Forget touchy feely team building exercises. Use offsites to "take the fight outside" and resolve unsettled issues.
The next time you're planning an offsite meeting, ask yourself, "What do we hope to accomplish offsite that can't be handled in the meeting room down the hall?" Considering the high costs of lengthy offsite events -- in accommodations and lost productivity -- it is important to understand why we have them. Used the right way, an offsite meeting can be one of the most powerful tools a manager has in his arsenal and can often serve as a turning point in moving a gridlocked company forward. Unfortunately, most managers conduct offsites as a product of rote thinking and have no idea why they're held or how to use them effectively.
The most common mistake managers make when planning an offsite is falling into the "same meeting, different place" trap. Why would anyone think that a hotel meeting room somehow generates better results than the office boardroom? Reason dictates that if you're having the same meeting, you're going to have the same results regardless of where that meeting is held. Another error that managers commit is turning their offsites into some kind of activity camp under the guise of Leadership Training. As I've mentioned in a previous column, real leadership is best taught by addressing real situations, not by climbing ropes, having a snowman building competition, or finding out who can win a scavenger hunt. Lastly, and perhaps the most egregious waste of an offsite meeting are the dreaded -- and usually forced -- team building and motivational exercises. I don't rail against team building because I'm a grinch, but because team building exercises done out of context work directly against the most effective use of the offsite meeting -- settling beefs.
I was recently asked if my work encompassed being a mediator for executive management teams and I explained that agitating was much more effective than mediating. One of the biggest reasons companies succumb to the silo effect and end up with fiefdoms and communication breakdowns is that they spend so much time and effort building a team atmosphere that they end up sacrificing the resolution of issues in favor of cordiality. Employees pretend to be on the same team with smiles and handshakes while they continue pursuing their individual (or their department's) agenda. Instead of wasting time with meetings, trainings and more team building activities, offsites should be used to resolve unsettled and deep-seated issues. They should be the modern corporate equivalent of "taking the fight outside and settling your differences once and for all."
In order to achieve this, managers must make the purpose of the offsite absolutely clear. Typical offsite meetings have moved so far away from their real purpose that many employees view them as a company boondoggle that serves to damage the company more than to help it. Let your employees know that the purpose of taking them away from the office is not to enjoy a week of buffet lunches but to provide a neutral location where they can put all of their cards on the table and settle unresolved conflicts. In order to reinforce the importance of reaching resolutions, one tactic I use when I'm facilitating is I do not allow my group to break for lunch until we have solved at least one significant issue. If necessary, explain the offsite location as analogous to a boxing ring where fighters can settle their differences and move on instead of letting the fight spill into the streets -- or in this case the office. Encourage your staff to speak freely and remind them that they are not in the office and therefore office rules don't apply. Use the new surroundings as an opportunity to change your employees' mental state and break the unstated workplace rules including the politics and gridlock. Most of all, don't waste the opportunity with boilerplate meetings that could have been done in house.
Whether you do them onsite or offsite, group hugs and trust walks won't do a thing to improve your company's performance or communication. Simply moving new product training to a hotel isn't any better than holding it in a conference room. But using the opportunity to get away from the office and resolve issues so everyone in the company can move forward with a clean slate just might be worth the week of lost productivity and pricey buffets.