In Praise of the Off-Site

My friend and colleague Jim Karrh wrote here recently about the increase in the use of virtual meeting systems as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. I have to agree. When efficiency matters, the technology is a huge advantage. I am working with executives in Nairobi, Geneva and Stockholm, an arrangement that would not be possible without Skype and a working webcam.

But there are times when getting groups in the same space matters, and one of the most productive of those is the off-site retreat.

The day-to-day running of a business is intense. We spend a lot of our time reacting and responding to the kind of surprises that demand immediate attention. Planning and the time to consider how to minimize those surprises often take a backseat to the routine of making a business work. A well-planned and well-executed off-site takes us out of the environment to work on ways to minimize surprises and plan for a more purposeful future. You have to get away from working in your business to work on it.

So here is my list of top ways to make your next off-site meeting worth the investment in time, travel and expense.

  • Be clear about why you are going off-site. Is this a team-building exercise? Are you going off to work on a way forward for the organization? Perhaps you are doing a strategic account review for the sales team or rethinking production strategy. Venue, facilitation resource and prep are very different for the various reasons you might take a team off-site. Clarity about the purpose should inform every decision you make about the event.
  • Build an agenda backward from outcomes. Most meeting plans start with an agenda, which usually sends those creating the agenda down a familiar (read: boring) road. Professional facilitators know to get very crisp with the outcomes to be created by the meeting. What should be different and actionable at the end of the meeting? Build an agenda of discussion topics and exercises that focus specifically on creating those outcomes.
  • Make it a PowerPoint-free zone. The idea is to have discussion and debate on topics that matter to the future of the business. PowerPoint is not a collaboration tool and often reduces the exchange to a minimum. Use the time to do what you can only do when people are working together on an issue: discuss openly. And if your agenda consists of a series of everyone attending standing up to make a presentation, consider canceling and read Patrick Lencioni’s “Death by Meeting” before you try again.
  • Get off-site and stay off-site. One of the hardest things about being off-site is keeping the attention in the room. Whether things are really on fire back at the ranch is questionable, but many executives feel uncomfortable when they are out of touch. They dash for the phone when a break is called and are often late returning. The net effect is that they are pulled out of the environment and usually distracted when they return. This is a hard one, but I recommend going so far off-site that the office has to operate on its own. If nothing else, the results will tell you how well delegated you are.
  • Last, at the risk of making a shameless plug, hire a qualified facilitator. We did some interesting research a few years ago on meetings. While only 10 percent of those who sponsored off-sites considered hiring a facilitator, more than 85 percent of those who did considered it the highest value investment made in their meetings. A qualified facilitator can help you distill your outcomes, construct an effective agenda and help the team get great return for the time spent away.
Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 14, 2011.