9 Tips for Facilitating a Successful Offsite Meeting

Are you in charge of planning an offsite meeting for your team? 

It can be daunting. You want to make sure it is productive and fun for your team, but you’re not quite sure how to do it. 

You may want to book the perfect venue and craft the flawless venue. That’s a good start, but there’s more to a successful offsite meeting than that.

Mat Lawrence, a senior program manager and contributor to Atlassian.com, states “the real trick is handling the human dynamics thoughtfully during the event itself.”

The meeting will most likely be filled with an array of attendees that have different priorities. Understanding the different backgrounds, personality types, and communication styles is critical for planning these meetings. 

“The key is to harness that individuality. Create space for divergence of thought, then guide the group back toward convergence and consensus. To pull that off, your focus as facilitator has to be focused on the human element,” states Lawrence.

 

The following text are nine suggestions from Lawrence about planning a seamless offsite meeting. 

Keep the Groups Small

Lawrence suggests restricting the group size to five to ten people. 

“With fewer than five, you’re unlikely to get the divergent and diverse thought that makes offsite meetings worthwhile. But expand the group past ten, and it’s difficult to have an inclusive conversation.”

When planning your agenda, make time to split the group into smaller groups (three to four people). The smaller groups can discuss a topic on an issue, and everyone can report back to the main groups about their discussion / findings.

Make Sure Each Participant is Engaged

“Prior to the offsite, plan to check in with each participant individually to find out what they want to get out of the day. Review the agenda with them, and note the activities that are aligned with their goals. Maybe even look for a way they can play a lead role in those sessions. The check-in should be quick (both for their sake, and yours) – a desk-side chat of 5-10 minutes should be enough.”

Once you’re at the meeting, make sure to engage each attendee by having a short discussion for each item on the agenda. At the end of each item, have each person discuss a successful outcome for that session. 

Establish the Offsite Culture

Lawrence suggests changing up the normal office culture for your offsite meeting, such as dress code.

“If your offsite agenda includes breakfast, I recommend using that time to do some informal social contract setting as a group. I like to do an abbreviated version of the rules of engagement exercise we program managers often use with our teams at the office. Everyone gets a chance to suggest a cultural norm for the day – leave laptops closed, make your comments brief so everyone gets a chance to speak, bad puns are encouraged, etc. – then you decide collectively which norms you’ll adopt.”

Create a "Parking Lot"

Sometimes during these meetings, attendees will bring up conversations that are too in depth and off-topic from the main overall topic of the meeting. In order to stay on track and focused, Lawrence suggests using butcher paper or a section of the white board (the “parking lot”), to make a list of tabled topics.

“Make sure to refer back to the parking lot at the end of the day to determine which (if any) topics you should follow up on, and which can be closed.”

Make Each Session About Solving a Problem or Getting to a Decision

Offsite meetings are expensive – so make them worthwile.

“The real value of offsite meetings is getting people to exchange ideas in real time and the creative thinking that results from it. Avoid wasting time-consuming information as a group. No hour-long presentations or document reviews, please. That sort of thing should be pre-offsite homework, or in the case of presentations, be done at the office beforehand.

That said, there are times when it’s useful to (briefly!) present the current state of something or a proposed change so you can discuss it as a group. It’s important to recognize when a preso adds value vs. when that time could be used for something more valuable.”

Ask Hard Questions

“ ’Why?’ is one of the toughest questions known to humankind. That’s your go-to as a facilitator. Listen for assumptions and hidden questions in what people are saying. When a discussion stalls out or starts to resemble a broken record, the jolt delivered by asking ‘why?’ can shift things back on course.”

“Asking ‘How do we know that?’ or ‘What if it weren’t that way?’ will do one of two things: crack open more space for new ideas, or confirm and deepen the group’s understanding of the idea in question. Either way, you’ve gained something.”

Push for Outcomes

“I find it helps to determine the DACIfor each decision you take on. DACI is a framework for making effective decisions in a timely manner. You identify the decision’s driver (D), approver (A), contributors (C), and those who’ll be informed once the decision is made (I). Deciding who plays which role usually doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and will pay for itself many times over.”

Atlassian’s Team Playbook offers the DACI frameworkfor free and is open to all teams, if you want to implement it in your next offsite meeting. 

Tune into the Group Dynamics

“Not everyone uses their voice in the moment, but everyone has something to add. Your agenda and facilitation should take that into consideration so there’s space for different people to use their voice in different ways.”

Lawrence offers three ways to make sure everyone’s voices are heard:

First, gently draw people into the conversation that haven’t spoken yet. Second, ask dominating voices to make space and listen to others. Third, design iterative thinking exercises for the types of people who reflect and come back with deeper insights or opinions. 

Make it Fun, but Not Too Fun

“As facilitator, you get to read the crowd and be the ‘energy DJ’ (strobe lights and turntables optional). When the vibe gets a bit too downtempo, you don’t need much to bring it back up. A round of Human Rock Paper Scissors, or business jargon charades, or a silly walks contest is usually enough to break the monotony and re-lubricate the brain.”