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Use Your Next Leadership Retreat to Manage the Future - Innovation Resource

Use Your Next Leadership Retreat to Manage the Future

Each year, thousands of top managers and board members head to the hills for an annual ritual: the strategic offsite retreat. The purpose of such meetings, of course, is to get away from it all and to strategize. To leave behind the distractions and quarterly pressures. To think big about the future.

All too often, that’s not what transpires.

Instead, the future gets drowned out by the present. Presentations expand to fill the time. Social events and the golf outing seem to always get their due. But the time for facilitated brainstorming and open-ended discussion gets quashed. Before you know it, time to go. Once again, the future has been put off.

Postponement is dangerous in a world that is changing ever-faster. In my work as a futurist and innovation expert, I see daily how industry disruption can break out at any time. Working across industries, I observe how it can be spawned by a new technology or regulation, by changes in customer buying behavior, or a new competitor entering the market. “We just didn’t see it coming” is not a valid excuse.

If you’ve been tasked with organizing the upcoming offsite corporate retreat, don’t let this happen on your watch.

Designed well, offsite leadership retreats can be transformational events for the organization. The best ones build trust among top team members and create greater buy-in and alignment around a common vision of the future. Defensively, they can alert the group to significant trends and market developments.

Use these seven guidelines to steer your next offsite retreat in a bold new direction:

  1. Use the offsite retreat to “future proof” your organization.

“Future-proofing” is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods that minimize the effects of being blindsided by change. One tool I sometimes use to help leaders future-proof their organizations is quite simple. Several weeks before the retreat, I’ll request that everyone come with a list of trends they are seeing: technological, regulatory, societal, workplace, etc. This gets their juices flowing in advance and alerts them to be ready to contribute to a different kind of offsite session.

Then, during facilitated open discussion periods, I’ll use a process such as dot voting to bubble up the most important emerging trends that are worthy of diving deeper. The payoff of this exercise is not trend identification, top people are bombarded with trends daily. Instead, it’s thinking through the significant trends and exploring what to do about or with each trend, that is important. When managers engage in exercises that cause them to wrestle with economic, consumer, lifestyle and technological trends, they often connect new dots and discover exciting ways that trends can fuel growth and competitive differentiation.


  1. Use the leadership retreat to identify new technology directions.

In 2009, Domino’s top team came to the realization that they had to leverage technology much better if they wanted to accelerate growth. The result was a renewed determination to employ digital technology to optimize every aspect of the business. Since then, Dominoes has recruited hundreds of tech-savvy engineers to be part of a special tiger team, which has created an app allowing easier ordering, conducted the first drone delivery in New Zealand, and is experimenting with driverless delivery.

This newfound tech push has allowed Dominoes to move ahead of arch-rivals Pizza Hut and Papa Johns, who are now struggling to catch up. No strategic plan is complete without a visionary technology component. Spark fresh thinking in this realm by posing such questions as: On balance, are we leading or lagging on technology? Where do we need to enhance or transform our technology strategy going forward? What customer problems do we need to take on? And how will this technology, if we adopt it, deliver greater value to our customers?

  1. Use the offsite meeting to challenge assumptions.

An assumption is a belief that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof to back it up. What was true five minutes ago, may no longer be the case. Assumptions left untested, become like barnacles on the side of a boat– they slow you down, or worse, cause you to miss out on market changes. Transformational retreats occur when executives and managers are invited to wonder anew about the assumptions they have long made about customers, markets, culture, the industry, etc. I ease teams into this mode of thinking gently by first presenting them with compelling future-focused content on how the world is changing. And then I invite them to engage in what I call “playing with the clay.” Assumptions come in three basic varieties: personal (“I’m not creative”); organizational (“that’s not the way we’ve always done it), and industry-specific (“the music industry sells albums”). In a time when today’s business model has a shorter and shorter shelf life, assaulting assumptions is critical and there’s no better time to do this than at a leadership retreat.

  1. Use the offsite meeting to tap creative imagination.

IBM did a study not long ago where they asked over a thousand senior managers to rate “what leadership competency do you need more than any other in your people today”? And the answer was creativity.  They called creativity the single most important leadership competency in a world that is more volatile, more uncertain, and more complex than ever before.”

My 30-year experience in the innovation field suggests that entire management teams often lack confidence that they can come up with bold ideas to meet their disruptive challenges, much less that they can bring them to life. Many in the managerial ranks got there by being super-competent in their functional arenas but are “fish out of water” when it comes to imagination, innovation, and vision.  The task of the facilitator is first to build up confidence that by tapping the group’s creative imagination, to instill the belief that we can solve any problem or issue that we’re facing.”

  1. Use the offsite retreat to disrupt your organization.

I’ll often flash a slide on the screen that is filled with the logos of fallen companies: Kodak, Blockbuster, Sears, Nokia, and others. After a pause, I’ll ask the group: “What’s the one thing these firms might wish they’d done more of?” Responses tend to coalesce around the need to look farther up the road. To make tough decisions sooner, and to unleash creative imagination. Of course, these are activities that every organization needs to do, yet few find the time. The retreat is a perfect time. Use it to look at your organization (and its products and services) from the vantage point of the outsider. Ask the group where they would begin to attack it. Where are we most vulnerable? What problems have we not solved for our customers that might cause them to flee to another provider? What alternate business model or value offering (less for less, more for more, same for less, etc.) might attract our customers away? Disrupting yourself in this way helps you make tough decisions sooner.

  1. Use your retreat to focus on innovation and white space opportunities.

If the rate of change outside your organization is faster than the rate of innovation inside your company, it’s time to take action. It’s time to figure out what needs accelerating. It’s time to shift from strategic planning (on an annual basis) to strategic thinking, which is ongoing, and needs to be part of the DNA. So-called “white space” opportunities are often assumed to be outside your organization’s walls. But another way of defining them is to see them as those that fall between divisions, where no business unit has clear jurisdiction. Use your retreat to open up the white space of new possibilities, to identify new markets, and new revenue streams from existing capabilities.

  1. Use the offsite meeting to take calculated risks.

So, if you’ve been tasked with organizing the retreat this year, why not shake things up a bit? No need to jettison all of the usual agenda. Instead, begin with the end in mind by envisioning the take-away from a successful retreat that has everyone energized and excited. Go through the agenda and condense, tighten up, and eliminate as needed, to make room for the future.

It’s often been said that none of us is as smart as all of us. But that’s true only if we can tap those smarts. Imagine what might happen if you look at your next leadership offsite meeting, not as a “gotta do” ritual, but as a rare opportunity to encourage yourself and your colleagues to look, think and act ahead of the curve.