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The First Rule of Offsites...

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Bonus: And the second rule too

I am on the plane home after running an offsite with a leading non-profit, still buzzing from the energy of it. Frankly, I was concerned about this event. There were radically different sentiments about the best use of time (more about that further down). Yet, in the end, we struck the perfect balance. I can exhale.

How did this story begin?

Our initial discovery and diagnostic found a team in pain. Lots of changes during the pandemic had left the team feeling bruised and untrusting. We weighed the possible approaches to such a dynamic: go in and hit the hurt head-on, making this a full blown healing session, or acknowledge the past but focus on moving forward. Getting clear on this, the fundamental target for an offsite, is crucial, and to simplify, I’ll put it into 3 broad areas:

  1. Planning and Alignment: getting a team together to look into the future and make decisions on where they are going and what priorities matter most.

  2. Problem Solving: creating a spacious environment, away from the daily pressures to craft thoughtful solutions, that are hard to conceive in the day to day blocking and tackling.

  3. Culture Building: stepping back from getting things done and creating a safe space to get honest about team dynamics with each other and shape new values and ways of behaving that enable teams to thrive together.

In this particular situation, there were strong arguments for each of those three areas, but not enough time to do them all. That is the first rule of offsites - you can’t do it all, you have to make choices. And, in our experience, these are high stakes choices. There is significant investment in taking a team off site, both in terms of direct costs, as well as the lost time from the day to day. Just as important, there is a downside risk of events - hitting the wrong target - feeling like a waste of time, which can be devastating.

Normally, with the tears we heard in the confidential interviews, as part of the offsite design process, most would have assumed a healing session was in order. However, when we dug deeper with leadership, we concluded that a ‘dust ourselves off and look forward’ orientation was the best approach - a focus on planning and alignment (while implicitly reinforcing a culture of responsibility and candor). Why? We believed that the very act of being together, with a strategic balance of social time vs. structured offsite work would yield the healing needed without inadvertently picking scabs. And, we were right. I am still buzzing with the positive experience shared by the participants.

  • The senior leader: “wow, this was really valuable”

  • The lieutenant who organized: “this went better than I imagined, I really want to work with you again”

  • The front line leader: “I am so grateful for how you wove our concerns into this agenda”

The team did need acknowledgement of their suffering - but opening comments sufficed. The leader did a wonderful job of expressing empathy for a rough road, as well as earnestly inviting everyone to look forward. Frankly, the team was ready to create a new era and move beyond the past two years (aren’t we all). And, they leaned in hard and created a productive and fulfilling experience for themselves. That's the second rule of offsites - the team creates the experience, so you have to invite them in - you can’t force an experience on them.

We are seeing that offsites are needed more than ever at this moment in time. It has been a very complicated couple of years and company cultures are falling apart. As the return to the office lurches forward and backward, workers are losing their connection to each other and their collective purpose. Teams need to be together in person. Our humanity is crying for it. However, leaders should be very thoughtful about shooting for the right target, whether it's a roll up the sleeves planning session, a ‘hiking and happy hours’ experience or a team intervention. No two teams need the same thing - they are not nails and no single hammer will suffice.

As we approach these situations, we ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What is the team’s current experience - What are they feeling, what is keeping them up, what are they longing for?

  2. What does the business need now - Are we performing well, but losing sight of shared goals; have we grown and started to erode our healthy culture; has our performance slipped to the point that we need serious strategic reevaluation, etc?

  3. How do we weave together tangible outcomes with a nourishing human experience - What is the right balance of working time vs. connection time, how directly do we want to address team dynamics, where can we combine objectives and invite ourselves to solve old problems with new values and mindsets?

Question #3 is the hardest and most crucial to get right. At Volition Partners we think deeply about that question, leveraging over 2 decades of convening teams for high impact experiences. If you got this far, we’d love to talk about your next offsite. Contact us here.


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