What makes a company awayday more than just a day in a different room?
It’s awayday season again. You may even be on your way to one now. Are you looking forward to it?
Awaydays, workshops, off-sites – they have a variety of names but in general they have much in common: Over-ambitious agendas. Dark, airless basement rooms. A Niagara of under rehearsed, over-running PowerPoint ‘updates’, and posters of the company’s mission statement superimposed over water droplets rippling a pond. A motivational film clip to kick off the event, likening a biscuit manufacturer or carpet technology to the significance of the Moon landing. The bright but meek being frustratingly quiet and the noisy and garrulous failing to be meek (which everyone else would like them to be). Any excuse to wriggle out of the discussion leads people straight back to their smartphones and their day-to-day urgencies. This is not usually the natural home for leaders impatient to generate extraordinary growth for their organisations.
If the best brains in the business are jetting in from all over the world, it is a crime to squander the time they have together. Awaydays should create an environment for fast decision-making, for the leaders of the business to lead at speed. To do this requires imagination, detailed preparation and risk-taking. Exercise the former and apply the second ruthlessly and you mitigate the latter. But all three are vital to accelerate answers to the most pressing problems facing your business and so have a successful off-site meeting.
To get a really productive awayday, you have to be a control freak. Every hour in the meeting probably takes five hours of preparation to make it great – labouring over the content, the tone of voice, the dynamics in the room, anticipating the potential resistors. This involves thinking of the exercises to create what Google calls “psychological safety” (where everyone’s voice is heard without fear of being shouted down); the protocols to engender debate and shut up the people who monopolise conversation (I have heard of one CEO being handed a gobstopper to stop him talking too much – it helps make the point but with a smile not a scold); the stimulus to generate creativity and lateral thinking. If you opt to have facilitators, they often work best in pairs, because it’s nice for the participants to hear different voices and styles. But they need to be energetic and so well prepared that they can react quickly and ad lib or reprioritise the agenda if needed. These skills need to come with a lot of charm and a high degree of fearlessness: think the love child of Eddie Izzard and Clare Underwood from House of Cards.
There are often big, thorny issues that need to be addressed when the leadership get together. There may be tensions between key team members; frustrations about certain functions’ performance; disagreement about what the problems are or lack of empathy between the different personalities in the team. These difficult conversations need to be aired candidly, so they can be debated.
There are ways to help this process. Over the years, I have used techniques to help the team see past their own perspective and start behaving better with each other: techniques borrowed from stand-up comedians such as improvisation can shift the dialogue, get people moving about to stand in each other’s shoes and, shock horror, get them laughing at themselves. Freeing both sides of the brain to access reason and the imagination accelerates debate where once was stasis.
The diplomatic corps are great believers in solvitur ambulando – solving by walking. The technique was used by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev when negotiating – walking side by side means you can discuss contentious issues without having to make direct eye contact or be bodily confrontational. Walking helps your brain oxygenate more effectively, which helps you think on your feet more clearly and quickly. That creates dialogue and co-creation to help unstick what was stuck. Walking also allows you to enjoy the fabulous location your events team has picked for the awayday – 90 per cent of awayday attendees never see beyond the hotel conference room.
As you sit in the meeting room tomorrow and cast your eyes around the room at your colleagues, ask yourself whether this is an awayday designed to generate extraordinary results, or just an ordinary day in a different room.
This article was originally published in British Airways Business Life Magazine, September 2017.
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