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6 Tips for Running Offsites That Aren’t a Waste of Time

Let’s face it. Team strategy offsite meetings are expensive and time-consuming. While these events can provide a great environment for team building and alignment, such benefits can be short-lived and easily lost when team members move back into their day-to-day operations.

For the past 20 years, my team and I have worked closely with CEOs to plan and facilitate annual strategic planning offsites for executive teams. With facilitating these meetings, comes the responsibility to drive sustained results. We’ve learned what it takes to make offsites “sticky” — meaning that the outcomes team members walk away with have an ongoing impact on their business.

Whether you are running a small executive team offsite, or one for a larger group, here are six tips to make sure your next event has a lasting impact:

1) Be crystal clear about your objectives. Before the offsite, make sure you and your team are clear on what you hope to achieve during the event, as well as how you will measure success after it. Your objectives might include:

Working together to develop a clear set of strategic priorities and desired measurable outcomes that the team fully commits to. Developing a plan for follow-through and accountability with respect to achieving these goals after the event. Facilitating a structured and thoughtful discussion on how the team can improve performance.

As you craft your objectives, consider the following questions: What do you want the participants to understand, agree to, rally around, and ultimately act on? How do you want them to feel after the meeting, and what can you do to drive that?

Sticky tip: Complete the following statement, “I’d be really happy if, by the end of our offsite, we [fill in objectives here]. This clarity will help you set expectations with your team when you discuss the objectives of the offsite beforehand. It will also strengthen their confidence and increase their engagement by allowing them to prepare for the discussion.

2) Think twice about who should be invited. In our experience, leaders often make the mistake of inviting too many people to their offsites. When making your list of invitees, look closely at your objectives and ask yourself, “Am I better off with a large group, or a handful of key people who can work closely to develop a strategy?” While having a larger group may be more inclusive, the productivity of your meeting has the potential to decrease.

Larger groups often require you to engage more people, which can result in a more surface-level discussion. When people with varying levels of authority and skill sets are sitting around a table, there is a greater chance that politics, fear, or personal agendas will throw you off course. This can distract from the real conversations that need to happen for the event to meet your objectives. Inviting a smaller number of key people will allow you to have those conversations more easily.

Sticky tip: Map your attendee list to your objectives and make hard decisions about who to include if you must. It’s usually best to invite the executive-level team first. Get them aligned. Then, once the core team is on the same page, designate some time at the offsite to figure out the best approach for engaging the next level of employees once you return to the office.

3) Develop a detailed agenda. Once you have a clear set of objectives and an invite list, it’s time to create an agenda. Plan for each topic of discussion to last between 45 minutes to two hours maximum — this ensures that topics are neither cut too short nor watered down by having too much time allotted. With these guidelines in mind, you will likely be able to cover four to six topics in a full day. Your agenda planning should include:

Topics of discussion (i.e. Leader vision presentation, SWOT analysis, goal prioritization, team performance discussion)Specific objectives for each topic (i.e. understand leader direction, agree on SWOT, commit to three strategic goals, list three things the team can improve on)The types of activity or delivery modes you want to use (i.e. small group working sessions, large group facilitated discussions, brainstorms, knowledge presentations, panel discussions, Q&A sessions, games)The amount of time you want to designate to each topicA plan for the preparation work that needs to be done beforehand — by you, the organizer, or the team

Sticky tip: When you complete your agenda draft, check it against your objectives. You should be able to map each topic and activity back to each objective. Make sure everything lines up before finalizing. It may take a few rounds. You should also try to vary the delivery modes you decide upon. This will keep the energy of the team up and help them stay engaged throughout the meeting.

4) Prepare the logistics, messaging, materials, and templates. While the basic logistics of transportation, food, sleeping arrangements, social events, and the meeting venue will need to be arranged by someone on the team, don’t let this distract you from the more strategic task at hand — planning the higher-level details that will ensure stickiness. Take time well in advance of the event to work on the following:

Well-thought out messaging. How will you communicate objectives and expectations for the offWell-thought out messaging. How will you communicate objectives and expectations for the offsite, both prior and during? How will you frame the agenda? If you are assigning pre-work, how will you communicate the purpose and importance of it? Quality and vetted communication materials. What presentations or handouts are needed for the sessions you’ve mapped out? Who needs to be involved? What’s the timeline for completing them prior to the offsite? Thoughtfully-designed templates. What documents need to be prepared in advance to help you capture the work being done at the event? Sticky tips: Walk through the agenda to determine what templates you need. Some examples might include a SWOT grid, a KPI dashboard, a scorecard to capture strategic goals and targeted measurable outcomes, or a meetings/governance plan template. We also recommend that you, as the leader of the offsite, create a thoughtful kick off presentation to give at the start of the offsite. Doing so will set your team up to dig into the work. Plan for it to be about 45-75 minutes, depending on your objectives. Engage others to help you prepare your presentation or offer feedback in advance, and try to anticipate or collect questions from the audience beforehand. You should also be sure to include scheduled time for a Q&A following the presentation. Think of it as a way to align and set expectations with your team, both with respect to the offsite and the business in general. 5) At the event, focus on working on the business vs. in the business. Well-planned offsites that see lasting results move above the day-to-day operations and concentrate on the larger picture. Think of this time as an opportunity to do just that. Focus on strategic thinking and important issues that you haven’t had time think about at the office. Tune out mobile phones and leave laptops closed so you aren’t pulled back into everyday tasks. For example, you might use this time to make a decision you’ve been avoiding or haven’t had the resources to tackle. It could be phasing out a product line that is not viable, addressing a low retention rate, improving cross-departmental collaboration, or a big idea, like expanding to other geos. As you start to record team feedback, decisions, or goals, say no to flip charts, and instead, use an adapter to connect your computer to a larger screen and record notes live with your team. The visual will help them digest the information and allow you to have typed notes available for everyone immediately after the offsite. They will have the documents in their inboxes before they are back in the office, and can start putting the agreed upon plans to work right away. Sticky tip: As you move through the offsite, reference this idea of “working on the business” to pull people out of the weeds as needed. Frequently ask: What problem are we trying to solve? At what level do we need to be addressing this? What do we need to do to make sure we follow through on this after we leave this meeting? 6) At the close of the event, work together to create a team governance plan. To make sure the learnings and strategies you developed during the offsite are acted upon, take some time near the close of the event to discuss, as a team, what each person needs to do to drive the agreed upon plan forward. Then, be sure to schedule enough progress check-ins to ensure success. Outside of high quality output from your offsite, well-managed follow up meetings are the single most important factor in ensuring stickiness. As you develop your governance plan, ask: How will we hold each other accountable for executing on the plans and decisions agreed to at the offsite?What needs to go on the calendar?For each required check-in, who needs to be there and what is the agenda?How often should these meetings occur, and how much time is needed to accomplish the goals on the agenda?Can the meetings be conducted virtually, or do they need to be in-person? For example, if one of your outcomes from the offsite is to improve the working relationship between sales and delivery, then you may need to schedule regular weekly meetings with those two departments aimed at making that happen. Sticky tip: Agree on your governance plan at the offsite, and schedule your first few check-in meeting dates with the group while they are present. This will help everyone commit to follow-through, give you a forum to revisit the goals you established, and provide you with an opportunity to course correct if necessary. Don’t be surprised if your team is resistant to more meetings. The key is to emphasize the importance of follow-through while being thoughtful about how many meetings need to happen, how long they need to be, and with whom. Seek to create a plan that drives results but does not waste people’s time. It’s the combination of thoughtful planning prior to your offsite and mindful follow-through after that will make this annual event “sticky,” and well worth the investment. Your team will not only be more engaged, aligned, and prepared to better execute, but also grateful for the time spent. And more importantly, the health and success of the business will be better for it. Sources: Harvard Business Review

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