Boards, executive committees and top leadership teams in virtually every sector and region are recognizing the need to build businesses that can thrive in the midst of accelerating, unrelenting and unpredictable change.
From Google to Facebook and Amazon to Salesforce, fast-moving and visionary companies are obliterating long-held assumptions about what can be done and how fast companies will need to move in order to maintain their relevance.
These cautionary tales have put executive committees worldwide on high alert. They know they have to innovate and execute, or risk being left behind. And the good news is that there’s a moment coming up in every leader’s calendar that presents them with the ultimate opportunity to do just that. It’s the moment in which they can cocreate a course for the future. It’s the moment for agreeing on the bold, transformative steps required to tool their organizations for fast and iterative execution. It’s the moment for which they are already planning, and on which they will likely spend considerable time and money.
That moment, you may be surprised to hear, is the leadership off-site.
Making the most of this moment may be the difference between success and extinction. The power of group creativity, the alchemy of face-to-face collaboration, hundreds of years of combined executive experience — all of these are right there at your disposal.
But how many companies will seize that moment?
There are numerous barriers that prevent us from realizing the beauty and possibility of these moments. They are typically planned in a strategic vacuum and reflect the casual hallway utterances of distracted executive sponsors. They feature one-way PowerPoint presentations that would sap the energy of any group. They consist of business reviews that repeat what people already know or could have learned in a preread.
Planning for and designing these events are rarely a priority, and the preparation is often less than the board book or the quarterly earnings report. But in this ever-quickening world where change is the only normal, the company off-site can have, if we could just think about it a little differently, a truly unique and awesome power.
We’ve all experienced great meetings. But how many of us have experienced a session that had a real emotional impact, recontracted our teams or reimagined our companies? How often has an event set us on a trajectory that was more transformative than we could have hoped?
At Lippincott, we’ve found four dimensions that the best off-sites have in common. By themselves, they are potent. When combined, they are course setting and company saving.
Removing our armor creates new levels of connection and brings teams together in deeply meaningful ways. Vulnerability authentically modeled from the top can change the nature of how a group interacts. In the beautiful off-site, a leader’s disclosure of imperfection causes a whole room to approach tasks with the beginner’s mind.
We saw this firsthand last year with one of our global pharmaceutical clients, and it was a powerful thing. The chief medical officer had recently taken over from a highly esteemed colleague with whom she was compared at every turn. In her first off-site, she invited her top 120 leaders to flesh out the five-year strategy and adopt a new and more empathetic leadership model. Over the course of the two days, she pushed her own comfort limits by empowering teams to work dynamically, build the plan together and challenge the company’s norms.
By the end of the event, she recognized from the stage that the passion of this group was more important than her intended outcomes. She had been transformed by the concerns, aspirations and ideas that they had shared. We watched people’s perceptions of her shifting with her words. Her armor had been pierced and a new level of intimacy was palpable. The group was, and still is, forever changed from the experience.
When an off-site includes personal sharing, creative thinking increases by up to 29 percent.
The Ferrazzi Institute has studied this phenomenon and found that when an off-site includes personal sharing, creative thinking increases by up to 29 percent. The simple gesture of exposing what’s beneath the surface can change the course of a session, of a group, and of the effectiveness of a team over days, weeks or years.
The beautiful off-site attempts to change the status quo, and the only way to do that is to shift participants from ordinary attention to heightened attention. It’s surprisingly easy to disrupt existing patterns, but it needs to be a conscious decision.
Discovering the right new pattern begins by taking an empathetic view. Applying the principles of anthropology, ethnography and design thinking, you’ll recognize the deeper motivations of the participants, assess the trajectory of the current patterns and identify the gaps and solutions to bridge those worlds. This is where the creative process begins.
Three off-sites we recently ran illustrate the different ways that you can disrupt patterns. We challenged one leadership team by asking them to listen to a jazz quartet in blindfolds to enhance their presence and sensory perception. We shocked another by inviting a recent U.S. President to speak to them, illustrating the company’s commitment to global work via videoconference. We unsettled the third by replacing their prior meeting structure with an open-space methodology that generates a more personalized agenda in the moment.
Regardless of the technique, it should surprise, delight or challenge participants. By heightening leaders’ attention and consciousness, we create a team of influencers who can champion a change-ready culture of innovation.
Creativity guru Edward de Bono says, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns to see the same thing in a new way.” But reframing challenges requires new language, new lenses, new processes and, most important, a willingness to see anew.
One of our favorite examples of an elegant reframe took place with a large national media company. With a track record of poor customer service and vocal customers whose complaints had gone viral, we had the sense that there would be a hard road ahead to train the front line and improve the customer experience. It seemed clear from their behavior that this lack of passion would remain pervasive until we dove deep enough to understand the real issues.
By spending time with employees and executives, we saw that the challenge was less about frontline motivation and more to do with underlying systems, policies and executive mind-sets. The beautiful off-site in this case took months to plan. But with care and attention, we got the right people in the room and reframed the challenge from “How do we activate the front line?” to “How do we take responsibility for putting the wind at our employees’ backs?”
The development of this leadership muscle for addressing challenges, helping teams see familiar questions in entirely new ways, is vital for the relentless, creative problem-solving that characterizes today’s innovative companies.
Solving the real problems
How many off-sites have you attended where you knew that real, fundamental issues weren’t on the table? Unprecedented change at unprecedented speed means we can no longer indulge in these superficial conversations.
Moreover, a host of tools and approaches has been introduced that dramatically improves the output of these sessions. Agile methodologies, iterative prototyping, collaboration software and group processes have come together to accelerate our productivity and make these off-sites more interesting and creative.
Take for instance a recent executive off-site for a multibillion dollar professional services firm. Growing consistently for years at around 4 percent, the chief executive officer was proud of their returns but also aware of the limitations that surround incremental growth. His remit to us was simple: Create a new vision for growth, and leave leaders with a shift in mind-set.
With careful planning and a generous amount of reframing ahead of the meeting, we broke down the team’s risk-averse patterns by putting participants in cross-company teams and challenging them to find exponential growth in their businesses. We facilitated a two-day hackathon that ended with a network television-quality Shark Tank in which new ideas were pitched to the executive committee.
The event underscored how different problem-solving techniques send different messages. The lenses, frameworks and tools provided fresh perspective, and the result was extraordinary. Over two days, 70 leaders created eight breakthrough business ideas, three of which are being funded, and they left with their DNA slightly rearranged.
The off-site is a rare, essential moment to make sharp pivots and put profound changes in motion.
There can be no more courageous or effective use of an off-site than to bring the collective intelligence of a leadership team to the biggest challenges facing a firm and commit to a clear, aligned plan of action.
The craft of off-site design is about asking questions and staying divergent until the creative insight reveals itself. Each and every decision will add to, or detract from, the experience — from laboring over the design brief and the articulation of objectives, to battling over who should be on stage and how much to engage the participation of the audience. The agenda reveals itself like David from marble with each creative decision.
We simply cannot afford to follow old patterns and check boxes.
As one of our clients’ senior leaders noted: “Opportunities to gather your best and brightest minds and focus their attention on fundamental business challenges are rare and extraordinary. They are milestone moments in the history of an organization, and we must make the most of them.”
Now is the time to persuade your senior leaders of the transformational potential of these events — and to put significant thought, time and resources into both the event design process and the off-site experience.
If your next leadership off-site is your best chance to design your future, what will you do with it?
Article originally published on HR Grapevine on November 29, 2016.