Now that we are returning to working in-person, companies have restarted meeting for regular offsites. I’m grateful that we are able to connect face-to-face again, and I’m also aware that these are “expensive” meetings, and that the time is best used when it is thoughtfully planned. When I help companies to organize an offsite, I keep the following learnings from previous offsites in mind. I hope they might be helpful to you as well.
Prepare Ahead of Time
1.Pre-work Beforehand. Ideally I do 15 minute interview with everyone who will be in attendance. At the bare minimum, I ask each participant ahead time a couple questions including: “Do you have any topics you are hoping we’ll cover at the offsite? If yes, what are they?” I also get clear on the definition of success for each person. It’s possible to ask in a number of ways, something like, “If we got to the end of the offsite, we’re saying our goodbyes and the time together was awesome, what happened that made it awesome?” Asking for what success looks like in this way is often easier for people to answer than “What would make for an awesome offsite?” I keep this anonymous, but I share it with the group at the beginning of the offsite and I refer back to it some during the offsite, but definitely the night before the last day so I can make any adjustments to the schedule based on what we’ve covered that will help us meet the group definition of success.
2.Strategic, Developmental, Social. I start with a heuristic of spending 1/3 of our time on strategy, 1/3 of our time connecting and being social with each other, building that bond as a team, and 1/3 doing developmental work which I to find anything that helps me know myself or others better so that we work better together. It’s just a starting line, if a company hasn’t had an offsite in a year, I might overweight the social aspect because they’ve been so lacking that aspect of work for so long. Or maybe they have a new team members and it’s important to purposefully integrate them into the group. It would be better to overweight time spent on developmental work so that they get to know each other in structured ways.
3.No More than 90 Minutes. People need to move around after that much time. Thinking gets stale when we sit in one place to long. Most groups of adults do well with time blocks of 60, 75 or 90 minutes. Go over that, and you’ll find people needing to leave for bio breaks, coffee refills or another excuse to shift their seat.
Set the Stage
4.Display the Agenda. as a simple kanban board- backlog, doing, done. I do it with sticky notes, that way I can change the order and make subtractions and additions as needed. It also demonstrates visually just how much the team has accomplished in its time together and I love that dopamine hit.
5.Create a PARKING LOT and a place for ACTION ITEMS. These are places for conversations and follow-ups that are important to capture but aren’t on topic or aren’t the most important thing to explore. These are the conversations that take teams off topic and down rabbit holes that eventually frustrate participants. Keep on track by using the parking lot for adjacent conversations and action items for any tactics. Also commit to clearing the parking lot and the action items before the end of the offsite and keep your promise.
6.Start with a Retrospective. Reviewing the past time period gives everyone a chance to have shared understanding about what has lead the team to this moment, and they get to surface learnings and implications they want to carry into the strategic work of the rest of the offsite. Of all the insights gained from the offsite, I ask the team to vote on which three feel most important to carry forward for our time together and I try and put them in a visible place where we can refer back to our learnings as we make decisions about the future.
7.Provide Context. If it’s been more than 90 days since the last offsite, do a “State of the Company” for you employees that reviews how things are going from your 30K foot perspective, part of what they want from being together is to be energize and hopeful about working for the company.
8.Working Agreements. If the offsite is more than a day, I set aside a few minutes to generate some working agreements, especially if the team is new to being together as a team. Setting expectations from the beginning is better than finding them misaligned later.
Along the Way
9.Lean Coffee. Do at least one lean coffee session with the team somewhere during the offsite. I prefer after the halfway mark of the event. I use it to catch any topics, big or small, that have come up for people. I might even pull in some topics from the parking lot if they still have yet to be discussed. My minimum is an hour, but because it takes about 15 minutes to generate, share ideas, group them and vote, it’s better to plan for 90 minutes. Some groups love a lean coffee so much they do it twice in a long offsite.
10.Cooking together is a bonding opportunity. Rent a house over hotel rooms if you can so that there is a common area where people can hang out, but primarily because it allows for team members to cook together. Some companies don’t like to structure who cooks what, but I prefer to plan meals ahead and ask people to sign up for a meal they feel comfortable cooking. I like to ask for a head chef, a sous chef and one person on cleanup per meal shared in a spreadsheet. It’s requires some energy from the participants, so I don’t have people cook every meal. I suggest lunch on their own with sandwiches or other easy DIY meals. I plan a breakfast and a dinner either to be cooked at the house or sometimes grab takeout or go out to a restaurant. I like to mix it up, but I always try to have some opportunities for people to bond by cooking together.
11. Mind the Transitions. Everyone that leads groups should have a few icebreakers in their pocket for groups. I use them to transition between meals and work blocks or to break up blocks of work time if a boost of energy or a change in mood is required. A good icebreaker is one that asks people to stand up and possible move a bit and learn something about at least one other person in the group.
12. Use Collaborative Stances. This is a framework to communicate expectations about what kind of feedback is desired around a decision. It’s a powerful tool for anyone responsible for creating and/or communicating decisions.
Bonus: If you as the leader want to participate in a decision or discussion with a strong voice in the room, don’t try and also be the facilitator. You wear your bias and don’t serve the group well when you have an agenda that you’re attached to. Facilitators can also help ask questions in different ways or avoid power dynamics that are inevitable when a leader is heading up the discussion.
Also published on Medium: https://medium.com/the-soul-of-startups/twelve-tips-for-running-great-offsites-5b42b8cbb8ab