As a strategic PR firm, regular client meetings are our bread and butter. This is where we discuss current work, share our results, and go over all the minutia that exists in between. But in order for that work to be truly effective, we like to sit down with our clients for an extended planning session to discuss objectives, set our strategy, and then map out how we’re going to get there.

In the past few months I’ve had the chance to participate in several strategic planning meetings with clients. Each one took a different approach, but brought value in different ways. From these and previous meetings, I’ve come up with a list guiding principles to help make sure your next strategic planning meeting is worth the time of those participating.

  • Find a Facilitator: The agenda has been created. The location reserved. The flights and hotel rooms are booked. The day of the planning session has arrived. How do you make sure the meetings are a success? You need a dedicated meeting facilitator – someone who will guide the group through the agenda and who can find the perfect balance of when to allow tangents or extended dialog and when to push forward. Some organizations are lucky enough to have someone within who has this skill set. If not, consider looking to a third party.
  • Location, Location, Location: Not just a mantra in marketing, but also a key consideration for a planning meeting, finding a location that is conducive to keeping everyone focused and fostering good collaboration can make or break your meeting. To help avoid distractions, try for a location that is offsite. It may not be possible to completely avoid distracting phone calls, emails, and texts, but the more you can unplug, the greater the chance of making real progress.
  • Leave Devices at the Door: On a similar note, come up with a policy that keeps everyone connected to work and home, but also ensures undivided attention to the strategy development at hand. You could require leaving phones, tablets and laptops at the door, but have several breaks throughout the day for checking them or have specific device-free sessions; the point is gaining and keeping everyone’s attention.
  • Invite the Boss:  Often in larger organizations, teams tend to have less interaction with the boss. A strategic planning meeting is the perfect opportunity to have extended time with upper management to better understand organizational goals and expectations.
  • Involve Other Groups: Depending on the specific goal of your planning meeting, involving representatives from other functions of your company can often lead to new ideas and perspectives. If you are on the product team, think about extending an offer to the folks in finance, operations, HR, customer support, or IT.
  • Agree to Disagree: There is always the possibility of disagreement, especially when gathering people who are passionate about what they do.  Avoid group think and remember that everyone has a different perspective. While this is the kind of strategic discussion for which the meeting was created, it is never productive to fight. The facilitator should know going into the session if there are any potential conflicts and navigate them accordingly.
  • Make Time for Downtime: Meeting for 8+ hours a day can be physically and mentally exhausting, especially if it is a multi-day affair. A good rule of thumb is to try and take a 10-15 minute break at least once every 2 hours. This lets people stretch their legs, re-caffeinate, or check email. If group meals are built into the session, be sure to give everyone 1-2 hours after the meetings are done for some downtime to decompress. And try to get out of the meeting room for meals, walks, or other activities.
  • Next Steps: Everyone’s time is valuable, and in order to realize value from a strategic planning session, there needs to be well documented next steps and owners who are responsible. Depending on the aim of the meeting, there could be many smaller tasks spread out over the next several months, or 2-3 big picture objectives. Whatever it is, make sure the outcome of the meeting is well documented.