Strategy workshops – rally the troops

Strategy remains a primary concern of senior management. Indeed, some would
say the primary concern. But as business becomes ever more competitive, and
growth more elusive, finding the time and space for strategic reflection is
increasingly hard. So how do companies engage in strategic thinking?

The answer for a growing number of organisations is strategy workshops.
According to research funded by the UK’s Advanced Institute for Management
Research (AIM), almost 80% of UK organisations host strategy workshops at
regular intervals.

The study of more than 1,300 executives, carried out in collaboration with
Saïd Business School, the University of Southampton and the Chartered Management
Institute, found that nearly half (46%) said their organisations had held
strategy workshops at least once every 12 months and almost 80% claimed to have
held workshops at regular intervals. The overwhelming majority of workshops were
up to two days’ long (90%), held off-site (73%) and led by senior directors

These workshops ­ or corporate away days as they are sometimes known ­
typically involve taking a group of senior managers away from their normal
working environment to a conference centre or a country hotel, to focus on the
major issues facing the organisation. Often they involve outside experts ­
typically business academics or consultants ­ who provide alternative
perspectives and facilitate the discussion.

It does make sense. Strategy creation, after all, is a combination of the
analytical, the creative and the social. Yet, there are problems.

While most managers reported that workshops helped clarify strategy, there
were some serious reservations about their outcomes. Indeed, many managers
surveyed said that ‘away days’ fell short of expectations: one in 10 said the
workshop they last attended failed to meet its objectives and over 40% reported
either no or a negative impact on measurable outcomes including productivity,
profitability and innovation.

The survey also showed little evidence of rigorous analysis of strategic
issues. Of those organisations that do, SWOT (strengths weaknesses opportunities
and threats) is by far the most common technique used, with few other strategy
analysis tools employed. But there is little prior preparation for the workshops
by those attending.

It was also clear that workshops were largely the province of senior
few organisations involved lower level managers and other potentially
significant stakeholders. The picture that emerges is that such events may be
useful for
debating strategy at the top of organisations but may not always translate into
actionable, measurable outcomes.

It is fair to suggest that the same would not be true for other events. If a
group of sales representatives have a conference, senior managers would expect
sales to improve or, at least, for there to be a coherent means of monitoring
outcomes. Yet the same rigour does not seem to apply to senior managers’
strategy workshops, as evidenced by the limited impact on the bottom line and
other key indicators of organisational success.

Despite this lack of measurement, the investment in strategy workshops is far
from insignificant. The overall cost depends on where they are held, the length
of time they take, the amount of pre-preparation, the use of consultants and the
level of managers involved.

Nonetheless, according to estimates, the cost of a strategy workshop
typically ranges between £10,000 and £50,000. And it’s not uncommon for some
organisations ­ especially larger ones ­ to hold a series of four or more
workshops on the same theme.

So organisations are clearly investing considerable time and resources in
strategy workshops as a means of challenging and developing their strategies and
with this comes high expectations. But, given the reservations indicated by the
research, some key issues need to be addressed if they are going to get better
value from the process.

Overall, it is clear that strategy workshops are a very common managerial
practice that is little understood. The AIM research, which is at an early
stage, suggests a series of questions that need to be addressed and sets the
scene for greater understanding of whether or how strategy workshops really make
a difference.

Research in strategy development has examined the extent to which strategies
are ‘ carefully planned and designed, or emerge from the political and cultural
processes of the organisation.

Strategy workshops seem to be forums in which both aspects of strategy
development are in evidence; there are elements of design but drawing heavily on
managerial experience within a social setting. Potentially, this could be a very
effective strategy development forum, but there appear to be a number of
critical issues.

There is a danger that workshops become an end in themselves, a top
management ritual disengaged from the operations of the organisation. Clearly,
there is an element of ritual to these events, but it is important to understand
the behaviours required to go beyond the ritualistic, to achieve positive
outcomes for the participants and the wider organisation.

Designing more effective workshops must depend on a clear idea of their
purpose. For instance, an event with the aim of fostering internal communication
of the board’s current strategic thinking ­- to communicate strategy -­ is
different from one where the object of the exercise is to reconsider or
challenge existing strategy or generate new ideas and solutions ­to create

The research suggest that the latter purposes are the primary raison d’être
for workshops, with 47% and 46% of the sample respectively citing these

These different events are likely to require a mix of activities and
processes to be effective. There is a need to understand more about the tools
used and how they are used in workshops with different purposes. What makes for
effective debate in such events? What means are most effective to challenge
existing strategy and identify key strategic issues? What form of facilitation
works best?

And who should attend events given their different purposes?

The major challenge that emerges, however, is how to translate the activities
within the workshops to improved performance. It is likely that at least as much
attention needs to be paid to how this potential gap can be bridged as to the
design of the workshop itself. As yet, little is known about what makes for
effective bridging.

It is also possible that the extent of the removal of such workshops from
day-to-day operations itself contributes to the problem. The issue of attendance
is likely to be important here, too. If the debates in workshops are not being
translated into actionable outcomes, is there a problem of achieving the
required buy in of those responsible for implementation by virtue of excluding
them from the process in
many cases?

Strategy researchers have spent decades examining which strategies seem to
best, or how strategic planning might be better done. It is now known that a
good deal of strategy debate is centred on strategy workshops. The next stage
must be to tackle the questions raised here to understand how such events can
become more effective.

Professor Gerard P Hodgkinson and Professor Gerry Johnson are senior
of the Advanced Institute for Management Research and authors of the report. A
PDF of the research can be downloaded at:

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