[Tips for Leaders] How to Avoid Off-Sites that Suck

With a nod to Kelly Clarkson, the first part of a fiscal year for many firms  is “off-site” time. Leaders go with their teams to a place off-site with hopes that a change of scenery – and sometimes a round of golf or some collegial dinners – will change dynamics and improve performance.

It probably won’t.

But don’t blame the off-site for the lack of a durable performance bump.

Taking teams and groups out of their normal settings to another place can have tremendous advantages in shifting and improving any number of team dynamics: communication, understanding, innovation, planning, etc. Why?  The simple act of changing physical space shifts the patterns and dynamics between people. And the fact that you’re stuck someplace with somebody else with limited time to hide increases the odds for chance interactions and with some smarts the chances of a favorable exchange.

Except when it doesn’t.

And the the memory, noted by psychologist and Psychology Today writer Ben Dattner, “of listening to your co-workers sing “Dancing Queen” might endure much longer than you want it to.”

Or as the Harvard Business Review reported in a piece titled “Off-Sites That Work”, “Few executives would call their off-sites outright disasters, but it is the rare management team that can look back six or 12 months later and say that the meeting truly changed the way the business is run. Most would agree with what a senior vice president at an Internet company said about his last strategy off-site: “It simply left no fingerprints on the business.”

First things first: an off-site session does not have to be at a fancy hotel or expensive conference center. As the Wall Street Journal reported, some firms are utilizing the meeting space of other companies to great advantage.

Here are five other things you can do to make sure the off-site achieves what you want, including durability – and avoids being lampooned at the water cooler and Twitter.

  • The best off-sites are those that have clear goals in mind well prior to the off-site, and a meeting design that maximizes the likelihood that those goals will be achieved. HBR recommends 60 days, which in my experience is about right. Goals that are not consistent or complementary should get tossed: they either won’t happen or will make the session choppy and disjointed. This is like designing a house or planning a good dinner: design the off-site so it works well and that the key outcomes get achieved.
  • There is little value in replacing a series of talking heads reporting out on-site with a set of talking heads reporting out off-site unless you’re working with groups that don’t usually work together. Even then it’s a push. If you ever wanted to lose of the benefits of a shift in scenery, this set-up is a surefire way to do so if you do it with participants who are simply reliving what happens on-site at an off-site setting. Figure out how to utilize better ways of providing content and use the setting to spark better interaction and discussion.
  • It’s OK to mix play and work if it advances the goals of the off-site. Just figure out a way to weave the activities and sessions so that they interconnect. If part of the goal is to start getting people to mix with folks they don’t know, doing stuff like shifting seating assignments so that folks rotate at meals or in discussion groups is a natural, and a hell lot better than playing “icebreakers” like act like your favorite animal or doing karoke (can you hear “Dancing Queen” already) together.
  • Make sure place and setting match to the purpose and expected value of the session. For example, there is little sense doing an off-site at a travel-far-away resort if you’re inside all day starting at four walls. And conversely, grabbing a conference room next to the HQ office is not likely to have anybody experience the mind shift of “getting away” from the office.
  • Money is overspent on swag and chachkas and underspent on design help and good facilitation. It’s self-serving, but when you add the salaries of attendees, travel, and the cost of any off-site meals or lodging, spending $20-30k for decent upfront design and outside facilitation is pocket change in the greater scheme of things. If you don’t have the talent in-house, there are people like me who can do the work or know people who can.

Team experts Douglas Smith (no relation) and Jon Katzenbach have noted that high performing groups exhibit these four qualities:

  1. Clarity of destination and purpose
  2. Clear milestones and deliverables
  3. Understood roles and responsibiliiies
  4. Articulated and agreed ways of working together (think: “Rules of Engagement”)

If you can come away with any off-site with establishing or cementing any of those four points then you’ve done better than most, and it’s probably time well spent.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. And yes, part of my practice is doing highly successful off-site design and group facilitation.