Nov 24, 2019

It’s hard to see any profit amid the undrinkable coffee and whiteboards

written by Lisa Eason

One of the great rituals of modern corporate life is the annual “offsite”. It can also be termed a strategy day, a brainstorming session or a team away-day. Sometimes it is known as a retreat, although this has unfortunate connotations in a military context.

I have attended more of these meetings than I care to admit, or indeed can remember. The idea behind them is to hold an occasional get-together in a location different from the usual environment, with a broader agenda and more time as a collective than a typical board meeting would allow.

Supposedly, this arrangement encourages the creative juices to flow and attendees to consider more far-reaching issues than the day-to-day concerns of the organisation.

But what exactly are the objectives of an offsite? They might be nebulous purposes, such as team building, or education about the company, markets, technology or competitors. They will probably include the classic analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the institution.

The goal might be to draft a five-year plan, Soviet style — or at least set some targets, or war-game the arrival of new competitors. Possibly, the board might want to refine the organisation’s vision, or decide on management succession, or reinvent the business entirely.

Usually an offsite takes place in a hotel or a conference centre, typically a grimly functional venue with undrinkable coffee and the inevitable whiteboard.

Very grand companies might book a more lavish setting, perhaps a private members’ club or a luxury spa, and make the retreat a two-day jamboree. These surroundings can offer a pleasant distraction from work, and ensure a high attendance, but they also risk turning the powwow into a junket, hence undermining any serious intent.

Sadly, only a small proportion of the offsites I’ve been to have truly felt like a productive use of everyone’s time. Very often they end up being a series of lengthy PowerPoint presentations — the executives concerned using the occasion as an excuse to deliver not a succinct five-minute briefing, but instead a half- hour lecture. This will consist of endless tedious slides and countless bullet points, with jargon, clichés and acronyms galore, and the entire procedure is guaranteed to bore the audience.

The great danger of an all-day affair is that people’s attention wanders. I’ve always believed that board meetings should ideally last no longer than two hours — three at most. An offsite meeting taking somewhere between four and six hours will test the stamina of even the most assiduous participants. Energy steadily drains out of any room after a while — even with refreshment breaks. The meeting hosts must keep the momentum going at all costs.

There are specialist firms that host strategy sessions and provide professional facilitators. Mostly, I’ve found hiring these experts to be an expensive mistake. The facilitator will probably neither understand the industry under discussion, nor know the people in the room. Better to pick a handful of the participants as subject leaders, and break up the session into small groups — each of no more than three of four, gathered round small tables, holding intense conversations. Probably the best one can hope for from a strategy session is a vigorous discussion. These are often impossible when meeting under the duress of a strict agenda in a normal board situation, but fairly open-ended debates about big, important subjects can reveal vital truths. For example, I recently attended an annual retreat where the chief executive admitted that he regarded the company as a family business, even though he owns just 11% among a fragmented group of about 50 shareholders.

Of course, the day may just be a talking shop, with minimal visible output. There must be an element of structure and boundaries for these sessions to generate value. Some companies choose to circulate material in advance of a meeting, others prefer to present the content on arrival. A real danger for any offsite is that it descends into boardroom politics, and creative suggestions are crushed by rank pulling. Offsites should be designed but flexible, so dialogue can flow.

In theory, an offsite ought to produce a practical list of action points for subsequent follow-up, but unlike a board meeting — where participants reconvene a month later and find out what has been done, with an annual session — there is no natural check to discover if there have been any constructive results, or whether the whole thing was just an elaborate waste of time.