We plan them, we talk about them, we write about them, we complain about them, we love them. They are useful, they are useless, they are essential, they are a waste of time. To add to the complexity, there are a lot of companies that create them, facilitate them, and produce them. Regardless of the range of emotions off-sites seem to elicit, they continue to exist because there is a general recognition that a well orchestrated off-site is a powerful tool for strategizing, planning, and unifying a team toward accomplishing important organizational goals and objectives.
Creating a Successful Off-Site Meeting – Plan, Plan, Plan
A successful off-site meeting relies on a few key principles. However, at the core of every successful off-site lies preparation. Harvard Business Journal, Bloomberg Business Week, and many other experts all emphasize preparation as the key ingredient to off-site success. It doesn’t matter if you pick the most enticing location or provide the most fun; if you (the CEO or executive of the department) haven’t prepared beforehand, you will be disappointed in the outcome or will fail to see the benefit of the time, resources, and effort invested.
Questions help clarify goals and objectives and are an essential starting place to establish the reason for the meeting. For example: What is driving the need for this off-site? Is it strategy, change management, team building, annual business planning, or some other need related to the ongoing health of the organization? What are your overall goals for the off-site? What do you want to have accomplished when you return to the office? How will you know the meeting has been successful? What needs to be done to follow up on the work that has been accomplished during the time together?
The most successful meetings focus on creating an environment that fosters open and fully participative conversation. Knowing and planning for those individuals who typically are outspoken and group leaders, while guiding others who are normally reflective to speak up, can help ensure balanced participation by all attendees.
Providing advance information where it is clear that individuals need to prepare in order to fully participate is crucial to productive conversations.
Selecting a location that is appropriate to the theme and establishes the right environment is also important.
Lastly, ensuring that the time is focused on the work at hand (i.e., leaving behind PDAs, laptops and other distractions that are not directly related to the meeting) establishes the intention and importance of the meeting’s agenda.
Off-sites provide new perspective. Through a new environment, an off-site can help attendees see and discuss things in new ways. But unless they are rigorously planned, they can devolve into meaningless activities that are joked about back at the workplace, de-motivate attendees, or do not contribute to the needs of the organization.
If an activity is part of an off-site, where practical, ask for ideas in the planning stages from the attendees. Be clear about what objective the activity is to address and how the selected activity will meet this objective. Keep it simple and group focused. Avoid activities that are not in direct alignment with the overall goals you’ve set. Don’t waste attendee’s time with activities such as rope climbs or paint ball war unless it makes clear sense to do so.
Don’t Let This Happen to You
For example, one client described a team-building off-site where the goal was to develop more collegial relationships between two departments. What did they do? They went to Disneyland for the day. What happened? Those in department A hung out with department A folks and those in department B hung out with department B folks. Almost everyone reported having a good time, but nothing changed when they returned to the office. Was this a success? No. This was a case where the activity had no connection to the goal and an afternoon was wasted at the Happiest Place on Earth.
The Value of a Facilitator
The client above needed a facilitator. Having an experienced off-site facilitator can go a long way toward making the session successful and efficient. Facilitators usually meet with the meeting organizers and/or other key individuals in advance to discuss the goals of the off-site and then work with the team to create an environment that encourages interaction and dialogue. Hand & Associates Executive Coach Dr. Jane Cruz points out that a facilitator brings “an experienced and objective individual who can assist the team on staying focused on productively working on the topic at hand.”
In the planning stages, a facilitator will provide recommendations on how the meeting can be structured to ensure the overall goals and objectives are addressed. During the meeting, the facilitator frees up the team members so they can let go and fully participate. A facilitator also tracks items that need follow up and provides recommendations for future actions that will help the team continue the work once everyone returns to their daily responsibilities.
At the right time and place, such use of an experienced facilitator can have a powerful impact. For example, another client asked us to facilitate a leadership off-site that was part of an ongoing strategic initiative. Our coach prepared for the meeting with the executive team, reviewing the status of the work already undertaken and identifying next steps in the work yet to be accomplished. This assessment was integrated with the firm’s organizational values, strategic plan, and the communication style of the team. He then facilitated the off-site ensuring that the direction of the conversation was productively focused on what steps needed to be undertaken to achieve the desired outcomes. The CEO spoke little during this conversation (letting go of hierarchy) and the coach used various exercises to ensure everyone participated. After the off-site he provided a summary of the outcomes, recommended actions and deliverables, as well as relevant themes raised by the team. Was this a success? Yes!
The New Year brings opportunity to refresh and renew and revisit goals, strategies, and infrastructure to your organization. Imagine coming back from an off-site with an energized leadership team, action items that are practical and understood by everyone. The corporate culture is lighter and more focused. Responsibilities that were vague are now clear and everyone is clicking on all cylinders. Our coaches at Hand & Associates can help make this a reality for you. Call us and learn more.
By Lynn W. Velazquez, Ed.D.
Special thanks to Dr. Jane Cruz for her contribution to this article