Breaking bread is making dough – how to make awaydays more effective

5 minute read


Awaydays. Offsites. They have a bad rep, and, in most cases, deservedly so. Over-crammed agendas, windowless rooms, technology that doesn’t work, tired jokes and tired participants who got up at the crack of dawn to arrive at the country house venue in time for the 0845 start, goody bags filled with useless artefacts, the obligatory team building stint in the hotel kitchen learning to make paella with a chef from Scunthorpe, a day stuffed with powerpoint “updates”, an ex-sports personality from the 1990s doing the rubber chicken circuit as an inspirational speaker over lunch, mints on the table, conference room coffee. A full day where the really important discussions get filibustered out and participants mentally bug out by lunchtime realizing nothing that was promised is being achieved and spend the rest of the day buried in their smartphones doing real work.

Sound familiar? Horribly familiar? There is another way. A better way. We promise.

At Caffeine, we run a lot of offsite meetings for our clients. The benefits of using an outsider to help corral debate, force decisions and ensure everyone has a say are legion, and not up for discussion here. But because we see so many companies when they are away from home, when they step out of the day to day, permit us to give some perspective on what makes for a better, more effective strategic offsite meeting.

There are too many dire examples of such events to leave this subject to chance – companies invest very serious amounts of money and time in awaydays, so how do you maximize the effect of getting your top talent together for that brief, shining moment?

One day is never enough

You will not right all the wrongs in your company in one day. Fact. It is unrealistic to pin that ambition on a strategic awayday. So many companies think “we cannot get our top people together for more than a day – it is unrealistic, it is impossible”. The truth is, there is no more valuable task for your top people than to spend time together on the important stuff in your business.

You will not right all the wrongs in your company in one day. Fact.
If all the top people are jetting in from around the country or around the world to be together and solve important issues, they need time to re-calibrate with one another. This is where time is needed. We find that 2 days with a night in-between works pretty effectively. In truth, the first day is the preparation for the real heavy lifting, the meaty issues that get tackled on day 2. It sets the tone, gets people’s heads in the room focused on the agenda and not on the day to day issues that are on their minds when they arrive. Day 1 needs to wake them up, get them doing and moving and thinking – sometimes on the issues facing the business, sometimes with stimulus that gives them new skills, techniques or perspectives on those issues. But you need to get them moving about so they oxygenate and therefore think more quickly. Day 1 is the necessary but not sufficient preparation for day 2.

Breaking bread together is making dough

Breaking down the barriers between the individual members of the team, helping them enjoy each other’s company, relaxing in each other’s company is the second, absolutely vital element in preparing for a productive day 2. Socialising and chatting, re-establishing relationships, breaks down hierarchy and, crucially, builds an atmosphere of “psychological safety” – that rarefied place where people open up and say what they feel without fear of reprisal or being shot down in flames. Psychological safety is the defining characteristic of the best teams in the world – where all members of the team are free to be themselves (isn’t that why they were hired in the first place?) and speak their mind. A great dinner paves the way for productive conversation and a much higher calibre of debate the next day.

Make proposals not complaints

Proposals and counter-proposals move the debate forward. Complaints do not.
An awful lot of time is wasted at strategic offsites complaining about things that aren’t right. At Caffeine, we don’t allow carping or complaining – we insist that every debate, every issue that people table for discussion is presented as a proposal. People can respond to proposals. Proposals and counter-proposals move the debate forward. Complaints do not. You go round and round in circles with people just complaining – and tempers fray.

Make everyone do homework in preparation for offsites

With so much time pressure on your busy executives, people tend to turn up to offsites having done scant preparation, if any. They turn up ready to wing it, or half prepared to go through their own power point deck, at best. This is simply not good enough. Your time together is incredibly valuable. Any briefing papers, questionnaires or canvassing of opinion on the issues to be discussed are best done a week or two before the offsite because:

(a) It gets your participants’ minds engaged with the issues and their thoughts about them.
(b) You get a body of evidence in advance which can help mould the agenda and help the moderators to channel the discussion and flag the issues and perspectives that are most common.
(c) It saves an awful lot of time which can be dedicated to informed discussion rather than catching everybody up in the meeting itself.

Create breathing space around the day

We do not mean for everyone to sit in a circle and do yoga. We do mean give the issues space for debate, for people to think individually and discuss in small groups before they discuss them in the whole group. The one thing no one seems to have any more is thinking time. Instead of rushing through an agenda of ten items (which you won’t get through) focus only on the really big issues. People always over stuff the agenda. We are great believers in solvitur ambulando – solving by walking. In our awaydays, we pair people up and get them to go for a walk. They will have a pressing issue for them to take with them on their walk – it might be an exercise, it might be a business problem they both need to collaborate on. It may also be an opportunity for them to talk candidly to one another if there are personality issues or bad blood between them. Sound weird? Solvitur ambulando 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 also makes you breathe more effectively which pumps more oxygen to your brain which helps you think on your feet more clearly and quickly.

Work like hell with your facilitators in advance to prepare for offsites so it is brilliant

Space also means physical space. Do not confine yourselves to the room you have hired.
Like I said, we run a lot of offsite meetings for our clients. We are control freaks. You need to be when there is so much time and money invested in the rarest opportunity to get your top talent together to make decisions on important matters. Every hour in the meeting probably takes three hours of preparation to get it great. And I do not mean labouring over the choice of venue – which is important. I mean labouring over the content, the tone of voice, the dynamics in the room, anticipating the potential landmines. Thinking of the exercises to create psychological safety; the protocols to engender debate and shut up the people who monopolise conversation (we give people gobstoppers if they are talking too much); the stimulus to generate creativity; what new skills people need to learn to get more effective as a team. You need to anticipate and allow for changing circumstances and you might need to prepare films and other materials to help make important points. Your facilitators (and there should always be two not one – you need different voices and styles over two days) need to be so well prepared that they can react quickly and ad lib if needed. This only comes with detailed preparation and a lot of experience.

I will leave you with a thought: when you do go offsite, go somewhere which will stimulate your senses and imagination. Don’t do the country hotel. Don’t do the basement with no natural daylight in a swanky Metropolitan five starrer. Don’t fly everyone to Venice where they spend two days staring sadly at powerpoint charts in a darkened room and only glimpse the canals from above as they fly back home. It is soulless and lacking in human empathy. Instead, think – where could we hold this offsite, rather than where should we hold it? And then go there. Take a risk – you and everyone else, might just enjoy yourselves. And if you enjoy yourselves, you might actually achieve something.

Image © Galina Kochergina



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David Kean
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