It’s that time of year, when many companies begin having an offsite leadership meeting to discuss their path forward for the next year and beyond. The offsite will likely yield a lot of great ideas. The challenge – making better decisions (and prevent making bad ones).

I am lucky. I get to be the “fly on the wall” as a facilitator for strategy meetings and offsites. It is great to see how the knowledge and experience in the room is leveraged. It is also great to see a vigorous, passionate, intellectual debate over the best direction and strategy for the company to achieve its short term and long term future. But making better decisions will be more difficult if:

• Participants come wearing their silo (functional) hat, not their team/organization hat

• Participants are fearful of saying the wrong thing in front of the right people (i.e. making a bad impression in front of executives)

• Participants who don’t trust each other

• Participants who take comments from one another as a personal attack

• Participants who make comments that will be taken personally

The best offsites include time for a true debate. The best debates during offsites start with a question where there is no clear answer. The debates can either be about an alternative solution or FOR/AGAINST a specific proposal/recommendation. Also, since a true debate will trigger the communication of strong opinions and often very passionate arguments, there is potential for the disagreements to become personal. This is preventable.

In TeamSceneTM - A Teamwork Competency Model for Leadership Teams, DEBATE Opposing Views is one of the teamwork competencies that help a leadership team Make Teamwork ProfitableTM. A leadership team can become more competent, collectively as a team, in the DEBATE of Opposing Views, if they focus on the following success factors:

Prioritize IMPORTANT Business Issues/Questions

Just like Stephen Covey discussed about individuals need to prioritize around Urgency and Importance in his book (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), teams also need to prioritize their time investment in debates around Urgency and Importance. First, time for collaboration at an offsite is limited so a team should be spending its time around the MOST IMPORTANT business questions. The debate is a time investment in planning, preparation and prevention. Some examples of great debate questions I’ve seen at an offsite include:

• What should our top 5 strategic initiatives be for the coming year?

• What should our goals and metrics be next year?

• Which market do we want to expand into?

• How do we want to modify our organizational structure?

• What will be our drilling strategy for next year’s exploration?

One way to prevent disagreements from becoming personal is to make sure the group is debating IMPORTANT business questions, ones that will impact the group’s future at least for the next fiscal year and possibly beyond that.

Listening To/Persuading One Another

Debates won’t be very productive unless participants are both persuading and listening. I like the Lincoln and Douglas format when the two squared off in 7 debates in the senatorial election in Illinois in the mid-1800s. The first debater had an hour to make their case while the other debater had 90 minutes to make their case. Then the first debater would have 30 minutes for rebuttal. How can we be persuasive unless we have had time to prepare, come with facts/specifics that help make your case and have an adequate amount of time to make your case. It doesn’t mean each debater will need an hour. I have facilitated some great debates where each debater had 5 minutes but he/she was very prepared and the question was very narrow. A good debater makes his/her case with words, emotion, fact and strong body language.

I often see participants that are passionate only about their own position/argument on the issue. Unfortunately, they are not listening to the other participants when they make their case as they are preparing their response/rebuttal. A Debate of Opposing Views is about learning – to make the best decision possible for the team’s good. That requires each participant to listen actively by attending (paying attention, eye contact), listen without judgment (taking the person out of it and have an open mind to the case being made), seek to understand the case being made (without personal biases and filters), etc.

This is a great way to depersonalize the debate – by everyone having an equally important role in the debate, both as a persuader and a listener.

Productive Disagreement

In business and in our society, we don’t put the words “Productive” and “Disagreement” together enough. The phrase combines something we see as a positive (being productive) with something we usually see as a negative (disagreement). The real win is when we make disagreement into a positive. Disagreement about the substance becomes a positive because we are learning – about what the advantages of a view that is opposite of ours, how others perceive our position/view and what the potential risks/consequences of either our view or the opposing view.

One way to do that is to increase the process and structure associated with a debate. The Lincoln and Douglas debates had a time structure that allowed the disagreement to be productive. I used a similar process with a client that had a debate over what the top 5 initiatives would be for the coming year. Each person had the opportunity to persuade the group either FOR or AGAINST one of the proposed top 5 initiatives. The process helps depersonalize the arguments being made. But our conviction and our passion for a position can sometimes result in the unintentional use of language that is inflammatory or judgmental. Imagine if you presented an idea that I passionately disagree with. So I respond with a comment like, “That’s a stupid idea.” The use of the word stupid is pretty inflammatory. Would you have taken my comment as saying I thought you were stupid or your idea was stupid? The use of debate groundrules can help. Some possible groundrules could include:

• Make your case with facts and specifics.

• Avoid making assumptions about the intentions of others, using language that is inflammatory or providing critique that will be taken personally.

• Call a timeout if you believe you have been personally attacked. Share your concern and allow the other person to respond.

Breakthrough Thinking

Whether in team meetings or in offsites, participants often complain to people like me that meetings are a waste of time because it’s just the same, recycled ideas and positions taken. But not when there’s breakthrough thinking. People feel great about being part of an offsite like that.

Most breakthrough ideas/solutions/strategies that I usually see are not from one person sharing a unique idea that no one has thought of. These breakthroughs come from collaborative thinking. The following are some breakthrough thinking strategies to encourage during your offsite:

• Piggy-backing -- expanding or adding to an idea.

• Connecting – connecting separate ideas into a whole solution to make a unique breakthrough

• Disrupting – New idea that disrupts the current solution/strategy and replaces it

• Paralleling – Applying a solution/strategy/idea in a different application to your challenge

If breakthrough thinking is needed for the meeting, the facilitator or leader needs to ask for it. Breakthrough thinking requires participants to take some personal risk – with most of these ideas not being accepted. People need to be encouraged to take those risks and do this type of debate deliberately. There shouldn’t be an expectation that every breakthrough thinking idea will be accepted. Remember, if you strike gold, it won’t matter how many holes you had to dig before you discovered gold.

* *

I enjoy facilitating offsites to see how people with different backgrounds and communication styles work towards a common path forward. Yes, there are differences -- the strategic thinkers vs. the tactical thinkers, the hands-on leaders vs. the hands-off leaders, the short-timers vs. the long-timers, the dominants vs. the reluctants, the risk takers vs. the risk avoiders, etc. Differences in personality and thinking styles are great for a meeting like this. If the team can be more competent around the Debate of Opposing Views, the leadership team will not only make better decisions but also prevent the bad ones. As Joseph Joubert stated, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."

Mike Goodfriend is a teamwork engineer, executive coach, and meeting facilitator. Since 1989, Goodfriend & Associates has been helping leaders and leadership teams increase their strategic advantage through achieving higher levels of competitive advantage, teamwork/alignment, leadership competency and excellence/customer satisfaction. Mike Goodfriend can be reached at 713-789-6840 or via email at


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