Three Reasons Off-Site Meetings are Death (And How to Give Them Life Again)

Last Updated Jul 14, 2011 1:59 PM EDT

Off-site meetings are useful occasions for getting a team or teams away from the office routine for a bit of thinking out loud. These are not corporate retreats, but rather meetings focused on bringing fresh ideas to old and new challenges.

But off-sites often misfire, and here are three reasons why:

Too many ingredients. Off-sites die from trying to do too much, like a simple hamburger dressed up in exotic fruits, goat cheese mayonnaise and a slather of goose liver pâté. Instead of focusing on problem solving or strategy formulation, they day wanders off into speeches by The People in Charge providing company updates, performance metrics and management training. Off-sites should be less formal, organized around collaboration, and filled with opportunities for people to talk and share ideas with others they don't otherwise deal with.

The wrong tools. The communication tools for an off-site must be different, too. Forget command-and-control technologies such as Microsoft PowerPoint, which is designed for one person to communicate to many. At an off-site it's all about face-to-face interactions, so fill the room with easy to move white boards and flip charts for capturing ideas from conversations. Chairs should be arranged in circles, not rows. (Even better, let people arrange their own seating.)

The wrong people. A primary goal of an off-site should be to generate new perspectives, so inviting just your everyday officemates isn't going to be too helpful. Instead, bring together representatives of diverse functions: operations, marketing, customer support, and even customers themselves. It's the mix of views and backgrounds that ignite the most creative sparks.

Here's a practical tip from executive coach Peter Bregman, who has an excellent perspective on what off-sites should attempt to accomplish.

"Instead of having executives prepare clear, well-thought-out (and boring) PowerPoint presentations about their own businesses, try having them lead informal discussions about their colleagues' businesses, using flip charts to collect important points, draw conclusions, and agree on action plans with owners and timelines." You can read his full post, The #1 Killer of Meetings (And What You Can Do About It).

What's the best off-site you were involved in? What made it click? And what was the worst?
(Image by Flickr user Joanna8555, CC 2.0)

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  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.