CPAs have busy tax and audit seasons.    As a former auditor with Price Waterhouse, I would gear up for the January and February audit deadlines that would involve working 7 days a week, 60 to 70 hours per week.   As you know, one of my business streams is facilitation of client offsites.  September to February is generally my “offsite busy season. “

 I have facilitated hundreds of offsites over the last 22 years and I enjoy this type of work because every offsite is different.  Some are about developing a new strategy while others are about planning how to execute on a current business strategy.  Some offsites are about becoming more effective at leading their business units and functions while other offsites are more about improving how the leaders work together as a team to achieve better results. 

 Offsite Frustrations

It is not unusual when I tell people I meet that I am a facilitator, they tell me about a recent offsite they had which was frustrating for them.  Here are some of the reasons that people get frustrated with an offsite meeting:

  • Not Following the Agenda - The meeting doesn’t follow the agenda or there is no discussion of why the agenda changes
  • Discussion Drift - The discussion drifts off onto related, but tangential issues to the one being discussed
  • Discussion Hijack – The discussion or agenda item is interrupted and shifts to what appears to be a higher priority issue
  • Dominant and Reluctant Participants – Participants that are always talking and take over the meeting vs. participants who hold any thoughts to themselves
  • Facilitator too controlling or loses control – A facilitator who drives the meeting towards his/her outcomes rather than the expectations of the leader/participants
  • Avoid talking about the real issues by putting them on the “parking lot” for later action that will never happen vs. addressing the issue right then while everyone is there
  • No responsibility assignments or deadlines for actions identified

 Examples of Offsite Breakthroughs

Offsite breakthroughs are hard to define. But you know it when you see it.  It can be described as a turning point, a moment of truth or even a team epiphany.   Teams often take on common views about what is possible and those breakthroughs tend to shatter our thinking about being stuck in a problem, issue or situation.   When it comes to organizational leadership teams, leadership teams often collectively believe something is impossible – trust issues that will never improve because people will never change, silos are deep and historical in the organization, inability to be any better than #2 or #3 in the marketplace, etc.  But an offsite breakthrough can change that pattern of thinking.  Here are a couple of examples of offsite breakthroughs:

  • One of the leaders of a $10 million manufacturing company challenged another leader to go outside right at that moment to fight.    Other leaders threatened to walk out and end the meeting.  But none of those things happened.  The heightened emotions led to a breakthrough when the CEO challenged the team and told them what their one overarching goal for the coming year and that he would judge them as succeeding or failing based on whether they achieved that goal that required a 30% improvement.   Those leaders pulled together and achieved what they thought was impossible.   They broke down their silos, had regular meetings and huddled to make decisions to stay on track with that goal.  Profits for that year more than doubled the previous year.
  • Another offsite involved brief presentations by each team members about their past work/personal experiences as well as their strengths and areas for improvement.  However, there were significant trust issues between two leadership team members whose business functions were highly interdependent and those team members were not talking to each other.   Later in a one-on-one breakout, one team member shared that he discovered the other team member had been listening in on his phone calls and told him that he could never trust the other one after that.   That one-on-one breakout broke the ice for additional discussion between them. After that offsite, I was in that client’s offices a few weeks later and noticed the two team members were meeting and working through a business issue.

 Conditions for an Offsite Breakthrough

Offsite breakthroughs can’t be engineered.  Those breakthroughs occur as a result of a convergence of need/opportunity with the right discussion environment, with the real issues being discussed with a moment of truth/turning point.  Although the breakthrough can’t be engineered, the conditions can be.   From my experiences in these offsites, the following are recommendations for creating conditions that lead to an offsite breakthrough:

Make the Offsite Environment Safe to Take “Discussion Risks”

Most offsite meetings start with a discussion of groundrules.  Some common groundrules that many teams come up with to create a constructive meeting environment include:

  • Everyone participates
  • Critique ideas, not people
  • Open communication, voice your opinion
  • What gets discussed in the meeting stays between the people in the meeting
  • Constructive debate

Meeting groundrules are important for an offsite because they establish team behavior standards for the offsite.  It is also where team members make a commitment to create an environment where they can take a “discussion risk” – where they say something unpopular, that no else is willing to say.  It may even relate to “the elephant in the room.”

There are always discussion risks in the real world of offsites.  It may seem risky to say something unpopular or address the elephant in the room.  Participants may see it as a risk to say something unpopular because of the fear of being ostracized by their peers in the room, acting like a “know it all” by taking a strong position without all the facts or saying something that the team leader/boss will hold against you.  Groundrules alone do not mitigate those discussion risks.  However, modeling the behaviors in the groundrules can help reduce that risk.   Here are some tips to model those behaviors in the groundrules above:

  • Ask “reluctant participants” to share their view or opinion
  • Affirmatively state that you disagree with the idea/opinion and that you don’t mean this to be taken personally.
  • Model open communication by sharing something you haven’t shared before or a fact that no one knows about you
  • Acknowledge the sensitivity or confidentiality in something that is said by you or others during the meeting
  • If you are the team’s leader, positively recognize a participant for taking a discussion risk

Define the Problem/Challenge in Simple, Straightforward and Fact-Based Terms

The Apollo 13 problem has been highly publicized throughout the years.  With YouTube, you can watch the clip from the movie or hear the audio from the actual flight when the astronauts tell Mission Control, “Houston, we have a problem.”  But what we can learn from most is how the team analyzed the problem and communicated it to the Flight Director who clearly defined the challenge in a clear and straightforward manner (see the movie clip for the following):

“I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole…rapidly.” 

Then the next scene shows a problem solving team dumping a bunch of parts on a table.  The leader then says:

“Listen up.  The people upstairs handed us this one and we gotta come through.   We gotta find a way to make this (a square part) fit into the hole for this (a cylindrical part) using nothing but that (all the parts on the table which were the available parts on the space module).”

Not all team problems/challenges are that tangible or that clear but the clearer, focused, simpler it is, the more likely the team can “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole…rapidly.”

Encourage Disagreement and Unconventional Thinking

Breakthroughs are much harder to achieve as a team if people are too polite, too conventional or take things too personally.    What we want is passion, creative thinking and fact-based views.    If we are too concerned in our dialogue/debate about protecting self and others, we will be both ineffective and inefficient in our communication as a team. 

Breakthroughs can occur when we keep unique ideas from being filtered, blocked or politicized.   Explore the unconventional and nontraditional ideas to see what we can learn and possibly what we can incorporate with other more traditional solutions.    True productive disagreement about the ideas and proposed solutions helps us learn not only which ideas we need to “kill” but which idea/solutions we need to accept. 

For the last 10 to 15 years, it seems that breakthroughs are becoming commonplace with the advances in phones and other “Pad” technology.   They don’t even seem like breakthroughs because the changes are expected. 

Becoming invisible would be a breakthrough, right?  Invisibility cloaking is not just a Klingon invention on Star Trek anymore.  Check out invisibility cloaking technology breakthroughs on Retro Reflective Projection Technology and Adaptiv as examples of breakthrough thinking.  Breakthrough thinking doesn’t always lead to better results but it opens the door to it.  Practically, most business breakthroughs are more about finding a real solution to a recurring problem or getting two people who have disagreed on a key issue find a workable compromise or developing a new strategy that may help the company get into a new market.  It might not be game changing but can still be a breakthrough. 

Don’t Overload the Agenda – Allow Time for Dialogue

One common observation about my clients when we begin a discussion about a possible offsite is that they want to design the offsite with the same pace of agenda item completion as they might find in a weekly meeting.  That pace of quick burst discussions underestimates the time it takes to have a real dialogue  A well-designed offsite can have a discussion of opposing viewpoints that is not constrained by the time limits of a one to two hour weekly meeting.  When you allow time for dialogue you can encourage brainstorming, have a more objective discussion of the facts and discuss issues that you will never take the time to discuss in your regular meetings.  

I always like to build some extra time into the agenda as a contingency and I always like to make a deposit to my “time bank account” during the meeting if possible because some discussions will need to be extended and require a time withdrawal. 

More Than One Day

Offsites results in lost productivity from having key leaders away.  Some companies will plan a one-day offsite, but those one-day meetings limit what can be accomplished.  Also, the participants mindset is different.  The time where you can breakthrough may only be 4 to 6 hours in a one day meeting when you consider the natural gear up and gear down times at the beginning and end of a day.   In my more than 20 years of facilitating offsites, I have found that breakthroughs are much more likely in a multi-day offsite.  Something usually happens in that evening between offsite meeting days.  I can’t put my finger on it but it could be anything from having some time to quietly and logically consider before Day 2 what was discussed in Day 1.  It might also be some informal discussions about the issue at a dinner that evening.  Or it might just be some trust and relationship building occurs at a dinner or event during the evening of Day 1.   I don’t know for sure what it is.  I just know that offsite breakthroughs are more likely to happen on Day 2.

In a recent offsite, one team member came in the morning of Day 2 and told everyone he didn’t sleep at all because the Day 1 discussion of an issue really bothered him.  He came with some ideas and proposed solutions and although all of his solutions were not adopted, his speech that morning was a positive turning point for that offsite.

The Impact of a Facilitator

Being a facilitator is like being a head basketball coach or the manager of a baseball team.    You get credit that is partially undeserved when things go well and you can get blame that is partially undeserved when things go poorly.  In sports, the players play the game, the coach doesn’t.  In an offsite, the meeting’s effectiveness is up to the team leader and the team members.  The facilitator has an impact, positive or negative, on all of the above conditions.   Not all facilitators have the same track record, style, methods or personality.   A facilitator has a number of responsibilities but the following describe those that will help the team achieve an offsite breakthrough:

  • Confidentially interview some or all of the meeting participants in advance to assess the opportunities/issues/challenges for the meeting.  Provide summary of what was learned, maintaining confidentiality.
  • Provide proven discussion tools/templates/exercises that have resulted in exceptional meeting outcomes
  • Be an objective “observer” about the discussion process and provide observations to the team about their interaction to help them learn
  • Ask the difficult questions not being asked and make sure participants verbalize what the “elephant in the room” is
  • Provide a process for a real debate about the key issues/decisions
  • Be disciplined at helping the team set actions, dates and persons responsible for key decisions/plans of work 

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 The cost of an offsite can be significant – the meeting room, meals, lodging (if overnight), the facilitator, etc.  However, that cost is often considered reasonable when there is an offsite breakthrough -- one that will help the organization, function or team deliver more effectively or gain an advantage in the marketplace.  “Opposition is just proof that you are close to a major breakthrough.”

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“I loved your article about Team Offsites. I have been to many offsite meetings that failed because one or more of the items you mentioned was missing."

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"Mike, thanks for sharing, some good learnings and enjoyed the correlation. I will have to use this on my British colleagues."

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

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