11 top tips for facilitating strategic planning sessions

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
March 8, 2024
An image of a group of four people in a lively discussion around a desk in an office setting
11 top tips for facilitating strategic planning sessions
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
March 8, 2024

Strategy can no longer be an analytical decision-making process that takes place behind closed doors, involving just a few individuals. Today, it demands creativity and broad participation.

The way forward involves innovative approaches and inclusive participation. That’s why we’re taking a deep dive into these issues with a few of our own expert voices:

  • Jim Kalbach, Chief Evangelist at Mural
  • Katie Scheuer, Sr. Consultant at Mural
  • Farrah Buhaza, Sr. Professional Services Consultant at Mural

Each brings a unique perspective — from using creativity and participatory approaches to employing advanced digital tools and fostering engaging environments.

The discussion helps reveal the nuances of facilitating successful strategic planning sessions in this fast-paced, interconnected world. You’ll discover how to shift strategy from an analytic process to a creative, inclusive journey, adapting to the complexities of remote and distributed work environments.

1. Use creative methods to structure the strategic session

"In today's hyper-competitive and global world, strategy has become more of a creative exercise."‌ - Jim

Creative methods level the playing field, enabling all participants to contribute equally and more freely.

“Here's the thing: Particularly with strategy sessions, there might be many loud voices — people who dominate the conversation,” Jim says. “If you just go in with a blank piece of paper and say, hey, we're going to discuss this, what tends to happen is the discussion tends to center on just a few people in the group. If you have exercises, everybody can participate.”

Jim advocates for structuring strategic sessions using creative methods, emphasizing the shift from traditional analysis to a more dynamic, participatory approach. "It doesn't just have to be bullet points and reading of data," he says, proposing brainstorming, dot voting, and clustering as techniques to enliven the process. 

Plus, the State of Meetings report from Mentimeter reveals that 46% of Gen Z leaders are introverts, often distracted by texting (42.7%) or checking social media (44.6%) during meetings. To encourage engagement, 62% of respondents suggested integrating non-verbal (47%) or anonymous (45%) participation methods. This data underscores the need for creative, inclusive methods in strategic planning sessions, catering to the diverse communication styles of participants, especially among younger generations.

Use icebreakers and participatory methods: Kicking off a meeting with an icebreaker, or building brainstorming sessions and clustering exercises into your meetings encourages participation from the get-go.

Related: 5 actionable tips to improve meeting engagement

2. Ensure clarity and alignment to maximize productivity

A clear and focused agenda sets a definitive course for the session, minimizing confusion and maximizing productivity. It makes sure that every participant understands what'll be discussed and the purpose behind each topic.

"Make sure that you're very clear on the agenda for the session. . . and also that all your participants are included in the know and are very aware of it," Farrah advises. 

Implementing a structured agenda with clear objectives can transform a potentially meandering meeting into a focused strategy session. This approach is especially critical in complex projects or when diverse teams are involved.

"Make sure that the topics you're covering are relevant and that people understand the why of each section," she says. This is crucial to making sure that participants see the value in each discussion point and how it ties into the larger objectives of the organization.

“Having that alignment up front is really important." - Farrah

Share the agenda with all participants well in advance of the strategy meeting. Encourage team members to review the agenda, prepare their inputs, and come with a clear understanding of their role in the meeting. This preparation provides that strategic planning sessions lead to desired outcomes. 

Lean on your tools: Katie recommends embracing technology, like AI, to pre-populate ideas and streamline the strategic planning process.

3. Use visual tools for simultaneous and inclusive participation

Visual tools like digital whiteboards allow simultaneous contributions, breaking the bottleneck of one-by-one conversations.

"Visualization isn't just about color, pictures, and frameworks — it's also about ensuring that everybody can express themselves in different ways." - Jim

Jim champions using visual tools in strategic planning sessions, advocating a shift from traditional verbal discussions to more inclusive, engaging formats.

"If you throw in a visual platform like Mural, everybody can talk at the same time," he explains. 

This method transcends the limitations of traditional verbal-only sessions by offering multiple means of expression. And data from Mentimeter backs this up. Approximately 62% of participants believe that various engagement options in meetings, such as the ability to like, comment, react, and participate in polls, would significantly enhance their productivity.

P.S. As an online platform with digital whiteboarding capabilities, Mural offers a range of features that cater to various needs, from brainstorming and strategizing to planning and problem-solving. With its Facilitation Superpowers®, a collection of tools designed specifically for guiding and managing sessions, Mural stands out as an excellent choice for facilitators looking to enhance engagement and productivity.

Using Mural's free planning templates, teams can engage in activities ranging from daily stand-ups to complex quarterly business reviews, making every aspect of collaboration visually accessible and interactive.

4. Time your sessions but leave room for organic discussions

The art of a successful strategic planning session lies in its delicate balance: meticulously structuring time while nurturing human connections

As Farrah says, "It's about having a structure, having it time-bound but also allowing for a bit of flexibility." This approach is akin to a thoughtful conversation — planned yet open to the natural dynamics of discussion and interaction.

Echoing this sentiment, Katie emphasizes the importance of personal connections: "Before diving into the meeting agenda, prioritize building relationships." This initial investment in warm-up activities or open-ended questions can transform the atmosphere, paving the way for more meaningful and productive strategic discussions.

"Set aside time to connect. Allow time (5-20 minutes) in a warm-up activity or open-ended question." - Katie

Start with a short, engaging activity to build rapport among participants, then transition into the structured, time-bound agenda. This method provides for a focused yet flexible approach to strategic planning.

5. Choose the right mix of people for effective collaboration

"Consider the audience. Who needs to be included?"

Katie's advice highlights a crucial aspect of strategic planning sessions: Carefully considering who needs to be in the room. 

"More people can increase complexity. Fewer people might mean the discussion is less inclusive/diverse." -Katie

The challenge lies in striking a balance. The right mix of participants provides a comprehensive representation of perspectives, fostering a richer, more holistic discussion. However, it's equally important to avoid overcrowding the session, which can lead to logistical challenges and dilute the focus of the conversation.

In a scenario where a new product is being discussed, including representatives from development, marketing, and customer service can provide a well-rounded view. However, keeping the group size manageable makes sure that each voice can be heard and contribute effectively.

According to a study by Mizen, Taneja, and Bloom (2022), online meetings were found to be more efficient for smaller gatherings of 2 to 4 people, while in-person meetings were preferred for gatherings of 10 or more. This finding can help you decide whether to meet online or in person based on the number of participants.

Make meetings manageable: If you are a remote-first company, you can use breakout rooms to break up the strategic planning meeting into smaller groups and ensure everyone has the chance to contribute to the discussion.

Related: How to create a stakeholder map [templates & examples]

6. Involve remote participants actively to give them a voice

In modern strategic planning sessions, the hybrid meeting poses a problem. When some participants are physically present while others join remotely, how do you ensure remote participants don’t feel sidelined?

Jim sheds light on this conundrum, pinpointing the risk of remote participants feeling left out in a conversation dominated by those in the room. "It's really just a conversation in the room, and people are listening," he notes, underscoring the need to intentionally include remote participants.

"Facilitation needs to adjust to the setting. You can't think that your old in-person ways will work in a modern setting anymore." - Jim

To overcome this, Jim suggests adapting facilitation methods to suit ‌hybrid environments. For instance, he proposes starting discussions with remote participants to ensure their active involvement and prevent the conversation from being overly influenced by those in the room. 

"You have to change the way you facilitate the meeting," Jim advises, advocating for techniques like “popcorning” in remote settings where the last person speaking chooses the next speaker.

Building on Jim’s recommendations, Farrah offers a best practice for managing larger groups in hybrid settings: dual facilitation. This approach involves having separate facilitators for in-person and remote participants, ensuring focused attention and engagement for both groups.

Farrah also suggests thoughtful gestures like sending lunch vouchers to remote participants during an offsite meeting, replicating the in-person experience, and fostering a sense of inclusion. "So it's trying to be really intentional and mindful about how you mitigate those gaps and make people feel included," she says.

7. Pre-engage participants for focused sessions

Start participant engagement well before the scheduled strategic planning session. This proactive approach not only saves time during the actual meeting but also ensures that all attendees come well-prepared, significantly boosting the session's productivity.

“Engage them before you start the live session. Gather as much information as you can, even if it's passively." - Jim

Jim’s mantra, "Get started before you get started," serves as a guiding principle for facilitators to gather vital information and stimulate participant involvement ahead of time.

Sending out a brief survey or questionnaire in advance can help warm up participants to the session's topics and encourage them to think about their contributions. This practice can be particularly effective for executive participants who may be hesitant to do extensive pre-work.

Related: Pre-work: Your guide to pre-meeting action items

8. Take a digital-first approach to avoid workshop amnesia

One of the greatest challenges in the aftermath of strategic sessions is what Jim calls "workshop amnesia" — a phenomenon where the energy and decisions of a meeting dissipate once everyone returns to their daily routines. This issue often leads to a loss of momentum and a lack of clarity about decisions and actions post-meeting. 

Jim's solution lies in leveraging digital tools not just as a medium but also as a strategy to sustain momentum and keep ‌decisions and discussions top of mind.

"Workshop amnesia is real. You have this big event, people are engaged, but come Monday, it's like, 'What did we decide? Who's doing what?' That's the challenge." - Jim

By incorporating visual work platforms like Mural, especially towards the end of the session, strategic planning facilitators can effectively pivot into the digital realm for follow-up. 

"Think digital as an output. It's the way to keep the momentum going," Jim advises. This approach makes sure that the energy, ideas, and decisions from the session are immediately captured and accessible for future reference and action.

“You don't often think of documentation when you think of facilitating results. But any of these sessions we do, it's because we're trying to get to an outcome, and at the end of that outcome, you always need to document those results, those takeaways, then share them back with relevant stakeholders.” - Farrah

Wrap up digitally: Implement a digital-first method in your session's conclusion and subsequent follow-ups. For instance, use digital tools for the final prioritization exercise, making it a part of the session's digital footprint. This method not only ensures efficient follow-up but also helps combat the typical post-workshop drop in momentum and engagement.

Related: 7 tips to take more effective meeting notes

9. Incorporate multiple tools for distributed teams

Strategic planning sessions demand tools that foster engagement, collaboration, and efficiency. Integrating innovative tools can transform these sessions from standard meetings into dynamic, interactive experiences.

"If the only channels used are audio/visual and screen sharing, it gets monotonous." - Jim
  • Visual collaboration platforms: "Visual whiteboards for collection of thoughts and ideas throughout the session, as well as before and after, can change the game," points out Jim. Tools like Mural offer a digital space for teams to brainstorm and strategize, enabling visual thinking and collaboration beyond traditional boundaries.
  • Real-time polling tools: Jim also emphasizes the value of polling tools like Menti or Polleverywhere. "Polls are great in general, but leaders particularly appreciate them for the data and real-time feedback they provide," he notes. These tools inject an interactive element into the session, allowing for immediate participant input and engagement.
  • Mobile devices: Leveraging smartphones for quick polls and instant feedback is another tactic Jim recommends. This approach harnesses the ubiquity of mobile devices, making participation more accessible and spontaneous.
  • Large touch screens in physical meetings: For in-person elements of a session, Jim suggests incorporating large touch screens. These tools enhance presentation dynamics and facilitate a more interactive form of feedback, enriching the overall experience.

10. Master the right techniques for impactful strategic sessions

Strategic planning success isn't just about the tools — it's equally about the techniques. Farrah, Katie, and Jim offer valuable insights into the methods that elevate these sessions from routine discussions to impactful strategic exercises.

  • Intentional turn-taking and time management: Farrah recommends using liberating structures like the “One Two for All” approach. "This allows everyone to contribute individually and then in groups, ensuring diverse voices are heard," she explains. Additionally, using timers can keep discussions on track and prevent any single topic or individual from taking over the session.
  • Blended meeting formats and design thinking: Katie advocates for blended meetings and adopting design thinking methods. These approaches infuse strategic sessions with creativity and flexibility, accommodating various participant needs and working environments. 
  • Structured methods for collaboration: Jim's emphasis on structured methods provides a roadmap for productive sessions. "Utilize techniques like lightning decision jams, clustering, and dot voting to guide the session," he advises. These methods ensure that every participant's voice is heard and that the session remains focused on its objectives.

11. Adopt the rules of hybrid engagement 

Hybrid meetings, which blend in-person and remote participation, present unique challenges that require a nuanced approach to building effective and inclusive engagement. Jim, Katie, and Farrah offer insightful strategies to navigate these complexities, providing a framework that facilitates dynamic interaction and equal participation across both physical and digital spaces. Their combined approaches address the challenges of hybrid settings, ensuring that every participant, whether dialing in remotely or sitting in the meeting room, can contribute effectively and meaningfully. Jim's approach: Rely on structured individual and group activities

  • Encourage independent brainstorming in “heads down activities” for unbiased contributions.
  • Use smaller breakout groups for focused discussions, enabling deeper exploration of ideas.
  • Consolidate thoughts in larger sessions, which helps to foster collective decision-making and idea integration.
  • Ensure remote participants are equally engaged with in-person attendees through digital tools.

Farrah's strategy: Balance confidence and participation

  • Allocate time for individual reflection, using digital platforms like Mural for anonymous input.
  • Employ affinity clustering to organize ideas, highlighting common themes and diverse opinions.
  • Actively facilitate discussions to encourage quieter participants, ensuring a balanced dialogue.

Katie's insights: Factor in the practical aspects of meeting management

  • Allocate buffer time in the agenda to accommodate technical issues and side discussions.
  • Consider the number of voices included in the meeting, allowing some to participate asynchronously for efficiency.
  • Make sure you’re including diverse perspectives, using assessments of diversity and inclusion to guide participant selection.
  • Adapt facilitation techniques for diverse teams and industries, allowing extra time for processing and alternate participation methods.

Flexibility: The key to successful facilitationEffective facilitation in strategic planning sessions is a balancing act. It requires a readiness to adapt and evolve with the changing dynamics of teams and technology. Embracing digital-first approaches — while keeping the human touch — is crucial.

“A good facilitator will recognize that something isn’t working and shift accordingly. So just because you’ve planned everything out in detail doesn’t mean you can stick to that plan or even have to stick to that plan.” - Jim 

As facilitators, your role isn't just to guide discussions but to inspire collaborative action and meaningful outcomes. The true success of a session lies in its ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges and turn them into opportunities for growth and innovation.

Make sure your strategic planning sessions are as successful as possible by employing the best tools. Mural offers a free plan to help you run better meetings, collaborate more effectively, and elevate every voice.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.