BY DAVID POINTON

David Pointon from FAST Meetings Co. looks at how a `vision conference’ trumps the old strategy ‘talk-fest’ by accelerating follow through and commitment to action.

Have you heard of a company holding a leadership retreat ‘love–in’? It is common for senior leaders to spend a day or two away planning the future direction of their organisation. But often staff see nothing tangible come out of it, and they assume the bosses spent their time doing group hugs and pep talks.
In fact, plans and strategies are often written down but these get lost in translation. Efforts to pass on the message and recreate the intention and energy of the offsite often fail to engage those who weren’t present. This diminishes the focus and ownership of the vision across the business and in turn, its implementation slows and falters. This ultimately costs organisations huge sums as their efforts to bring transformation fail to capitalise on commercial opportunities or harness the true value of their people.
Fortunately, there is a better way. A `vision conference’ is a large group strategy meeting involving senior leaders and a wider pool of stakeholders. On the surface it looks like a typical conference, with lots of people and big rooms. But the purpose is distinct: to generate a shared vision owned by everyone in the meeting so that they are ready and willing to help achieve it.
So how can a vision conference work for your organisation, and what can be done to reduce the risk that it is not just a bigger ‘love-in’?

1 leaders ready to listen

The pre-requisite for a vision conference is that your leadership group is composed of good listeners who can genuinely consult with other members of the organisation. Otherwise, efforts to engage people can backfire.
During day two of a 70-person vision conference with a client many years ago, trust and honesty were growing and some underlying cultural tensions were being thoughtfully expressed. But at a pivotal moment, the GM interrupted a staff member with “I can’t see why people are being so negative. We’re here to be positive so let’s just look at solutions.”
The energy dropped instantly, and later feedback revealed that staff felt their leaders were unwilling to listen and take on honest feedback.
One of the reasons vision conferences can seem risky is because of the perception that negative attitudes or feedback can take over. However, constructive feedback can play an instrumental role in a company’s vision to change or improve. If leaders are up for it, they can be coached beforehand about the significance of their behaviour in fostering widespread ownership, as vision conferences can be a catalyst for cultural change.

2 strategic questions

Each organisation has its unique circumstances and no two vision conferences are the same. Through careful planning and close consultation, it is possible to identify the central strategic questions that when answered will create the direction and transformation being sought.
During a 400-person vision conference with a client, each of the three days was framed around a “What If” question; firstly to challenge the status quo, then to identify the organisation’s strengths, and finally to define the vision and priorities.
A multi-stakeholder vision conference for an industry sector peak body began by asking “What are the key gaps and leverage points in the system in which we work?”, and then moved to “What unique role can we play, and what primary goal can we achieve to seize these opportunities?”
Planning the right questions to fulfil the purpose ensures that dialogue will be engaging and relevant for all participants and deliver the desired outcomes.

3 structured group process

A vision conference needs to be planned as a journey with a structured approach to engage people, draw out ideas at each step along the way, and culminate in agreed-upon outcomes and actions.
The FAST structure is one proven framework for good conferences:
The focus stage ensures everyone is engaged as an active contributor in something they can all relate to;
The awareness stage involves large group methods to facilitate meaningful dialogue about strategic questions, with the ideas generated feeding subsequent conversations;
The Solution stage guides decision-making and alignment to occur at the right time;
And the Traction stage sees the big-picture vision translated into concrete language and practical priorities that people can own.
in summary
To address the missing link from leadership retreat to implementation, a vision conference can help you forge a shared view of direction and priorities that can then be implemented in accelerated time frames due to the large number of people who have ownership through their involvement.

David Pointon is the managing director of FAST Meetings Co., an Australian based organisation which plans and facilitates vision conferences for organisations and industry sectors. To learn more about FAST Meetings visit www.fastmeetings.com.au