Preparing Your Offsite Meeting to Get the Outcomes You Want
Shem Cohen, MSOD is an organization and management consultant who specializes in strategic planning, leading change and the design and facilitation of mission-critical meetings. His work is included in three globally published books on best-practice collaborative planning and has served clients across large corporate, not-for-profit, government and small business arenas. Read More >
When making the investment to bring people together for one or more days, it’s wise to put in the upfront prep and design work to achieve desired outcomes. Whenever people come together to accomplish something, there are thematic material (content) and human factor nuances to attend to. These are both obvious and subtle in order to create the right journey for this group dealing with this theme at this time. When planners pay attention to these considerations, a solid meeting design emerges which engenders learning and best-informed decisions; and a process flow – a sequence of interactions – which builds partnership, support and, most importantly, action.
1. Have a Clear and Explicit Goal
What do you want your attendees to walk away with? What outcomes do you want to see as a result of this meeting? The goal must be important to the organization or group as well as meaningful to attendees. To help get to the right goal, a thought exercise called 5 Why’s can be helpful. While goals may often be initially identified, these first thoughts may not address core issues or get to the root of your key strategic questions. The 5 Why’s exercise can help get to the root of your goals by asking “why” numerous times. If the goal is to create a new strategy for the organization, you may ask, “why is this needed and why now?” This can deepen your understanding of the reasons, including changing markets/customer needs or funding streams, past performance gaps, or organizational issues that beg understanding in more thorough ways. If the goal is to achieve greater alignment and motivation within the group, asking why will shed light on specific areas in need of solutions.
Once a clear and meaningful goal is determined, you can work backward to determine what learning is needed, what bridges built (or repaired), what decisions need to be made and what partnership/support between group members and beyond is needed to take effective action.
2. The Right People Are Present
Who needs to be at the table? It’s important to have a systems thinking lens when determining this answer. There is most often expertise, information and/or authority outside the boundary of an intact group that is critical to sound decision making and successful implementation of new strategies or initiatives. Widening the circle is always a benefit as people learn from others from across the larger system of which they are a part. For example, if managers are looking to improve customer intimacy and service, it’s helpful (and often enlightening) to have several front-line people present who know the customers best. When looking to determine who ‘the right’ people are for the meeting, it’s helpful to draw from the planning of a Future Search Conference (a multi stakeholder, cross-boundary planning conference model). The acronym, “ARE IN” may also be helpful. Be sure to include people with Authority, access/control of Resources, Expertise, Information and Need (or a ‘stake in outcomes’). Doing so will significantly increase the probability of necessary insights, powerful learning and effective action.
3. Determine How Decisions Will Be Made
Leaders have choices to make about levels of shared decision-making. Different approaches are best suited for different situations. But the one consistent reality across interactions is, the more participative a process, the greater the buy-in and likelihood of action. In important meetings this doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘telling’ has to be less engaging than ‘co-creating’ so long as the meeting is designed with this in mind and people are engaged honestly and contribute meaningfully. The difference between co-creating and telling is in the charter established for the group. One example of how leaders and groups work together to come to action is a GE Work Out. Leaders frame the challenge, the group explores the situation and comes up with solutions which are then presented to (often a team of) leaders who then need to make decisions in real time. While authority clearly rests with leaders, there is a process of vetting, partnership and agreement between leadership and group members about the ultimate actions to be taken. Final decision-making may rest with the leaders, but a Work Out is still a highly-engaging and participative process. If the desire is to come to decisions as a group (co-creating), then determining whether this occurs through consensus or majority is an important distinction to make in order to create a meeting design that will fulfill this criteria.
4. Think Systems
Every group, department, division, line of business, organization, association, community or industry is a system nested within a larger system which wields great influence, signals important trends, and presents opportunities, constraints and threats. When looking to create best-informed decisions and manifest action on the part of any group, it’s important to design a portion of the time developing a collective lens of the big picture in context of the theme of the meeting. This accomplishes several important things. First, regardless of the goal – whether strategic planning, developing an execution plan, designing new products or service offerings, building organizational capabilities or integrating groups pre- or post-merger – it’s essential that everyone sees the whole before trying to address any of the parts. Not doing so invites ‘fixes that backfire’ or potentially costly unintended consequences. Secondly, a team comes together best when they collectively develop an understanding (and a feeling) that they all share the same world. When preparing for a meeting it’s helpful to ask, “what’s the global picture that would be helpful for us to establish in context of our goal?” and, “how can we best engage everyone in co-creating this big picture during the first portion of our time together?”
5. Within this Group, What are Logical Stakeholder Groupings to Offer Unique Lenses to Bring to the Table?
Even within intact teams, there are those who work in different functions and bring a unique lens to the table of the organization, the work, customers and the environment. Think Systems, or each person or stakeholder group (which can be as few as two and as many as a dozen or more in large group meetings) bring important insights in context of the planning goal from their part of the forest. Bringing these insights together in an intentional way to shape a gestalt understanding is critical for developing the big picture lens mentioned above. In so doing, you are helping everyone to see the forest from the trees.
Using stakeholder groupings is also an important step in team development. Groups can only achieve integration after a phase of differentiation (see Differentiation-Integration Theory). Groupings can be structured by functions, levels and even tenure within the organization or generation. When working with executive teams, these stakeholder groupings are often comprised of just one or two leaders. So long as people identify with this category and offer a lens that is unique and of value, it will serve the content flow of data to be considered and, as importantly, serve the whole through a process of differentiation on the road to integration around vision, decisions and/or values. This structure generally plays out during a portion of the meeting that is dedicated to stakeholder perspectives. These groups meet in breakouts exploring questions related to the theme and then bring their perspectives to the whole. Later in the meeting, breakouts are structured as mixed groups and deal with questions of vision, solutions, or decision making, thus integrating into a cohesive whole.
Another benefit of structuring a portion of the meeting this way is that a stakeholder group will generally feel okay about raising important issues that individuals might otherwise feel reluctant to do if they were operating on their own.
6. Disseminate Data to be Considered Prior to the Meeting so that people have some seep time to reflect and understand, as well as to maximize, meeting time in order to focus on engagement, explorations, learning and decision making.
7. Pay Attention to Logistics so the agenda runs as designed without snafu’s to work around. Ensure that people arrive on time, have their personal needs met, equipment is set and functioning and meals/other activities run smoothly and on schedule.
Lastly, I have found these tips very helpful when designing important meetings. They should be on every meeting planner’s desk as they prepare to bring people together to accomplish something important for the group or organization:
People are energized by interactions:
• in which a compelling vision is created.
• in which they can contribute meaningfully.
• when participants are fully engaged in interactions.
• marked by progress.
• when hope becomes part of the equation.
(MIT Sloan Management Review, “What Creates Energy in Organizations?” by Cross, Baker and Parker, 2003).
Learn more about hosting your offsite meeting with us.
* These fields are required.