Running an Offsite? Please Think of the Humans

Kristen Craft | May 15, 2018

This guest post comes to us from Mat Lawrence, Senior Program Manager for Atlassian’s portfolio of Server and Data Center products, driving strategy and execution globally across R&D centers. He has worked in multiple industries, evolving practices for how teams work and now drives improvements in Agile practices to stay ahead of Atlassian’s continued growth. Mat is passionate about building great teams but little makes him happier than sparring on complex problems in front of a whiteboard and coming up with that simple solution.

Offsite meetings are a great way to get everyone working together, solve complex problems and make big decisions that rely on input from the team.

If planned well and executed in an authentic way, they’re an excellent use of time. But when there is little planning, and the whole offsite is – for a lack of better terms, “winged” – then they fall flat…painfully flat.  

So, what’s the difference between offsites that hit the mark and ones that don’t? It’s all about the humans.

Offsites often include bringing a team of people together from different job functions, with different personalities, goals, communication styles and communication habits.

Having one person who curates the experience, taking the team on a journey can make all the difference. From my experience, this is how you facilitate a successful offsite:

  1. Know why you are getting together

Take time to align with your team on the purpose and goals of the offsite. It’s your job as the facilitator to dig into what participants and stakeholders are trying to get out of it, and determine what the outputs of the offsite will be. Push leaders on these things if they don’t make sense to you. Clear goals will allow for true flexibility throughout the offsite. With this, you can change how you get to those goals throughout the offsite if a particular exercise or tactic isn’t working

  1. Keep the group small

Sometimes you’ll feel the need to include everyone in the offsite but in my experience, the perfect size group is anywhere between 5 and 10 people. Less than five and you’re unlikely to get the healthy, divergent perspectives that can help you examine an idea from every angle. If you happen to have a group larger than ten people, you’ll quickly find that some voices will start dominating the conversation.

If you do need to include more than this, design sessions that break the team up into smaller groups that can work in short iterations, bringing them back together to share and get feedback as they go. This approach will keep the offsite energizing while ensuring that everyone is contributing.

  1. Plan, but be ready to adapt

Starting with a good idea of how each session will run and how long they will take is definitely the way to kick off, but be ready for everything to change once you start. The thought you put into planning the details of how to get the team to each outcome will enable you to recognize when it’s time to adapt instead of just winging it on the day.

Every offsite hits a point when things slow down, or it takes longer to get to an understanding, or the team struggles to come up with the good stuff. This is when you need to get creative and help them find a way to keep moving towards the goal.

  1. Read the room

The best facilitators can read the people in the room and respond to changes in energy levels. They can sense frustration and challenging team dynamics.

Be ready to support them through these difficult moments and bring attention to it if necessary. Allow more time to solve a problem. Or, if you sense the team is giving up, come at it from a different perspective. Your aim is to keep bringing people back to a safe zone where they have their minds open and can do their best work.

  1. Be bold and help the team to be their best selves

As the facilitator, people will look to you to balance the voices in the team and make room for the quieter voices amongst the more confident, senior, and outgoing. Don’t be afraid to interrupt and challenge people if it’s needed to keep the group on track or to ask if the current approach is useful. You can make this fun or be serious, as long as you are respectful and use your facilitator power to build trust.

Questions are your superpower that can be used with confidence. Use them to challenge the group on their thinking or to move things along when you think a consensus has been reached.

  1. Capture the content

There is nothing worse than giving up a big block of time and not having anything to show for it.  It’s not easy documenting and facilitating at the same time.

Share the load with the team and keep it simple. I often use white boards or large paper on a wall so everyone can see what’s being captured and it allows me to quickly take photos that I can pull information from later.

Make it clear at the start how the outputs will be captured and used moving forward. This helps the team call out the important decisions, assumptions being made, and actions that are needed so they don’t get missed.

  1. Make it a team effort

Remember, offsites are team events, so it’s everyone’s responsibility to reach the goals. They all need to know what the goals are and commit to getting themselves there.

Encourage people to speak up if they see the group going down a rabbit hole or if they can think of a more effective approach to get there when the team is struggling.

Try out some of these tactics and everyone along the journey at your next team offsite. And check out the Atlassian Team Playbook for workshops and exercises to add to your offsite toolkit.

The right balance of activities and focus on the human element will make your offsite a winner.