Looking to the past only goes so far in preparing for the future. Some firms conduct an annual "retreat," but I believe this label is counterintuitive to progress. It does not further the idea of visionary, insight-led planning. Instead, I recommend conducting a firm "summit," during which an honest, free flow of ideas can help catapult your business ahead of its competition.

The purpose of a summit is to gather leaders and staff, along with outside expertise, to devise strategies that improve the firm. Most firms spend too little time working on the firm and too much time working in the firm. In many firms, everyone thinks they are in charge but are too busy to lead - so little happens that benefits the firm.

Many firms place the same people in a room year after year and wonder why little progress occurs. You can't expect revolutionary results if this is your firm's formula. Nothing significant will happen unless you revise this format and create some excitement. Break out of the CPA mold!

The following ideas can dramatically improve the potential for your firm to realize worthwhile results.

* Select a relaxing venue away from the office. Trying to plan at the office is troublesome because there are too many interruptions, and participants have difficulty focusing on strategic thinking. It's hard to consider new ideas and change unless people are in a location away from the daily routine. An out-of-town destination (preferably with leisure activities) is the best alternative. Some unconventional venues that firms have used are sailboats, ski lodges and local sports arenas.

* Encourage everyone to participate. Participation by managers and staff ensures buy-in and helps develop new leaders. Welcome and encourage new ideas. Make the planning process inclusive, rather than exclusive. While expenses are a valid concern, look for group discounts and spend time negotiating the best possible price. Off-season rates make many venues easily affordable.

* Utilize a professional facilitator. Facilitating your own summit is problematic at best. It requires a key member of the team to focus on the process, rather than ideas, and there is nobody to offer a truly objective viewpoint. An outside facilitator solves these dilemmas and helps keep participants focused on the agenda and establishing an action-oriented plan. Inviting a professional facilitator also ensures that the summit will happen as scheduled.

* Start the summit with a positive focus. Instead of jumping into the agenda, ask participants to reflect on the positive outcomes at the firm during the past year. Why were these outcomes important, and what (if any) follow-up action should be taken as a result? Encourage gratitude and celebrate the firm's successes. This exercise increases the confidence of participants and starts the meeting on a high note.

* Work from an agenda and stay on time.Don't surprise participants. Solicit agenda items in advance and distribute an agenda with meeting materials. Do homework on the agenda prior to the meeting. Maintain a strategic focus and stay on time.

* Avoid numbers - stick to concepts. Accountants get caught up in numbers too easily. They prefer to focus on tactical, rather than strategic, issues. Force participants to think in terms of the "big picture." Avoid restraints such as budget and time (at least at the beginning of your discussion). It pays to dream. You will find the time and budget for great ideas and strategies, and the chances of identifying them are diminished if you start with the premise, "We can't afford that."

* Keep minutes and share them with the firm. Minutes not only document the process, but also help ensure that the team and individuals are accountable to make the plan happen. They can help resolve potential conflicts and keep participants focused. Minutes also serve as a marker for the firm to track its progress in the years to come.

* Think strategy, rather than tactics. Remind participants at the outset (and even a few days before the meeting) to offer strategic viewpoints and avoid getting stuck in tactical debates. A clear and concise agenda will help steer discussions away from tactical concerns. An experienced external facilitator is a key component in focusing the firm on strategy, rather than tactics.

* Take breaks of 10-15 minutes every hour. Most people and organizations avoid strategic planning because it is hard work. People need time to move around and interact in an informal manner. A good rule is to work for 45 minutes and break for 15. Frequent breaks also help participants avoid getting caught up in non-essential details.

* Include social activities. These help break up the monotony of sitting in a room all day. Assign a social chairperson to plan events that encourage light-hearted interaction. Team activities such as scramble golf are not only fun but also allow those with fewer skills to participate and still enjoy the event.

* Invite experts, or even clients. Outsiders bring a fresh perspective and command respect from team members. Some firms even invite clients. Outsiders may not have all the answers, but they can offer unique opinions and ask relevant questions.

* Assign task forces to follow-up. Someone must follow up on decisions and commit resources to priority projects. They should be in charge and held accountable. Establishing due dates ensures that projects are completed on time. Allow those responsible an opportunity to agree upon due dates. Administrative personnel tend to accept too much responsibility. Learn how to delegate!

* Conclude the summit with a brief statement from all participants. People who attend the same meeting often leave with different perceptions of the results. Take a few minutes at the end of the summit to allow all participants an opportunity to voice their perspectives. Ask them to cite the most valuable components of the meeting and suggest changes that would benefit future summits.

A firm summit can be fun and productive. Careful planning, objective facilitation and a great location are critical pieces of the process. Invite an outside facilitator, especially if no one in your firm possesses that ability. In addition, appoint a social chair and provide a reasonable budget for activities and events.

Don't wait. Schedule your firm's summit today!

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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