I've been fortunate to work with thousands of executives from many household names over the past 20 years. There's one thing just about every company and every leadership team share in common - the annual offsite.

Most  offsites focus on building big visions, crafting change management strategies, and aligning around annual plans. Whether I'm brought in as the keynote speaker or asked to design and facilitate an entire event, everyone wants the same thing - to get away from boring meetings and have an engaging experience that delivers tangible results.

I've seen a major shift in recent times in these events. Today's executives want to explore emerging technologies, create cultures of innovation, and discover new business opportunities to drive disruption - rather than sit through the standard 'talking heads' session.

A different kind of offsite

A few months ago, I spoke to Jason Sadler, President of Cigna International Markets, a global health service provider and insurer. Jason was planning an offsite meeting for 60 of his most senior executives. The company already has as well-deserved reputation for product and service innovation.  It is a leader in using artificial intelligence for health service apps and is ahead of the curve when it comes to providing support for specialist groups, such as the globally mobile or older people.  Jason was looking to double-down on this culture and show his senior leaders how everyone can innovate.   In Jason's words: "The health and insurance industries are going through immense disruption, and we need to keep ahead of these dramatic changes. I wanted this offsite meeting to be different."

Whenever I work with top executives on these type of sessions, I always begin with the end result. What tangible outcomes do we want to achieve? What do we want colleagues to do differently when they come to work the next day?

As Jason said: "We have several initiatives taking place at the moment, but I'm always keen to identify more specific and disruptive ideas which we can pilot across our international regions."

Great offsite meetings push people's comfort zones, give them a memorable experience, and jumpstart actions that accelerate business. When planning these type of sessions, I always incorporate four key elements:

  • Engaging Process and Environment - What type of experience will shift mindsets, stimulate creative thinking, and lead to tangible results?
  • Disruptive Innovators - Who can we invite to share specific breakthrough innovations that could potentially transform the industry?
  • External Industry Visionaries - What experts and thought leaders can we talk to about emerging trends and new business models?
  • Clear Deliverables - What is the measurable outcome of the event?

Here's how to transform your next offsite into an innovation jam that disrupts business as usual, inspires participants, and leads to real results:

1. Ensure an engaging process and environment

First, we needed to hold the meeting - aptly named "Driving Innovation & Disruption for Sustainable Business Growth" - in the right kind of environment. I reached out to a contact of mine at one of the largest Silicon Valley venture capital firms and innovation accelerators, Plug and Play. The incubator's innovation center was the perfect venue because it matches up large corporations with start-ups who want to explore partnership opportunities. According to Plug and Play's Chief Revenue Officer, Michael Olmstead: "Big companies that visit us for startup pitches get incredible insight into emerging technologies and business models that may become the industry disruptors of tomorrow."


2. Welcome the disruptive innovators

When exploring innovation, companies need to internalize a deep understanding of the rough and tumble process, including the need to fail fast, learn quickly, and become champions of agile change. That's why we wanted to expose executives to disruptive innovators who could bring the process to life.

We kicked off the two and half day meeting by talking to several startup companies from Plug and Play's extensive portfolio of companies. The startups were prepped to deliver a 5-minute pitch to the group and share live demos of their products over an extended lunchtime expo. The startups were well versed in various emerging disruptive technologies including blockchain, machine learning, AI, augmented reality, wearables, and peer-to-peer insurance.

Following the pitches and related demos, the Cigna group reconvened in a structured brainstorming session to share what they heard and seen. We began to build our Idea Board with individual opportunities written on pieces of paper, categorized by theme and displayed along the length of the main room.

3. Learn from industry visionaries

We also wanted to learn from senior executives from adjacent companies in the insurance and health care space, who have wrestled with similar challenges as Cigna, and could share their experiences and recommendations. So, we organized two "thought leader panels" focused on best practices in driving disruption. Among the leaders we included were Mike Connor, Chair of the InsurTech Fusion Conference and a top 50 influencer in the insurtech industry; Gary Guthart, CEO of Intuitive Surgical, the leader in remote robotic surgery; and Keith Bigelow, Senior VP and GM of Analytics at GE Healthcare. Quite a line-up!

These were no talking-head sessions. Each panelist gave a 15-minute presentation which was followed by a fierce debate among the panelists and Cigna group. I facilitated the session and helped the group capture insights and opportunities on pieces of paper, which were placed on the Ideas Wall with the earlier output. The panelists listened to the ideas and selected the top three they believed Cigna was best positioned to pursue.

4. Deliver practical results

Busy executives who invest two and a half days in an offsite meeting want something practical and actionable at the end. They want something that will move the needle on what's most important for them and the company.

The 60 colleagues from Cigna represented heads of country operations and leaders from different departments around the world. From the start, we were intent on creating a portfolio of ideas that could be piloted across Cigna's diverse markets. We wanted the team to truly embrace and own the ideas.

Cigna's leadership were no strangers to the Design Thinking process, so we used this concept to generate, theme, prioritize, and select the top opportunities. Because we built out the Idea Wall throughout the session using the startups and thought leaders as a stimulus, everyone understood clearly the 50 or so ideas we lined up in the room, because they had been created and shared along the way.

Teams representing the different geographic regions convened at the end of the second day to each choose an idea they would pitch to the rest of the group on Day Three. We created a "pitch template" to give them a simple structure for their pitches, which covered the idea, value, timing and what the company needed to invest in both time and money. Each pitch had to be delivered in a punchy two-minutes. The teams had an opportunity to trial their pitches to other teams for initial feedback and build on their concept to demonstrate the power of rapid iteration.

On the final day, eight teams delivered quick-fire presentations, and everyone gave their feedback using a process which helped build on the ideas. We used phrases such as "I like...," "I wish...," and "How can we..." to create a positive environment. The group established a norm for building-up rather than tearing down ideas - making every idea better in a matter of minutes.

Make Your Next Offsite an Innovation Jam

Cigna embraced their "offsite" with huge energy and enthusiasm. As Jason said: "Successful innovation is not just about big ideas. There are plenty of small ideas that should be nurtured and encouraged. The team learned that everyone is fully empowered to bring up ideas and deliver the best value to our customers."

Holding an offsite meeting is a major investment by a company and its individual leaders.  I encourage my clients to avoid the traditional talking head events - they can get this anytime by simply reading articles or joining web conferences.

In a time-precious world, offsites provide the opportunity to engage, collaborate, and disrupt the 'business as usual' model. Make your next one an innovation jam just like Cigna's, or you just might find yourself on the wrong end of your own industry's disruption.