An Expert’s Guide to a Successful Offsite Meeting

Team building is an essential part of growing a successful business, yet everyone appears to have a different point of view on the best way to achieve that goal. The group offsite is a favourite, taking the team to a new space to think differently, to evoke some creativity, or to just get things done without the distractions of being in the office.

Suggesting a team offsite inspires dreams of Necker Island with Richard Branson, but the reality is more like an overnight in the Hunter Valley for whiteboard brainstorming, a themed party, and motivational speaker’s inspirational story.

While it sounds like great fun for everyone except the company’s CFO, the truth is that the extravagance of taking the team somewhere spectacular doesn’t necessarily deliver the magic dust of strong bonds and understanding needed for successful and effective business.

A few years ago, Google set out to crack the formula for what makes a successful team via data analysis. They called it Project Aristotle and theorised it might be the result of combining extroverts, introverts and friends together. But they couldn’t find any correlation between team membership based on those parameters and success. The simple fact is that who’s on the team is less important than how they interact.

Charles Duhigg, the best-selling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better, was part of Project Aristotle and explained the key attributes in team culture that lead to success. The first was giving everyone the chance to speak equally in meetings. Duhigg dubbed it “equality in conversational turn-taking”. The second characteristic needed during a meeting is “ostentatious listening” – team leaders and members demonstrating that they’re listening to what the others have to say.

“If you have these two characteristics: conversational turn-taking and ostentatious listening, it creates what psychologists refer to as ‘psychological safety’… the single greatest correlate with a group’s success,” Duhigg told Business Insider.

In those circumstances, even people who don’t get along can be successful together as a team, Google found. “When a group feels like they are psychologically safe with each other, you unlock their best ideas, their ability to work together, their innovative capacities,” Duhigg said.

So now you know what to aim for, the question is how to do it in a team offsite.

Learning from the Best: Atlassian Advice

For advice on how to achieve that, we turn to the globally successful Australian tech company Atlassian. The company listed on the US NASDAQ in December 2015 under the symbol ‘TEAM’ and turned its Sydney-based founders, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes into tech billionaires overnight.

Atlasssian is famed for provocative, yet very Australian company values such as “no BS” and “don’t #@!% the customer”, and now has a market capitalisation in excess of $30 billion. Atlassian is all about the team, and its success is proof of that focus.

Before he recently moved on to become head of R&D at Safety Culture (another tech business Farquhar has invested millions in), former Atlasssian senior leader Mat Lawrence outlined nine principles for a successful offsite saying the key is to handle the human dynamics thoughtfully.

“Offsite meetings are one part of an extended conversation – about strategy, goals, and/or tactics,” Lawrence said.

To achieve that outcome, he has nine guidelines for success.

1. Keep the groups as small as possible

Between five and 10 people, Lawrence says. Any more and it’s difficult for the conversation to be inclusive. Fewer than five, and it can lack diversity.

2. Make sure each participant is invested and engaged

Lawrence’s view here aligns with the Google concept of psychological safety. He suggests spending 5-10 minutes on a desk-side chat with everyone individually to review the agenda and make sure their goals are aligned with it.

And he has a clever way of dealing with those with disruptive tendencies to make it positive – he gets them to be a designated “challenger” during certain sections. “This lets them flex their challenge muscles in a way that helps the group consider the full breadth of problems and possibilities before reaching a conclusion,” he says.

3. Establish the social contract a-fresh

“Take a page from the Atlassian Team Playbook and run the ‘Rules of Engagement’ play to collaboratively set the social norms for your offsite,” Lawrence says. That could mean the dress code or laptops closed. Whatever standards are set, they should be decided collectively.

Use that ‘norms’ setting to also clarify your role as facilitator as part of the day’s social contract.

4. Create a ‘parking lot’

Great ideas and conversations pop up but can be off-topic. To keep focus, without wasting that creativity, make a note of them under ‘parking lot’ and refer back to them at the end to decide whether they need following up.

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

Venue hire and catering is a modest cost compared to the expense of having your entire team offline for a day or two from the business.

Avoid long presentations and document reviews, make them part of the pre-offsite homework suggests Lawrence. Exchanging ideas and creative thinking should be the focus, with clear outcomes in mind.

“The real value of offsite meetings is getting people to exchange ideas in real time and the creative thinking that results from it,” he says.

6. Ask hard questions

Challenge assumptions, Lawrence urges, with more “What if’s” and “So what’s”. The more questions you pose, the more successful the offsite will be. “Why” is a tough question, and is useful if discussion stalls or becomes repetitive to get things back on course.

“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,” he says.

7. Push for outcomes

Make people commit rather than squib with a “maybe”. Atlassian has a technique called DACI to execute decisions.

“DACI is a framework for making effective decisions in a timely manner,” Lawrence says.

“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.”

The DACI framework is available for free on the Atlasssian website.

8. Tune into the group dynamics

Again, this is part of the conclusions from Google’s Project Aristotle. The facilitator is critical in this situation, especially if a few outspoken people are driving discussions. Lawrence says it’s essential that there’s space for different people to use their voice in different ways.

A good facilitator will draw quieter people into the discussion. Lawrence says that along with the ‘louds’ and ‘quiets’ there’s a third, oft-overlooked type of person in the room: the reflectors, “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,” he explains.

One trick to deal with the dominating voices, who are often senior team members, is to warn them in advance that you want to get others to speak first to create an inclusive tone.

9. Make it fun… but not too fun

Don’t be afraid to have fun at an offsite meeting, but, Lawrence says, if team bonding isn’t what the offsite is about, then don’t put a heap of team bonding exercises on the agenda.

You don’t need much to pick up the tempo if it starts to flag, he says. Try holding business jargon charades, or a silly walks contest to break the monotony.

And that means you can save parachuting with Richard Branson on Necker Island for next time.

Time for Fun and Socialising

One of the advantages of holding an offsite at a venue such as the Canada Bay Club is that it offers convenience, great value, state-of-the-art facilities and a waterside setting that has that get-out-of-town vibe just 10 minutes from Sydney’s CBD (and just 25 minutes from the airport). And as an added bonus, parking is free.

While you won’t find hot coals to walk over barefoot, teams can go walking or jogging together on the picturesque Bay Run to discuss their ideas further or clear their heads between sessions.

Of course, once your offsite meeting has finished for the day it is definitely time for a bit of fun and socialising. Why not book dinner at Baysia? The banquet menu is always popular with groups. Or order authentic Italian pizzas fresh from the wood-fired oven at The Brasserie. After an intense brainstorming session, it’s a good way to show appreciation for a job well done.

More about Mat Lawrence’s advice for a successful offsite is available here. Details from the Atlassian Team Playbook’s Rules of Engagement and DACI are available here.

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