September 18, 2017
What is a Team Offsite
Teams large and small need to get out to a new location, step away from their day-to-day , and build team spirit and solve a business problem. This meeting is called a team offsite. According to the Harvard Business Review “Unfortunately, many team building offsites turn out to be ineffective, or worse. Sometimes, it’s because the sense of unity and cohesion that gets created when everyone is together having “fun” outside of the office doesn’t last long once everyone gets back to work. Other times, “team building activities” have the unintended consequence of bringing out competition and hostility between individuals instead of enhancing commitment and cohesion within the team.”
So when our client reached out to us to plan their offsite we took this lesson to heart and kept a clear delineation between fun and work. For us to create an awesome team-building day with a “play within a play,” wherein the leader and the team use the stage to rehearse the new dynamics and norms that they want to perform back at the office or take on the road. It’s important to be mindful in scripting your team’s offsite that the same challenges and opportunities that you and your team are facing in general will come to the surface. For example, if the goal of the offsite is to encourage all team members to be more participative, it’s helpful for everyone to provide input into the structure and agenda for the meeting, and then to participate at the actual meeting. If the goal is to clarify roles and responsibilities, it’s useful to be very clear about everyone’s roles and responsibilities in preparing for the meeting, as well as during the meeting itself.
The paradox and the challenge of offsite meetings for leaders and their teams is that to raise the likelihood that the offsite will have a successful and lasting outcome, changes need to be made before the offsite even occurs. This kind of preparation makes progress much more likely. But getting all of this interdependent sequencing right is neither simple nor easy.
Some best practices can help. Here are some suggested “Don’ts and Do’s” for planning your next team offsite:
Don’t let the team’s old dynamics constrain the new dynamics that you’re trying to create. For example, if members of your team are reluctant to speak up and challenge one another inside the office, don’t assume that they’ll magically feel more comfortable doing so just because they’ve gathered together at an offsite location. Consider randomly assigning people to argue opposing points of view, and encourage them to discuss and debate alternative perspectives or strategies.
Don’t focus too much on the strengths, development needs, or personalities of individual members of the team. Too often, offsite meetings involve each member of the team taking a personality assessment such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and then sharing their results with each other. While it is tempting to attribute team dynamics to the personalities and styles of individual members, it’s almost always the case that team interactions go beyond individual personalities and are impacted by factors such as stakeholder demands, the clarity of goals, roles and priorities, available resources, etc. How to collectively respond to the team’s overall challenges and opportunities should be a higher priority topic for discussion than how team members’ personalities may influence individual interactions. Focusing on individuals can be helpful at times, but comes at the cost of focusing on the team as a whole.
Don’t abdicate your authority, or send mixed messages about your role. If you are the leader of the team, you will also be expected to exercise at least some leadership or decision-making in the “play within a play” at the offsite. Pretending that you are simply an equal member of the team during the offsite will not be credible or helpful to anyone, In order to empower your team, it’s best to be mindful of the leadership role you have, which enables you to delegate authority both at the offsite and thereafter.
Don’t have people dress up in military garb and hunt each other down in the forest, in the jungle, or anywhere else for that matter. Also, don’t get into go-karts and try to run each other off the track. And don’t do anything else that causes the team to engage in dysfunctional conflict or competition among individuals. Doing so will create dynamics that are “all against all” instead of the desired “all for one and one for all.”
Don’t force anyone to sing, or even to have to listen to, karaoke. “Trust falls” and singing Kumbaya are also best avoided, since trust falls can end badly, and very few people really want to sing Kumbaya. These kinds of activities can create the perfect storm of irony and cynicism among participants. Also, you and your HR business partner don’t want any embarrassing footage showing up on YouTube, do you?
Do be clear about goals for the offsite, and create an agenda that reflects and reinforces those goals. For example, in looking at its work, the team may want to do the following: 1) Engage in reflections about past performance to consider what the team has done well and what it could have done better; 2) Discuss and debate current opportunities and challenges; and 3) Create strategic plans for the future. The team may also want to set goals for how to do each of the above in a way that improves interactions at the meeting, e.g. to look at the past, present and future in a more open, constructive, participative, and forward-looking manner.
Do set ground rules. Make sure that everyone knows that the offsite should be a safe space where people can speak up and constructively challenge one another, and you, without any fear of reprisal. It’s also helpful to pledge confidentiality, meaning that the content of what is said at the offsite is for you and your team alone, and will not get shared with others back at the office — unless the team reaches a consensus about authorizing any specific messages or information that will be communicated.
Do gather anonymous input and suggestions. When a team has a given pattern of interactions, it may be difficult for team members to suggest how to change this pattern without implicitly or explicitly challenging one another, or you as the leader of the team. Soliciting anonymous suggestions about what should or should not be on the agenda can yield better choices for you and the team. Hiring an outside facilitator can also be helpful in this regard, as he or she can interview team members and gather their feedback and suggestions for both the structure and the content of the planned offsite.
Do plan activities that actually build the team. One activity that I’ve found genuinely builds a sense of interdependence and collaboration is cooking a meal together, and then eating it together as a group. At some primitive level, people that we hunt or gather with, cook with and then eat with become our allies rather than our adversaries. Public service and volunteer projects, such as fixing up a school or playground, or building housing for the needy, can also build team spirit while giving back to the community.
Do build in process reflection time. Towards the end of the meeting, ask yourself and your team “Have we achieved our goals during this offsite, in terms of tasks and interactions, processes and outcomes? Did we create a new, more effective pattern of communication and collaboration, or of discussion and debate? Did I effectively lead the meeting? Did we together successfully create a “play within a play” that sets a positive precedent for new ways of interacting going forward?”
Do schedule follow-up. The most common complaint about team building offsites is that there is no follow-up, or insufficient follow-up, that any progress that has been made turns out to be temporary, and that any goals that have been set fall by the wayside. Scheduling a follow-up offsite, or at least a check-in meeting, three months, six months or a year after the initial offsite can help ensure that the team stays focused on making progress and sustaining positive change.
A successful team building offsite can provide an opportunity for the team to change old patterns and create and sustain new ways of communicating and collaborating, thereby changing the team’s dynamics for the better. That is to say, with the right inputs, preparation, process and follow-up, the temporary microcosm of the “play within a play” at the offsite location can have enduring benefits in the team’s overall interactions once everyone is back in the office.