The power of team offsites is well documented, but those benefits can only be reaped if the offsite is designed effectively and at the root of that design needs to be tension. Specifically, there are four areas in which that tension must be balanced - Outcomes, Atmosphere, Topics, and Experience. When an offsite becomes unbalanced in any one of these areas, it loses its value.
We all have our tendencies to lean more heavily on one side of the spectrum or the other, depending on our personal preferences. As we explore these four areas, reflect on which end you gravitate towards and take intentional steps to counterweight those tendencies.
We all have absurd stories of ridiculous team-building events that were a colossal waste of time filled with childish games and discussions intended to build some sort of camaraderie. These excruciating experiences are the result of an imbalance in relationship building. If leaders are taking time away from their work, not to mention their friends and families, they want an experience that delivers experience that delivers tangible value for the business. Conversely, team offsites that narrowly focus on market conditions, revenue forecasts, budget allocations, and other business-related topics feel cold, calculated, and burdensome. They are life-sucking events that leave people feeling isolated and unmotivated because the human aspect of their work has been ignored in a tangible way.
Do this to maintain balance:
Use the natural rhythms of the day as a guide to building a great experience. In Dan Pink’s book 'WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,' he explores the natural energy fluxes people experience throughout the day and what kind of work aligns best with those ebbs and flows. While there isn’t a universal rhythm, most participants go through three stages – peak, trough, and rebound. During the morning hours of peak energy, when we are cognitively sharp and focused, schedule critical mission-oriented conversations and presentations when leaders can engage in analytic debates and discussions. During the trough times of early afternoon, the lull of energy lowers social barriers and is a powerful time to build authentic relationships and take part in creative, future-oriented activities. The late afternoon and early evening hours of rebound are the time to move toward action planning when leaders have the energy and motivation to identify the tangible actions that need to take place. Finally, make sure you mix in a healthy dose of professional development and leadership development components that will strengthen the person in service of the mission.
The future orientation of most leaders, coupled with a hectic pace of life, often results in reflection time being seen as a luxury they can’t afford. Richard Carlson wrote, “Reflection is one of the most underused yet powerful tools for success.” Team offsites provide a rare chance to leverage this tool, but many leaders are so focused on the future and what needs to be done to reach that end state that they miss this opportunity. When that happens, essential lessons that have been learned fade from memory, hard-fought victories go uncelebrated, and existing challenges go unacknowledged. On occasion, some events are imbalanced toward a heavy dose of discussing what was and what is with little energy focused on the future vision that serves as a guiding North Star. These events typically take on a negative tone where grievances are aired, and previous decisions are rehashed with frustrated comments about what should have been done differently.
Do this to maintain balance:
Intermingle historical reflection and future visioning in a thoughtful way that produces a more meaningful outcome. This needs to be a time-bound, facilitated set of activities and discussions that produces an accurate portrayal of what is and a collective vision of what could be. Start with a time of reflection, encouraging leaders to take time to write down what lessons they’ve learned and what victories should be celebrated. This mix of critical examination and positive celebration will encourage the conversation to stay productive as people share what they wrote. Then move to a time of future visioning in which leaders imagine where they want the team to be 1 year from now (or some other specifically designated period of time). As they collectively discuss the future they envision for the team, call them back to the lessons they captured previously and how those lessons should be applied to achieve this vision. Discuss the current challenges that stand in the way and drive the leaders to define tangible actions that need to be taken (and who needs to take them) to move toward this vision.
Generally speaking, more senior leaders spend too much time discussing high-level conceptions and theoretical propositions that have little practical value, and more junior leaders obsess about granular tactics, wasting time on narrowly detailed actions that get them stuck in the weeds. Neither outcome is valuable. When too much time is dedicated to strategic conversations, those discussions typically evolve into vague phrases being thrown around that are incredibly difficult to translate into tangible actions after the team offsite concludes. Conversely, team offsites that overly focus on tactical issues are uninspiring and lack a bigger picture that enables the team to place their decisions and actions into context. They walk away from the event knowing what needs to be done now but have little perspective on what needs to be done in the future.
Do this to maintain balance:
Leaders will gravitate to the conceptual (strategic) or the concrete (tactical) depending on their preference, but most forget or avoid discussing the connecting level of tasks – the operational. It is at this intersection where strategic concepts are translated to actionable initiatives and tactical work is prioritized and resourced in light of the bigger picture. In most organizations, this is the realm of the mid-level leader (or middle manager). Theirs is a key voice you need to invite into the team offsite. Invite leaders at different levels of the organization to participate in select portions of the agenda. If you are holding an offsite for a senior leadership team, bring in a group of mid-level and frontline leaders to pressure-test the clarity and actionability of the strategy. If your team offsite is for mid-level or frontline leaders, be sure to invite key executives to engage in resourcing and prioritizing discussions. It is useful for the executive to cast their vision and explain the strategy through their perspective, but the true value of their presence will be in the active discussion that follows in which they can hear about the challenges faced by those on the frontlines and actively address those challenges in partnership with the team.
Many leaders fall victim to the misconception that quantity is a measurement of productivity – the more topics we cover or the more discussion we have, the more valuable the team offsite. This underlying belief often shapes the agenda, which translates to lots of activity with few useful outcomes. For those leaders who feel most comfortable with structure, this manifests in a rigidly controlled agenda that embraces the tyranny of the clock. Discussions, regardless of value, are cut off and placed into a “parking lot” that is never revisited. Leaders walk away from the experience feeling that their voices weren’t heard and that they only scratched the surface of real issues. For those extroverted leaders who don’t mind ambiguity and love to prioritize conversation, this results in loose team offsites that revolve around a few meandering topics, chosen for their potential to elicit engagement, not because they address a business imperative. Leaders leave these team offsites feeling disoriented and frustrated that nothing of worth was accomplished.
Do this to maintain balance:
The team leader should never lead the team offsite. The critical conversations that need to take place will be negatively influenced by the power dynamics, and the leader will have a hard time fully engaging in the experience as they become distracted by the logistics of running the event. Employ an outside facilitator to lead the team offsite. This individual can be a consultant or vendor external to the organization, or it can be a talented facilitator from a different function or team within your organization. An outside voice will be more objective, accurately assessing if a topic or conversation will meet the original objectives of the team offsite. This outcome-focused perspective will allow the facilitator to maintain balance, following a structured agenda while flexing to cultivate meaningful dialogue along the way. The key is that this facilitator must be involved during the planning stages of the team offsite when objectives are defined, and the agenda is drafted. It is this broader context that will allow them to make quick judgments to make the most of the experience.
On a final note, the realities of our changing world cannot be ignored as leaders schedule their team offsites. Travel restrictions, market fluctuations, and COVID-19 spikes make planning events a challenge even on the best of days. Spending time to develop a virtual team offsite contingency plan is time well spent. This contingency plan needn’t have every detail ironed out, but preemptively answering a few critical questions will enable you to pivot rapidly if life throws a curveball.
- Will the outcomes/objectives change if this is virtual?
- What topics must be prioritized and who could facilitate them virtually?
- How can we still build in moments of relationship-building in a virtual setting?
- What platform will we use and who will provide technical support to make sure it goes smoothly?
Regardless of being virtual or in-person, team offsites are essential to refocus on the mission, align on priorities, forge better working relationships, and energize the team. However, achieving those outcomes are contingent on a thoughtful design, and at the heart of that design must be balanced tensions.