How to make your strategy away day pay

Alex Bone is Director of Communication & Membership at UCLan Students’ Union

I don’t know about you, but I’m about to start a round of January away days. officer reflection days, managers’ planning days and Board strategy implementation days.

Mornings of too much caffeine and afternoons staring at uneaten bowls of fruit wondering when the extra biscuits arrive.

Fingers crossed away days this year are face-face – I sometimes find Jam Boards can put you in a jam when you’re trying to facilitate strategy conversations. Most of these away days are six months on from summer planning sessions and many will help prioritise activity ahead of block grant applications. In our case we’re also one year into a new strategy, so it’s a chance to review and reflect.

If you already have a strategy in place, away days can ensure you’re implementing the strategy and that it’s still relevant. As Peter Drucker says, “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” (You can’t write an article on strategy without quoting Drucker, I think it’s a rule somewhere).

Following a break-out session on strategy at the NUS Strategic Conversation event in November, I put together some slides that covered some principles on implementing strategy. The annual away days plays a part in this, and I’ve picked out some of these principles to cover in this article.

We all know too often new strategies can gather dust once completed – it might be due to everyone being exhausted having compiled them. Like switching your brain on after the Christmas break, it’s hard work.

So the following principles are meant to make it a little easier. To clarify, these principles are based on an SU already having a strategy in place, so you’ve already made some broad decisions on what you will, or will not be, focused on. It may be 1 or 3 years old, but if the strategy is still relevant and right, then you can still adopt these principles.

Ask the right questions in the right order

It’s an away day so the flipchart and post-it notes will make an appearance early on. However, there’s no point moving straight into ideas (or “ideation” if you’re fluent in strategy speak) and budget allocation. You should work through the key questions in the right order:

  • Are you clear what your SU wants to achieve in the next year?
  • Are you confident about the biggest challenge that may stop you from achieving these?
  • Are you able to come up with ideas to solve these challenges?
  • How can these ideas be turned into project plans to test out and what resources are needed?

Framing ideas as solutions to challenges allows you to have a clear path from resource decision back to your annual goal.

Focus on less to do more

Your planning is likely to be wide ranging and if you’ve locked many of your staff in a room for a whole day, it can be tempting to ensure lots of outputs are produced. However, it’s best to ensure you leave with fewer ideas/projects, but ensure they fall into these categories:

  • We have the budget, knowledge, and resources to allow us to deliver this (We Can)
  • Our staff are excited and interested in doing this (We will)
  • We believe we can make progress and can demonstrate impact to students (We Should)

This can also lead you to ask a key strategic question: “What would Goldilocks do?”

When executing strategy, you can do some things very quickly and others are just too complicated to ever get to grips with. If you hold your Away Day in January and by February you’ve ticked off everything on your list, likely you’ve not stretched yourself enough (too cold).

Alternatively, if you have complicated, challenging deliverables with limited skill or appetite internally, then these will be harder to achieve (too hot). The desirable outcome is the “tasty middle” – tough objectives, but with careful thought and a plan, progress can be made (not too hot and not too cold).

Bring it alive for staff

Sometimes staff can comment that strategy gets in the way of the day-to-day tasks. Either this means the day-to-day is not connected to the overall strategy or they probably shouldn’t be doing those tasks. Writing in a glossy document or spending 30 minutes at all-staff briefing session isn’t enough to share away day outputs.

Making it relevant for staff will depend on the culture of your SU, but it is likely to include the following:

  • Language: Can you adopt common phrases, shared terminology, and familiar references to merge away day outputs in the day-to-day for staff. Don’t make it too conceptual or metaphorical.
  • Leadership: Ensure directors and managers reference away day outputs regularly in meetings. It’s important they are leading on deliverables for all staff to see.
  • Listening: What are staff saying about the implementation. If changes need to be made, are staff confident about making suggestions. What are the mechanisms in place to allow them to provide feedback?

Get going and keep going

Once you’re finished the away day, flipchart paper can stay folded-up for too long. Having key milestones in place will help ensure you remain on track.

  • 10 days in: Make sure your managers and teams start implementing outputs within two working weeks. Early momentum will help set these as priorities for staff.
  • 30 days in: At the end of each month bring the management team together to review progress on the plan and what needs moving and updating.
  • 90 days in: Each quarter meet to review the success, outcomes, and impacts. This will make it easier to gather information ahead of any annual impact reports being written.

After completing an away day, you may believe all the hard work has been completed. It can be tempting to think outputs sort themselves out. In truth ensuring outputs occur takes planning and energy. If this means you need to ensure all staff have regular access to biscuits and uneaten fruit for this to happen, then that’s OK too.

The hard work of strategy implementation following an away day can seem intimidating, but consider these principles to make the first step easier. As the architect Alejandro Aravena said, “such vast projects must, in the end, have a simple start.”

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