Off-sites are stale. A full day of presentations, an occasional break out session and then a “team building“ activity at the end, which is more about rewarding people for suffering through the day than actually adding value. How many of these have you suffered through?
I believe that it is time to take a new approach to off-sites. Gone are the days where we can afford to take our most senior team members out for a day just to update each other on what happened in the previous period and what is planned for the period ahead. There just isn’t enough value in that to warrant the expense. Unless your off-site develops new thinking, creates deeper trust and provide opportunities for people to really develop then I suggest you cancel it and just send around a deck for people to read.
Here are a few ideas on how to spice up your off site.
1. Ban PowerPoint decks
I believe that if people are senior enough to be included in an offsite then they should be responsible for pre-reading all the update decks. Ensure that all material is circulated at least a week in advance covering all the “traditional” content expected as part of their functional update. Use the offsite sessions as a truly interactive, collaborative opportunity to seek support, advice and ideas. Take the opportunity to challenge ingrained biases and brainstorm solutions to complex issues.
2. Cover the critical and strategic issues first
People get tired and have limited attention spans. Ensure that the agenda covers all of the most strategic issues early in the day.
3. Change up the venue
How often do we spend money hiring an off-site venue only to then sit in a room with the blinds closed around a board table? Environment can have a massive impact on the way in which people think and communicate. If you are looking for different thinking, then it is foolish to expect it to occur in the same environment albeit a different location. I suggest you start by taking away the table. I would even go so far as to take away the seating for parts of the day. If you are felling adventitious and the weather permits, consider taking some of it outside. You will be amazed at the impact this has on the way your teams think and communicate.
4. Do your team building first
Why do we do our team building at the end of the day? Why is it always something totally disconnected from the business, like paint balling, cooking, painting etc. Surely it makes more sense to do it first. True change in behaviour and building of trust only happens when you disrupt the status quo. Your team building activity needs to be able to create this disruption and set up a new way of thinking that you can benefit from for the rest of the off-site and carry through into the business.
5. Don’t be a slave to the agenda.
Be brave. Allow time for the team to discuss the issues and opportunities that they uncover throughout the day. These will often be things that hadn’t occurred to us when we were putting together a fully packed agenda for the day. All too often important issues and opportunities are uncovered in off-sites, parked for future discussion and then never addressed.
Off-sites are all too often a chore, seen as a necessity to get everyone on the same page for the period ahead. I believe that they can be significantly more. They can be empowering, uncover and solve issues, truly bring a team together and develop trust.
Please comment on how you keep off-sites relevant and valuable, I’d love to hear your views.
” Shhh… we’ll just tell them it’s business as usual. They won’t notice that the company is restructuring, redundancies are happening and targets are getting exponentially tougher!!” Well, I exaggerate a little but in my Corporate career I have heard this kind of view emanating from many senior leaders.
As anyone who has worked with me knows, I physically cringe at the BAU catchcry! The phrase is used to communicate a sense of status quo, to reassure employees that there is ‘nothing to see here, just focus on your daily tasks’. Although this can be done with good intention, employees are not stupid and even if they don’t know the details of the changes, they will know something is happening.
Our brains are amazing predictive machines and we get a brain based reward (dopamine) when we successfully predict the future. It gives us a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure when we skilfully predict the outcome of a masterly ‘who dunnit’ movie, or when we skilfully predict someone’s behaviour. So when our leaders say it’s BAU but all the behaviours and other evidence point to change occurring then this lack of congruence can trigger a threat response, leading to higher levels of stress and more informal conversations where employees are trying to piece the puzzle together. So saying it is BAU when it clearly isn’t can cause more disruption and stress from employees than just being transparent!
Change is a constant, in fact the Futurist Bob Johansen goes further to describe our current business environment as having four major components- volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or VUCA. So from Johansen’s point of view, change and uncertainty is indeed pervasive, however, it seems strange that we, in the Western world, are seeing this as a ‘new’ trend – Buddhists know it better as impermanence.
The answer isn’t to pretend that it is ‘business as usual’ but equip our employees to be able to develop mental and emotional resilience and agility.
Bob Johansen “Leaders Make the Future” Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2009)
Why is uncertainty seen as the enemy? The number of leaders who seek control and avoid uncertainty, fascinates me. I enjoy working with many leaders in diverse organisations all with very different personalities and approaches to leadership but it is the leaders who embrace ambiguity and uncertainty who leap out to me as effective leaders.
There seems to be an organisational conspiracy to perpetuate this need for control, “If we plan, follow process and mitigate risk, then we will be ok”. Although there is nothing wrong with planning, in fact, it is encouraged but expecting any plan to work perfectly is laughable.
Helmuth von Moltke, a German Military Strategist coined the phrase ” No battle plan survives the contact with the enemy”. So we have to be agile and be able to adapt and change our approach.
For over sixty years researchers have been interested in what makes some people more able to tolerate uncertainty than others. A number of the earlier psychological researchers such as Frankl-Brunswik and Budner put it down to differences in personality. More recently researchers have been looking at the role that dopamine receptors play in our ability to seek uncertainty and novelty or seek to maintain the status quo. People with lower numbers of dopamine receptors seek out more novelty and uncertainty whereas those with higher numbers of dopamine receptors find it difficult to tolerate change or uncertainty. There is obviously more work to do to really understand the neuroscience behind uncertainty however researchers and practitioners are beginning to identify the links between effective leadership and being able to operate in uncertainty and it’s ‘big sister’ ambiguity.
A paper by Randall White and Sandra Shullman ‘Build Leadership’s Tolerance for Ambiguity’ explains;
” Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity”.
They have identified a number of observable traits that are present in leaders able to thrive in uncertainty;
Mystery as a motivating factor – people who seek out situations where they don’t know the answer
Undaunted by risk – being able to make decisions with incomplete information
Sensitive to faint signals - being able to scan for patterns and context set for their teams
Tenacity - leaders who do not shy away from failure, they stay the course.
Creating excitement – enthusing others around them
Flexibility – able to change direction and their minds
Simplifying - taking the complex and communicating it simply
Focus – knowing what to focus on at the right time.
David Wilkinson, author of the Ambiguity Advantage which is based on researching leaders in the UK he states;
” It should be clear by now that moments of the most intense fear , the moments when there appear to be huge threats all around, when ambiguity is at its highest, when we know little and understand less, these are moments of most potential for moving into the new world and taking advantage”.
Indeed uncertainty isn’t the enemy, it may feel uncomfortable and even stressful but through uncertainty can come many possibilities for change, growth and development.
Clare is currently researching the impact of Uncertainty and Ambiguity on Leadership Effectiveness for her Doctoral Thesis.
High risk and ambiguous situations – perhaps I mean mining or banking, in fact there are great leadership lessons for corporate leaders from the fire service. These leaders face highly dangerous and ambiguous environments and have to make life and death decisions quickly and under pressure. So what can corporate leaders learn from leaders in high reliability organisations?
Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott were curious and conducted exploratory research in 2010 on the Fire Service in the US. The researchers collected near-miss reports from stations across the US and analysed the results for key themes and patterns. This was an inductive process and they were able to identify a number of strategies that these leaders used effectively in highly ambiguous and dangerous situations.
They found that leaders were able to organise the ambiguity through;
Framing - leaders were able to make sense of the environment for others and provide direction setting and a degree of knowledge
Heedful interrelating - leaders were able to communicate with others by clear verbal communication, along with role modelling desired behaviours and role acting which is behaving in alignment with role expectations. Another key component was trust.
Adjusting – the ability to rapidly adjust behaviours due to changing conditions
The researchers found that this mixture of behaviours, actions and processes were linked to managing high risk situations with lower numbers of injuries or casualties. When there were gaps in these components the injury rate increased.
Future leaders need to be able to lead confidently in ambiguous and complex situations where they may not know all the answers. They would do well to reflect on the leadership strategies of these firefighters.
Organizing Ambiguity: A grounded theory of leadership and sensemaking within dangerous contexts by Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott, Organizational Science, University of North Carolina – 2010 Military Pyschology
Organisations invest heavily in their high potentials with training, coaching and mentoring often offered to prepare them for bigger roles. But what does a high potential leader look like? Strangely enough according to a research paper called ‘Learning Agility: a construct whose time has come’, high performance is not necessarily a good predictor of future success. In fact, success in a current role does not guarantee success in a different role. So what does? Researchers have been looking at this critical question and discovered that an individual’s learning agility is a much better predictor of success especially where a leader is transitioning from a known role to an unknown or novel role.
The authors go on to claim that ‘ The assessment of learning agility, we believe, will likely become a critical component of talent management practices in most organisations during this decade’.
Learning agility is ‘ the willingness and ability to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first time conditions.’
In another piece of research entitled ‘ Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential’ the authors hypothesized that high potentials with a higher level of learning agility would perform better once they had been promoted. Indeed this hypothesis was borne out, the more successful leaders, once they had been promoted did indeed score higher levels of learning agility.
In FYI for Learning Agility, the authors highlight four types of learning agility;
Mental agility – they are excellent critical thinkers who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully and make fresh connections.
People agility – they know themselves very well and can readily deal with a wide variety of people and tough situations.
Change agility – they are curious, like to experiment and can effectively deal with the discomfort of change.
Results agility – they deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams; they exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.
And leaders high in learning agility would;
Seek and have more experiences to learn from
Enjoy complex first time problems and challenges associated with new experiences
Get more out of these experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them.
Perform well because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire.
So a high potential is someone who is a high learner, able to adapt, change and grow in ambiguous situations. So how do you spot those high in learning agility? There are assessment tools available on the market, however the research shows that a boss is more likely than peers or direct reports to identify high learners.
The need to identify high potentials is a critical one for organisations and it is worth thinking about how you are assessing these leaders. As a practitioner in the Leadership and Development field I am often asked to work with a group of leaders that have been identified by their level in the organisation, performance or personality and company fit. Let’s change the conversation and start to talk about potential in terms of an individuals ability to learn, adapt and grow.
Learning Agility; a construct whose time has come – by Kenneth De Meuse , Guangrong Dai , George Hallenbeck 2010 Consulting Pysch Journal
Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential – by Robert Eichinger, Michael Lombardo – Human Resource Planning
FYI for Learning Agility – published by Korn/Ferry International 2010