Questionable thoughts on off-sites

Over at Fast Company, Heath Row reflects on offsites. He shares Cheryl Dahle’s article Can This Off-Site be Saved?. I’m a sceptic about offsites; it’s all too easy to go away from the office have a wildly different experience then return to the office and get straight back to business as usual. Maybe we’d do better to ask ourselves: what is so wrong with our office environment what we can’t create engagement on-site?

The article gives a lot of interesting ideas about what works and doesn’t and certainly confirms that offsites are often perceived as a waste of time. There are some provocative ideas in here for ways to disrupt conventional thinking and engage people’s attention. And I’d like to push back on one or two of the injunctions.

Because many offsites aren’t satisfying, there’s an understandable desire for a sense of purpose. Thus we get

“People who are involved in planning off-sites aim too low,” says Brenda Williams, a founding partner of the Lab, a Chicago-based branding firm. “They see them as a chance for people to get to know each other, to get away, or to share information. These planners aren’t thinking strategically: What problem will this event solve? What decision will it help people make? What new ideas will it produce? You have to anchor an off-site with goals that actually mean something to the business.”

I undertand the concern, but I dislike the implication that getting to know each other is somehow a lower order priority. It depends on where people are coming from. For instance in a workaholic culture, the chance to relax and engage with each other with less urgency strikes me as a rather important thing. Indeed, the most profound creative challenge for some people is to have to stop and create relationship instead of rushing around demanding instant action.

Again, consider this:

Take-away #1: Agree on a definition of victory that matters

In many ways a sensible-sounding idea but where is the space for suprising ideas to emerge if we have to go in to a room agreeing where we’re all going to come out? What if we start the event putting faith in those attending to create engagement and get what they want instead of assuming they have to be carefully choreographed to do it?

Or this:

Take-away #3: If you want mind-blowing results, expose people to mind-blowing ideas

That may sometimes work, but if your organisation is highly adrenalised already, maybe what it needs to create new thinking is to destress and become more sensitive? It’s too easy to fixate on the final moment of a creative process, where the “big idea” pops out, without noticing the web of conversations and rambling enquiries that may have set the scene for it. I can think of several conferences I’ve seen where the leaders “mind blowing experience” is received merely as bullying or wildly distracting.

There are several digs at “ropes” courses and I absoutely get this point

Sin #2: Placing too much trust in trust-building exercises. “You can see it in people’s faces the minute they get the schedule: ‘Oh God, not the ropes thing again,’ ” says Brenda Williams, a founding partner of the Lab, a branding agency in Chicago. Adds Donna Thompson, chief operating officer of Fusion Productions, which organizes events for major companies and associations: “Whether someone can climb a tree has nothing to do with whether they know how to market a product. Besides, people would rather be home with their families than playing games with their boss.”

But that so much depends on the way the games are played and how people are facilitated. That’s where game-playing often goes awry; in the failure to connect the exercise to people’s daily lives. And then again, a certain amount of disruption and frustration are inherent in a learning process. I have often been thrilled at the enthusiasm with which supposedly straight-laced people engage with allegedly simple Improv activities – and learn from them.

And I certainly agree with Sins 3 and 4

Sin #3: Investing too much power in PowerPoint. “If I could, I would enforce a worldwide ban on that software,” Thompson says. “Every time we work with executives, we try to get them to do without slides. It’s like getting a toddler to give up his blanket.”

Sin #4: Giving too much time to Mr. Big. The best way to lose energy at an off-site is to turn over the podium to executives who aren’t invested in the event. John Con

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