How do you plan a successful offsite? 

To be sure, there are superb primers on the topic. Bob Frisch and Logan Chandler of Boston's Strategic Offsites Group penned the definitive one in Harvard Business Review. A more recent article by Frisch and Cary Greene focuses on leadership-team offsites. Its lessons are broadly applicable--especially a handy chart detailing stages of planning, starting six months out. 

Likewise, you can find stories about individual cases. For the last two years, executives from the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL's New Jersey Devils (owned by the same group) have come together at a joint retreat. By all counts, the event has abetted the growth of the collective organization.

But until recently, it was hard to find a thorough, academic study of what works--and what fails--at offsites. That changed when four researchers from the U.K. crunched data from 650 company-led retreats. Their findings, appearing in British Journal of Management, were recently summarized by Matt Palmquist on strategy + business. Here are 7 takeaways:

1. Establish a clarity of purpose.

Frisch and Greene suggest asking two focus questions: 

  • What do you want the outcome of the meeting to be from the perspective of the attendees?
  • What do you want them to say when their teams ask, "What happened at the big meeting?"

If you and your top team are in alignment about the answers, you're on track to gaining clarity of purpose. 

2. Make the offsite routines different from your everyday routines. 

The greater the differences, the more likely it is you'll "enhance the uniqueness of workshops, imbuing them with ritualistic meaning in their own right," note the researchers.

But the differentiation can be a double-edged sword. While the shocks of a new routine in a new environment can "help to open up strategic thinking," your employees might find it difficult to transfer their insights to business as usual at the office. 

One way to prevent that from happening is to make offsites more than an annual occasion. "Evidence shows that repeating analytical activities and revisiting debates enhances the amount of time and energy focused on strategic issues, which increases the likelihood of learning and builds momentum towards chosen courses of action," they write. 

3. Create fun ways for employees to act on what they've learned.

Another way to make sure employees don't leave their insights at the offsite is to use props. At the most recent 76ers-Devils offsite, each employee received a dollar bill with his or her name on it. Upon returning to normal office life, employees could give their dollar to another employee. The gift would be a way of saying: I trust you. I want to invest in you. 

Another method, as Frisch and Chandler point out, is to write down who's responsible for which new initiatives. You can use a RACI chart to make sure there's no confusion. 

4. Include employees from different areas of the company. 

"The greater the range of stakeholder groups involved in workshops, the more positive the perceived interpersonal outcomes," note the researchers. 

The 76ers-Devils offsite usually has five employee presentations. Each one is prepared by a team of two employees: one from the 76ers, and one from the Devils. The two employees are always from different roles in the organizations, too. This allows bonding and teamwork to take place between two employees who otherwise would likely not meet, let alone collaborate.

5. Allow attendees to critique your current strategy. 

"Tools deployed to challenge managers' assumptions about their organization and its environment might be particularly valuable," note the researchers. 

By tools, they mean exercises or activities that stimulate constructive conflict. Frisch and Chandler cite a great example of how the top team Monster posted all 142 pages of the company's handbook on the wall of a converted barn--in the form of a mosaic. "Team members placed green Post-its on the pages they agreed with, red Post-its where they disagreed, yellow Post-its where more data were required, and colored dots to indicate low or high importance," they write. 

This visual technique allowed the top team to readily identify what was important--and disagreeable--to the attendees. And it was more amusing than a slideshow.

6. Focus on a multitude of outcomes. 

The researchers found offsites can potentially yield three types of outcomes: organizational (changing the company's strategic direction or business model), interpersonal (colleagues bonding and building trust), and cognitive (achieving a greater internal grasp of the company's vision and direction). 

While their data suggests organizational outcomes are the most difficult to achieve, one of their points is that interpersonal and cognitive outcomes matter too. Even an offsite which fails to achieve a change in strategic direction may still yield results when it comes to "softer outcomes" such as "interpersonal relations and strategic understanding," they write. 

7. Measure your results. 

If you established a clarity of purpose, then you can also establish a list of related goals. "These measures could include tallying the number of new initiatives that stem from a particular retreat, tracking the amount of time spent on challenging the status quo, or monitoring changes in communication patterns and in-office meetings among participants," notes Palmquist. 

Frisch and Chandler add that you shouldn't give up if your results aren't what you expected. Creating effective offsites is a long-term process. "If your executive team spends four days a year rafting down rivers together, you'll eventually get good at rafting down rivers," they write. "Spend four days a year having well-designed strategy conversations together, and within a few years you'll get equally good at revealing, discussing, and resolving strategic issues, not just at your offsites but every time team members meet."

Published on: Oct 19, 2015