Children brainstorming.

How do you feel when you are invited to a one or two-day strategy off-site? Are you excited by the anticipation of getting involved in resolving critical issues, or do you immediately check your calendar to find the perfect excuse not to attend?

Most leaders, whether they run a team, a department or the entire business, look to have at least one or two sessions a year where they can take a selected group away from the daily pressures of business, develop their strategy and identify priorities for performance improvement.

Over the years I have led dozens of such sessions. From that experience – both positive and negative! – here are my seven lessons for success.

  1. Clarify your objectives well in advance.

    Too many off-site meetings suffer from fuzzy objectives, resulting in topics being introduced at the last minute, discussions based on immediate gut feel rather than facts, and time spent on issues that are tangential to the future performance of the group. One or two specific objectives should be set 6-10 weeks ahead of the meeting to allow relevant information to be gathered and the session planned effectively.

  2. Match participants to the objectives.

    Getting as many senior people as possible in the room is not necessarily the best way to achieve your objectives. The temptation is to invite too many people, but ask yourself what are you trying to achieve? If you are after new ideas and thinking a diverse and larger group is appropriate, but if you are after making some critical decisions fewer people in the room is generally best. Alternatively, a session that is focused on implementing solutions benefits from the involvement of front-line operational leaders.

  3. Share the data before the meeting.

    Nothing kills an off-site session quite like a series of powerpoint presentations. You can visibly see the life-force leaving the bodies of the participants as the presenter drones on like this: “Obviously you can’t quite read this on the screen as the font’s too small, but it shows that 17% of the 32% who said they were interested in the product, account for 23% of the 6% growth in this sector of the market”. Instead, share relevant data ahead of the off-site, both through short, pithy(!) papers and through individual or small-group briefing sessions. You can then focus the off-site agenda on the real work that’s required.

  4. The route to success is involvement.

    The off-site’s #1 driver of success is meaningful involvement. If, as leader, you offer your opinions too early it can kill the meeting’s energy and momentum. Instead, you should find ways to get participants actively involved in the meeting, rather than becoming passive observers of the session. That’s why the use of an external facilitator can be important, and why including smaller, break-out discussions (where everyone can have the chance to contribute), scoring and voting mechanisms, and workshop-style processes that structure the debate are so useful.

  5. Content trumps process.

    More people are turned on by discussions and dialogue on the content of the organisation’s business (e.g. what businesses should we be in over the next 5 years?) than they are by process debates (e.g. what are the pro-formas we need to fill out to complete the pack for the group plan?). Make sure that your time is at least 80% content-focused to maintain involvement, engagement and energy.

  6. Remember, you don’t need to solve everything.

    Last week, I facilitated an off-site session where the group agreed 3 immediate growth priorities but were unable to agree on which others, from a list of 15 or more options, should be taken forward. In my view, agreeing the initial three priorities was a success, and we were quickly agreed that a small sub-group would follow-up on the meeting to review the remaining priorities and make further recommendations.

  7. Follow-up.

    In successful off-sites, the energy that comes from participants engaging in meaningful discussion on their most important issues means that action planning becomes a natural next-step to move things forward, rather than a painful necessity where everyone hopes the finger won’t be pointed at them. At the conclusion of the off-site you should agree three things: (1) Determine the actions required and assign responsibilities; (2) How you will manage progress of your agreed next steps; and (3) If and how you will communicate the conclusions and outcomes of the off-site to the wider organization.

Off-site sessions should be the catalyst for growth and improvement, not an irrelevance or irritation. Which of these 7 secrets could help your off-site meetings be more successful and productive?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.