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Five No No's For Strategic Offsites

Five No No's For Strategic Offsites

Mike LaRhette
March 20th, 2011

Collective Next has run hundreds of strategic offsites over the years and while each one presents its own unique challenges in both design and delivery, there are a few guiding design principles we try to use when approachin them with our clients.  Here are five basic no-no’s we strive to maintain.

No PowerPoint
PowerPoint has been an easy target for years so this should be no surprise that it tops our list.  Nothing new here regarding its tiresome overuse, which has spawned such phrases as “death by powerpoint” and articles like the NY Times “U.S. Military’s War on PowerPoint”
in which Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster is quoted as saying  “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”  Yet still, meeting after meeting we see slides go up and blackberries and iPhones come out.
Instead - Focus on the information you want to discuss, and the behaviors you want to change as a result of the offsite.  It may lead you to more creative ways to communicate content and messages, and allow your participants to engage in the strategic design conversation through breakout groups, tradeshow rounds, vignettes, storyboards, fact books, and Collaborative Learning Maps.  If you really must have the backbone of slides or a slide based presentation at least explore the power of tools such as Keynote and Prezi to add some zing to your talk that doesn’t include just making words spin.

No Visible Agenda
Give people an agenda ahead of time and they will find a way to game it.  If the right people are there tackling the right problem with the right information at hand, only the start time, end time, goals and guardrails need to be made clear.  Make no mistake, the offsite facilitation team should have every minute planned and accounted for in the design, with several backup options depending on the progress through the agenda, but only they need to know that level of detail.

No Formal Breaks
Nothing sucks the momentum out of an offsite like a break, when 15 minutes turns into 30 and lunch turns into a must-have extended dialog between colleagues.   Breaks play an important part in keeping the mind fresh for optimal design thinking, and organizations like the Human Performance Institute cite research that suggests a break every ninety minutes. 
Instead - When conducting your strategic offsite just make sure that the breaks are self-managed and within the fabric of the agenda.  Adults are surprisingly self-sufficient when given this directive. Maximize the time you have with self-managed breaks through the day and working lunches to keep the steady and increasing pace of progress towards the offsite’s goal. 

No Vacationers
Strategic offsites create an interesting internal dynamic for organizations.  Who has been invited or left out?  Who are the right stakeholders invested in the outcome of the day?  Oftentimes we see the attendee list mushroom on the days leading up to a strategic offsite, and it usually happens for one of two reasons.  One, there is a realization that more people may have insight on the challenge and their participation may help the collective intelligence in the room, or two - politics.  For the latter, these people can sometimes be there just to not miss the event, and add no real value to the design challenge at hand.  This facilitation challenge will never go away, but there are some ways to manage it.
Instead - For everyone on the roster ask, what insight or information will they contribute to the problem, and what role will they have in carrying the solution forward? Don’t be afraid to shrink the group size to get the right amount of balanced dialog in the group, focusing solely on those whose contribution will advance towards meeting the goals of the day.  In addition, and in the offsite itself, make sure there are several activities that call upon individual and small group participation (Kotter groups, take-a-panel, 60 ideas in 30 minutes) to pull from everyone in the room and putting those vacationers to work.

No Individual Note Taking
This may contradict a learning style for individuals, and is not meant to be widely enforced as a rule, but rather an enabler.  As facilitators (from the word facile, to make easy) the focus should be on how you can best relieve the burden of note-taking by individuals to retain what is being said or decided in the offiste.  People will take notes, but the more you can provide support as a facilitation team visually in the plenary, whiteboard capture in breakout groups, idea-for-idea capture in the reports outs, the more the participant leaders can remain focused on the dialog at hand.
Instead - Provide graphic facilitation as a dimension of your offsite, design activities that may be template driven and plot these templates for capture. In addition, Collaborative Learning Maps can be great tools for both information sharing and learning, as well as capture from a table top dialog.

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