Our top 5 tips on: can team off-sites/away days drive real change?
The team away day has been a feature of corporate life for decades, and it perhaps even more appealing and important in a world where many, if not most, of our interactions with colleagues are online. We're often asked to help organisations design and facilitate these sorts of events, whether they be focused on people strategy, team dynamics and conflict, roles and responsibilities, or any other important topic. Our overall take is that team days feel great, and get great feedback on the day, but it's hard to translate that back into real change when everyone is back to their desk. Here are our ideas on how to approach this challenge, whether you are bringing in external help or not.
🎯Focus the team’s attention🎯
Senior teams are often over-enthusiastic about what they are able to take on, which can lead to unachievable aims for the session. It’s likely there will be differing opinions about what is a priority, but this needs to be resolved and agreed before you bring everyone together. A lack of focus in an agenda can lead to a lack of focus in the room: things run late and attendees get tired and irritable. Ask yourself, “if this away day is successful, what will be different afterwards?”. Be specific and concrete about what the scope and ambition of the session should be.
🦺Build and nurture psychological safety🦺
The concept of psychological safety dates to the 1960s but is having a renaissance, partly thanks to Google’s Project Aristotle1 which identified it as a key ingredient of high performing teams. However, our observation is that while psychological safety is now talked about more, truly psychologically safe conversations are lagging behind. Amy Edmonson has three tips for fostering this:
frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
acknowledge your own fallibility
model curiosity by asking lots of questions.
When you see these things happen, celebrate and draw attention to them for others to learn from them.
🪞Encourage observation and reflection🪞
When we are asked to help a team work on a specific objective, part of our role is to observe and reflect on how the team works together. You can do this too: if you are working on an important objective or decision, build in moments where you reflect on the discussion. Who is contributing the most, and who is quiet? Are you truly weighing up all the options or converging on the answer from the start and backing it up with confirmation bias? How do you manage disagreement, and how safe does that feel? Teams are sources of great value and support, but can also be sources of error. If you don’t stop and examine how you’re working, you can’t mitigate the risks of group and power dynamics pulling you off course.
❓Pay attention to how you make decisions, not just the decisions themselves❓
In his 2004 article, J Frank Yates2 identifies an interesting and important idea: companies pay much more attention to the decisions they make (do/did we choose x or y?) than the process of decision making (how did we decide?). He refers to this concept as “decision neglect” which, if it happens, can leave room for all sorts of cognitive biases and errors to creep in. Choose a model and structure for how you are going to make your key decisions (Kahneman et al offer an interesting approach to this in their book Noise3, outlined at a high level here4.)
✅Use (your) coaching skills to create ownership and follow up✅
A frequent mistake we see when teams come together, is failing to set specific individual objectives and following through. This can be true even in the most powerful and insightful sessions, because the team has failed to bridge between the work they do in the room and what happens when they are back at their desks. Coaching skills, and in particular the GROW model, can be really useful to bridge this gap. Have a session at the end of the day to go through the stages of the GROW model: what are the teams, and each person’s goals based on the discussion, what’s the reality now, what are the obstacles and options, what is the way forward. It’s also useful to examine how committed each person is to their goals on a scale of zero to 10.