I’ve attended and facilitated hundreds of offsite sessions over my career, and the spectrum of the quality of those sessions range from Big Fat Waste of Everyone’s Time and Energy to We Did the Thing and We Didn’t Burn Relationships Doing It (and the lunch was AMAZING).
Sessions that go pear-shaped tend to follow themes. I’ve found a few tricks that have helped.
people are quiet… they look bored and aren’t sharing ideas
“Sound” familiar? Maybe try giving people time. Some people just need more time to think, and they can’t do that if a few people are dominating the conversation. We can all agree that icebreakers are loathed by most people, but letting everyone speak at the beginning really helps set the tone of collaboration. If we are in an active session where debate is necessary, I let people think and give them something to do by asking everyone to write their ideas down. Watching how participants write, and what they write allows me as the facilitator to understand a little about what this person thinks is important. As the participant, writing something down is not only cathartic, but gives those participants something to read off if they aren’t into extemporaneous public speaking.
When you are a facilitator, it is key to also be a confident moderator. This means engaging everyone in the room, directing the flow of conversation to allow key insights to be documented or worked deeper, and being a vocal advocate of what has been said and read.
we spend too long fixating on the details of one idea
Boring, right? Try having a moderator on specific topics, as it can help us lift up as swiftly as we dive in. Strong facilitation through an activity provides guardrails that help keep teams oriented on the North Star. If this is a brainstorming session, set up the rules in the beginning and hold the team accountable to the rules. The facilitator should be emotionally in tune to how deep the participants need to go and should ask questions that nudge people out of the weeds.
Including people beyond the immediate team – whether it’s from a different department or organization entirely – often prevents fixating on details. I call this “going a mile wide before going a mile deep.” The mix of perspectives cultivates knowledge sharing, teaching as well as being taught…which turns into really excellent decision-making if you tend to it.
this problem we are trying to solve is too complicated for one day
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t? First things first, set the context of the problem, actually align on the Problem Statement, then finally agree on the conditions of success.
After staring at the Problem Statement together, chose an activity that documents rapid ideation and incorporates physical movement in small groups. Small groups can present ideas to each other and then determine the best 2 solutions to present to the next group until just 2 solutions are left. Getting up, starting small, and going bigger gives everyone a chance to feel heard, and cultivates stronger rationale through constant presentation.
The remainder of the time can then be spent in a deep-dive of both solutions to identify which satisfies the conditions of success best.
this room is stuffy and I’m hungry and wish I were anywhere but here
This is such a vibe killer. Nobody wants to hang out in a crummy space with no food or light. Taking care of people’s needs in the session, regardless of the goal, is imperative. People should have access to healthy food and water if you’re asking them to be in a room together for a defined period of time. No matter how many people are there, table snacks, lots of cold water, and hot coffee and tea should be easy to get and – maybe even – be so good that it makes you feel happy. Happy people tend to talk more and want to connect.
Windows, high ceilings, a temperature that you don’t even notice, and enough space to feel like you can breathe should all be things you take in with a smile to start your day and set the mood for creativity and collaboration. I have a few secret weapons that I use when I facilitate sessions to help everyone relax. One of them is using music to time-box activities. At our studio, we use albums and a turntable, but I also have great playlists and wireless speakers if I’m on the go.
What are some things you’ve experienced at a great offsite session that gets people in a mindset to collaborate? Or, if you’re feeling like you need to vent, what are some things you’ve seen at an offsite that made you want to leave and never come back? Drop me an email at Melati@macroscopestudios.com.