virtual strategy off-site as an investment in the future remote skills of your team & make the time to get them comfortable with the tools.
  3. The producer – on the day your role is to manage the timing, flow, instructions, switch between table and plenary conversations and to keep the energy levels up in the room. Because there is none of the visceral energy that in-person participants bring, the facilitator needs to be much more energetic and present than would be required in a face to face session. (We find around 2.5 Hours to be optimal for a virtual session block and no more than 2 of these per day)
  4. The includer – The movement to virtual environments has exacerbated the challenges of diversity and inclusion in discussion forums and even more damagingly in strategy forums. The role of the facilitator to ensure not only the presence but the active participation of all is very important. Does the participant picture of your strategy off-site team reflect your customer base in terms of gender, age, demographics and ways of thinking? This is a core role of the facilitator to challenge the makeup of the team.
  5. The facilitator – this is the role least changed by the virtual era and remains a core capability of an effective facilitator. The biggest difference I have found in facilitating on-line has been that the virtual facilitator needs to work much more with the participant teams before the session & needs to be laser focused on energy levels and engagement. This is the main reason why we insist on cameras-on sessions.


A word on hybrid sessions.

As we move to remote work settling as a default way of operating – at least for a part of the team (see my earlier article on Who should go back to the office?) we see more and more requests for hybrid strategy-sessions. In this case with some team members in the room and some on-line.

This is a unique challenge, because there is almost always an advantage to being in the room over participating virtually.


Here are a few tips to address the challenges of hybrid sessions:

  1. Acknowledge the gradient in participation – folks participating virtually will mostly be at a disadvantage because they miss the side chats and general unspoken energy in the room. As the facilitator its your job to keep them updated and informed.
  2. Work hard on the tech side. – The quality of microphones and cameras in the room will have a huge impact on the virtual team’s participation – make sure they can hear and see everything & be obsessive about monitoring hands up, questions and chat from the virtual team.
  3. Create virtual “tables” in Remo we can create a hybrid room where the in-room participants are also at a table in cyberspace allowing free interaction between them and the virtual participants. Level the playing field towards the virtual participants, not the other way round.
  4. Use breaks to build connections. Keep the virtual participants engaged during breaks by ensuring they have something to eat and drink (sometimes we deliver the same packaged food to the virtual participants) and connect them to the break conversations with a roving mobile phone allowing them to informally chat as well.
  5. Bring them into the room. Get the folks on-line into the room on a giant screen and allow everyone – on-line or in person to participate using virtual polling and interaction tools like Mentimeter that use mobile devices and display everyone’s votes and comments in real time.

We need to have engaging and compelling strategic “meetings of the mind” now more than ever, but a webinar is not going to deliver the business and team outcomes you need right now.

I hope this golden triangle of tools and approaches help you to be more inspired for your next strategy session.

If you would like to reach out and explore some of these themes more fully, please don’t hesitate to send me a message and lets keep raising the bar on virtual strategy facilitation!


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