How to run a successful, human-centered designed, strategy retreat


Being in the professional services industry, I think we, as consultants, often forget to practice what we preach. Practicing our methodology on ourselves helps us not only validate our methods (or work out the kinks) but also it helps build deep empathy for our clients. And since we are in the business of human-centered design, and empathy building, this is crucial. But really all firms, design thinking focused or not, should be using their methodology. That’s how we understand first-hand why ideation sessions can be invigorating and draining all at the same time, or what it is like to be in an all-day, facilitated, interactive workshop that will serve to shape your future.

Recently we had an opportunity to use our facilitation, strategy and ideation skills in action. We had our annual strategy retreat a few weeks ago. Often, strategy retreats focus more on building consensus and making decisions; Peer Insight’s twist is to instead have divergent thinking, generate possibilities, and assess where interest levels and energy areas are for the year ahead. Then have the leadership team make sense of the data and create a draft strategy prototype.

During our day-long retreat we had 4 simple, facilitated activities that were thoughtfully led by our CEO, Clay Maxwell.

Gratitude: Before we dove into the agenda, we started our day with the practice of gratitude. This is a chance for folks to acknowledge someone or something that has happened, a positive moment to be noticed.

This is a powerful way to enter a meeting, it starts us off with the right tone. We start all of our meetings with this ritual, regardless of it being internal or external.  

Clay, starting off the retreat with gratitude

Clay, starting off the retreat with gratitude

Culture Check: Next on the agenda, we reviewed and reflected upon our seven guiding principles and discussed if they still encapsulate the way we want to show up in the world. Being able to have this conversation allows everyone to have a voice and not feel as though the strategy and firm’s direction is fully baked without room to adapt and evolve. We can all take ownership over Peer Insight’s direction by having this open conversation.  

Natalie, discussing our guiding principles

Natalie, discussing our guiding principles

Year-in-Review Gallery Walk: Our tried and true technique of “gallery walking” is the way we like to share information. By putting artifacts throughout the room, individuals can walk at their own pace (as if at an art gallery) and absorb and internally process the information they see on the walls.

Armed with a pack of Post-It Notes and a Sharpie, we walked around the room and looked at the artifacts on the walls (which included our client portfolio, activities within the firm, roles and responsibilities, etc.), and wrote and shared our reflections, findings and questions. We had a strategic, group conversation about where we have been in the last year and what patterns emerged from our artifacts.

The Peer Insight team sharing opportunity statements

The Peer Insight team sharing opportunity statements

What-if Statements & Goals: Lastly we tackled some of our big strategic questions for the near-term future to help stretch our thinking and push the boundaries of possibilities. For example, we explored questions like “what if we reached 50 employees?” or “what if we had a second office?” by discussing these meaty questions we were able to generate hypothesizes and assumptions that allowed us to think about what would have to be true to make these successful endeavors.

After conducting a share-out of these exploration areas, we flowed into the last activity of the day: setting personal and firm goals. One by one, we shared our goals for the firm and ourselves in the coming year. What was interesting was seeing so much natural alignment from individuals in these goal areas. These “goal areas” will serve as a source of goal setting for the next phase of our 2017 strategy planning.

Oh, and did I mention that we didn’t even use PowerPoint, not even once throughout the day? There is so much you can do with pen, paper and your brains. This low-tech method of conducting a strategy retreat elicited great ideas and possibilities, team discussion and individual reflection.

I invite you to use and adopt some of our innovation techniques and methods into your own strategy planning practice.

Please share at @jilliank_brown if you have additional ideas that have worked in your own strategy setting meetings. 

Jillian Brown