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Ahh, January. The scent of new beginnings is in the air. We’re recharged after our holiday breaks, ready to tackle the tough questions awaiting us back at the office. There are strategies to form! Plans to be made! Painted pictures to be, er… painted! This can only mean one thing.

It’s offsite season, baby.

Offsite meetings can just as easily be loathed as loved. When they’re done well, they’re a brilliant use of time. But when they fail, they fail hard.

So what’s the difference between offsites that succeed and offsites that suck? It’s all about the human factor.

In my role as a senior program manager, I mentor my colleagues on how to run effective offsite meetings. Most facilitators start out thinking that the secret is booking a killer location and crafting the perfect agenda. Don’t get me wrong: those things are important. But the real trick is handling the human dynamics thoughtfully during the event itself.

What offsite meetings are really about

Offsites are one part of an extended conversation – about strategy, goals, and/or tactics. They’re a time to bring people together to make decisions so you can go back to the office the next day and start taking action.

But if people don’t understand (or agree on) what outcomes they’re driving toward, or don’t feel they’re voice is being heard, your offsite will derail before the first coffee break.

Attendees walk in the door with different priorities. They often represent different job functions, and may even report to different managers – in which case, their performance may be judged by different measures. At the very least, they’ll have different backgrounds, personality types, and communication styles.

The key is to harness that individuality. Create space for divergence of thought, then guide the group back toward convergence and consensus. To pull that off, your focus as facilitator has to be on the human element.

Here are nine ways to do that.

1. Keep the groups as small as possible

It’s tempting to cram in as many people as your offsite location will hold. And that’s understandable, especially when you consider all the work that goes into the planning. It seems a shame not to include everyone. But resist that temptation.

In my experience, the ideal working group size is 5-10 people. With fewer than five, you’re unlikely to get the divergent and diverse thought that makes offsite meetings worthwhile. But expand the group past ten, and it’s difficult to have an inclusive conversation.

When selecting your attendees, consider factors like experience level, job role, and tenure at the company (or on the team). Try to assemble a group that has some diversity along those lines. It can even be worth considering including someone from “outside the team”, as well. If your offsite is all about brand strategy, for example, a member of the customer service team might bring in a fresh and valuable perspective.

Regardless of the total headcount, it’s a good idea to split into smaller working groups of 3-4 for some activities and come back together as a group to discus the results. Have each group iterate on separate work streams and demo their progress back to the other teams regularly to get their feedback and input.

2. Make sure each participant is invested and engaged

It’s not enough to get everyone excited a week in advance, then put engagement on the back burner until it’s time to send out the post-offsite feedback surveys. A great facilitator nurtures engagement the whole way through.

Prior to the offsite, check in with each participant individually to find out what they want to get out of the day. Review the agenda with them, and note the activities that are aligned with their goals. Maybe even look for a way they can play a lead role in those sessions. The check-in should be quick (both for their sake, and yours) – a desk side chat of 5-10 minutes should be enough.

If you think you’re going to have an attendee who will disrupt the sessions it can be a good idea to assign them a role that channels their disruptive tendencies into something positive. I do this by asking them to be the designated “challenger” during certain sections of the day. This lets them flex their challenging muscles in a way that helps the group consider the full breadth of problems and possibilities before reaching a conclusion.

Then at the top of each item on the agenda, plan to take five minutes to discuss what will be a successful outcome for that session. Confirming this as a group gives everyone some agency, which, in turn, helps keep them engaged. Your definition of success also serves as a touchstone that helps you recognize when you’ve veered off-course, and gives you the air-cover to interrupt an unproductive thread of discussion and bring things back to center.

3. Establish the social contract a-fresh

You’re not in the office, so don’t feel like you have to stick to your usual office culture. This is the perfect opportunity to change things up a bit. (Actually, that holds true even if your “offsite” is really an on-site.) Could be as simple switching the dress code from “business casual” to just “casual for the day. Or you might get more creative.

If your offsite agenda includes breakfast, I recommend using that time to do some informal social contract setting as a group. I like to do an abbreviated version of the rules of engagement exercise we program managers often use with our teams at the office. Everyone gets a chance to suggest a cultural norm for the day – leave laptops closed, make your comments brief so everyone gets a chance to speak, bad puns are encouraged, etc. – then you decide collectively which norms you’ll adopt.

Take a page from the Atlassian Team Playbook, and run the “Rules of Engagement” play to collaboratively set the social norms for your offsite.

Use this moment to clarify your role as the facilitator, too. Remind the group that your job is to keep the discussion focused and productive. You’ll be asking tough questions. Tabling off-topic ideas. Drawing people in and (respectfully) cutting people off as the situation requires.

These can be uncomfortable steps, even for seasoned meeting facilitators. But establishing them as part of the social contract upfront provides a little confidence boost.

4. Create a parking lot

Parking lots are a great mechanism for tabling conversations that are important-but-off-topic, or dive too deep for the full group. The simple act of capturing these in writing so they can be continued later at a more appropriate time gives comfort to people who are passionate about them.

If you have butcher’s paper available, post up a piece on the wall and label it “Parking Lot”. Or cordon off a section of whiteboard. Then note the topics and conversations you’re tabling throughout the day.

Make sure to refer back to the parking lot at the end of the day to determine which (if any) topics you should follow up on, and which can be closed.

5. Make each session about solving a problem or getting to a decision

Let’s be honest: offsite meetings are expensive. The cost of your location and food pale in comparison to the cost in staff time and the opportunity cost of being off-site instead of doing your regular work back at the office. Best to make the most of the time you have.

The real value of offsite meetings is getting people to exchange ideas in real time and the creative thinking that results from it. Avoid spending wasting time consuming information as a group. No hour-long presentations or document reviews, please. That sort of thing should be pre-offsite homework, or in the case of presentations, be done at the office before hand.

That said, there are times when it’s useful to (briefly!) present the current state of something or a proposed change so you can discus it as a group. It’s important to recognise when a preso adds value vs. when that time could be used for something more valuable.

6. Ask hard questions

The more assumptions are challenged – the more “what if?”s and “so what?”s posed – the more successful your offsite will be.

“Why?” is one of the toughest questions known to humankind. That’s your go-to as facilitator. Listen for assumptions and hidden questions in what people are saying. When a discussion stalls out or starts to resemble a broken record, the jolt delivered by asking “why?” can shift things back on course.

If it’s not obvious which idea is ripe for dissection, look to the whiteboard or clusters of sticky notes posted up. Is there a root-level notion that could be challenged? Or if not challenged, clarified?

Asking “How do we know that?” or “What if it weren’t that way?” will do one of two things: crack open more space for new ideas, or confirm and deepen the group’s understanding of the idea in question. Either way, you’ve gained something.

7. Push for outcomes

Don’t let your team off the hook with a lot of “maybe”s and “possibly”s. You’re here to make decisions and recommendations.

I find it helps to determine the DACI for each decision you take on. DACI is a framework for making effective decisions in a timely manner. You identify the decision’s driver (D), approver (A), contributors (C), and those who’ll be informed once the decision is made (I). Deciding who plays which role usually doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and will pay for itself many times over.

Write the DACI for each decision on butcher’s paper or a whiteboard so it’s easily visible throughout the offsite. More on the DACI framework is available on the Atlassian Team Playbook website. (It’s free, and open to all teams!)

You won’t reach 100% consensus on every decision, which is why having a designated approver (i.e., decider) is important. And that’s OK. Effective teamwork doesn’t mean full agreement on everything. Effective teamwork means agreeing to trust each other and rally behind decisions once they’re made.

8. Tune into the group dynamics

You knew this was coming, right? If you allow one or two vocal (though likely well-meaning) personalities to dominate the room, you’re not getting that all-important divergence of thought – not to mention giving everyone else in the room an invitation to tune out. Which means your offsite is less effective than it could otherwise have been.

Not everyone uses their voice in the moment, but everyone has something to add. Your agenda and facilitation should take that into consideration so there’s space for different people to use their voice in different ways.

A good offsite facilitator creates space for different people to use their voice in different ways.

There are three ways you can use your power as facilitator to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. First, gently draw people into the conversation if they haven’t spoken yet. “I know Monique has worked quite a bit in this area… Monique, are there other things we should be considering here?”

Second, ask dominating voices to make space for, and listen to, others. Wait for them to pause for breath, then step in with the “I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak before we run out of time… Are there any responses to what Darren’s just said, or new ideas to add?” I know this can be awkward. Especially for new facilitators. Another reason establishing the social contract and your role as facilitator up front is helpful.

Quite often the dominating voices comes from the senior people in the group. Giving them a heads-up in advance that you want to get others to speak before them whenever possible can really set an inclusive tone for the whole offsite.

And asking them to frame statements as questions will bring others into the discussion and challenge their view. (e.g., “What are the benefits of taking this approach?” instead of “I think this approach has a lot of benefits.” ) After all, you are looking to harness the diverse thinking of the group.

That covers your classic quiet, and vocal, types. But there’s a third type, often overlooked: people who are wired to reflect, then come back with deeper insights and considered opinions. To give them a voice on the day of the offsite, when it makes the biggest impact, design some iterative thinking exercises. These people may not speak much during the first iteration, but they’ll make big contributions during the revisions, to the benefit of all.

9. Make it fun… but not too fun

All work and no play makes your offsite a dull day. But play it smart. If the point of the offsite isn’t team bonding, then don’t pile in a bunch of team bonding activities.

As facilitator, you get to read the crowd and be the “energy DJ” (strobe lights and turntables optional). When the vibe gets a bit too downtempo, you don’t need much to bring it back up. A round of Human Rock Paper Scissors, or corporate jargon Charades, or a silly walks contest is usually enough to break the monotony and re-lubricate the brain.

Safety dance

Humans need psychological safety almost as much as we need air. In fact, a recent study from Google found this oh-so human need had more influence over a team’s health and performance than any other factor. More than experience level, more than diversity, more than efficiency.

Humans also need to be outside their comfort zone in order for real growth to take place. And therein lies the rub.

Your job as facilitator is to balance those needs against each other. To create a space for divergent thought where new ideas emerge and assumptions are challenged and all voices are heard. Coaxing a group to dance between safety and uncertainty is an art form. But it’s one you can master, bit by bit.

Try a few of these tactics next time you facilitate an offsite meeting – or any meeting, for that matter. And check out the Atlassian Team Playbook for details on the Rules of Engagement and DACI plays.

With the right activities and the right focus on the human element, your offsite can be a smashing success.


Also published on Medium.

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