The constant rapid changes in today’s business climate demands on-the-fly gear shifting for teams and business units. Few can afford to wait until next year’s 3-day strategic offsite meeting, a model fast becoming a relic of more halcyon days.

So how do you quickly and nimbly get everyone on board to create collective mindshare and emotional investment in charting a path for the foreseeable future?

I like short and simple things, so here’s a technique I use regularly to get folks off the 3-day vision meeting and onto a 3-hour vision meeting.

I did this with the executive team of a Pacific Northwest homebuilder, at the height of their success, at the beginning of 2008. We all know what transpired later in the year. To this day, the CEO maintains that this “pre-mortem” exercise enabled them to weather the multi-year downturn, and emerge in a position to not only survive, but thrive.

The reason is simple: I had them paint a perfect disaster, then simply reverse it. When disaster did indeed strike, they had already internalized a backup.

The first part of the activity is “heads up,” and meant to draw out the dream of the team. The second part of the meeting is “sleeves up,” and intended to focus energy on a real world strategy that achieves the dream. The exercise is designed to be fast-paced, highly interactive, and visually oriented.

Here’s the flow:

Warmup: “I See” (15 minutes)

If you’re the leader or facilitator, state something like this: “Vision is essential. We can’t advance in any direction without it.” To illustrate the point, have folks stand up and lift one leg off the floor, and hold it there for ten seconds. State: “That’s easy, right? But now try it with your eyes closed.” Watch everyone struggle. It’s pretty tough to do!

Next have people try this exercise:

Step 1. Answer the question: “What do I really want?” Describe what you see as the ideal in your mind’s eye, using a statement that begins with “I see…” (For example: I see our department as setting the benchmark of effectiveness and efficiency in all of our operations in an effort to promote the stability needed to realize the highest levels of productivity, performance and profitability.)

Step 2. Create a statement of the endstate using the future perfect tense. (For example: Standardized work processes, policies, procedures and tools are supported by the diligent administration of quality control and management, enabling internal operations to function at peak efficiency levels.)

Step 3. Sketch what you have just described verbally. Don’t worry about artistry, just draw it out as best you can. Avoid using words, but an occasional one-word exclamatory (e.g. Victory!) is okay. Fill up the whole page. Use different colors of pen and pencil to make it vivid. Use symbols and icons whenever possible. Stick figures are OK!

Now that the right brain is nice and warm, launch into the meeting proper.

Visioneering: Our Company R.I.P. (30 minutes)

The goal of this activity is to get to the big picture, bringing the future to the present so that it can be addressed. The traditional approach is to write a success story for the media some number of years or months in the future. But a better way, albeit unconventional, is to draft a detailed corporate obituary. (This is essentially what Kerry Morrison did in her interview, because Hollywood was dead at the time.) The outcome is a much more realistically and vividly portrayed picture of perfection, but in exact reverse. What would the article say about your team’s demise? What would the headline read?

Removing Obstacles: (45 minutes)

Understanding what the goal or vision isn’t is often more important than what it is, because it outlines the restraining forces and obstacles. And the reality is that restraining forces always rule. For most people, painting the disaster scene provides more readily accessible mental images, because they’ve seen them before at some point in their experience. When the roadblocks appear in the future, they are more easily recognized and effectively addressed.

Make a master list of all the items identified in the obituary, the company “killers.” Over to the right, list the countermeasure. What is the opposite of the ailment? How will each obstacle be overcome or avoided? These now become the critical success factors that form the framework of the future vision.

Goal-Setting: (30 minutes)

For each success factor, list a key objective, a measurable goal. Use the list you just developed to spark a discussion of the major goals. Combine ideas, wordsmith, refine, remove — whatever is needed to arrive at what the group agrees is a comprehensive list of goals incorporating all the critical ideas from the visioning exercise.

Prioritizing: (30 minutes)

Nothing sophisticated here: have each individual write down what they believe the three most important goals are. Then go down the list, simply asking for a show of hands indicating how many chose the item as number one. Tally the hash marks to identify the top five.

Project Forming: (30 minutes)

Now turn the top five priorities into key projects, assigning a champion and putting thought into who does what by when. Don’t make it exhaustive and detailed logistics planning.

Not only you can hone the visualization skills of your team with this practical exercise, but you just avoided what can all too often be an enormous waste of time and money.