If you want to help your company make change, then make it your business to change its approach to off-sites.
These events just seem to come with the territory, in both good times and bad. Business is booming! So how are we going to handle the growth? Business is cratering! So how should we retool our strategy? The HR department books a nice hotel or a fancy resort, hires a cast of nonthreatening facilitators, rolls in some easels and flip charts — and the brainstorming begins. (Did we mention the "trust-building" exercises and the icebreakers?)
Then, a few months later, the disappointment sets in. What actually changed as a result of that three-day retreat? How did a room filled with so many smart people produce so few ideas with impact? Why do we keep having these meetings anyway? It doesn't have to be this way. While plenty of companies are subjecting their employees to the same cookie-cutter events (does anyone reading this not have enough canvas logo bags to upholster the State of Rhode Island?), other companies are finding ways to design off-sites that are exciting, energizing, and memorable — meetings that make a difference. How? By paying as much attention to logic as to logistics, worrying about attitude as well as atmosphere, focusing as much energy on brainpower as on the buffet.
"People who are involved in planning off-sites aim too low," says Brenda Williams, a founding partner of the Lab, a Chicago-based branding firm. "They see them as a chance for people to get to know each other, to get away, or to share information. These planners aren't thinking strategically: What problem will this event solve? What decision will it help people make? What new ideas will it produce? You have to anchor an off-site with goals that actually mean something to the business."
After dozens of interviews with the best meeting planners and event designers, and after compiling a collection of firms that have seen results from retreats, Fast Company has come up with its own answers to the question, How do you plan off-sites that pay off? Here are our seven take-aways.
Take-away #1: Agree on a definition of victory that matters. The most common mistake made when planning an off-site is assuming that one is necessary at all. Just because the company has always had an annual meeting for the sales force doesn't mean that it's still a good idea. "A lot of people will go through the motions of picking a venue, inviting speakers, and getting executives to attend without having a clue about what needs to get done," says John Coné, former VP of learning at Dell, who has organized more than 300 events in his career. "You need to spend time on the critical questions: What are we trying to accomplish? How should we go about it? How will we know if we've succeeded?"
Indeed, the best off-sites are born not from event-planning sessions but from serious discussions about business objectives. When the Timberland Co., the outdoor-gear and footwear company, began planning for the launch of its Fall 2001 line of footwear, it saw a problem: the need to create groundbreaking ideas at breakneck speed. "We had to do more than evolve our product lines," says Doug Clark, VP of footwear product management. "We needed a revolution. But it takes 180 days just to make incremental design improvements. Total overhaul or reinvention of a product could take years. We didn't want to wait that long. We needed a way to jump-start these products."
That jump start turned out to be an off-site of about 60 people that included designers, engineers, and marketers from Timberland, along with key suppliers from around the world. Every type of supplier or manufacturer that was involved in making the shoes was represented: the manager of a leather plant in the Pacific Rim, a rubber-mold manufacturer, specialists in materials science and development. And the definition of victory was clear from the outset. The participants weren't just going to brainstorm big ideas or evaluate what-if scenarios. They were going to settle on production blueprints for three new products: a redesign of the yellow boot, which had been the company's long-standing icon product; a new casual shoe that would end the compromise between comfort and style; and a new category of shoe for outdoor athletes that would provide the sturdiness of a rigid boot and the agility of a sneaker.
The off-site took a full week, but at the end of that time, the teams had met their goals. "Everyone walked in the door aligned with our target of coming away with blueprints for products that could go into production," Clark says. "Having that concrete goal allowed us to walk the line between exploring creative flights of fancy and remaining results driven."
For International Truck and Engine Corp., a Chicago-based manufacturer of tractor trailers and heavy-duty trucks, a soul-searching session around the company's objectives led senior executives to rethink their plans for a traditional off-site. The company had approached Jack Morton Worldwide, a New York - based event-production company, with two goals: to move the selling process online and simultaneously to introduce its newest truck model to its salespeople and consumers. The company hoped that pairing these two objectives would result in a more customer-driven sales approach. Executives planned to introduce the changes at a huge product-launch show for the company's dealers and customers. The experts at Jack Morton talked them out of it. "The more we spoke with them, the more it became clear that one event wasn't going to cut it," says Elaine Honomichl, a regional director of learning and digital media at Jack Morton. "They needed to educate their dealers before the consumers, and, even more important, they needed buy in from their salespeople. This had to be a program that helped them sell, not a decree from above about how to do their jobs."
So leading up to the product launch, Jack Morton designed a series of face-to-face training sessions based on focus groups with dealers. The training included individual homework kits of work to be done before the in-person sessions, as well as follow-up email questionnaires and a CD-ROM. All told, the company ran two-and-a-half-day sessions for 13 weeks in order to reach all of the dealers. At the end of the training, 90% of the dealers said that they not only understood the benefits to consumers of the new truck, but that they were excited about the new sales approach.
Take-away #2: To get the right results, invite the right people. And the "right people" are not always the folks with big titles and corner offices. The attendee list has to include the people on the front lines who actually get the work done, whether they are product designers, engineers, accountants, or vice presidents who can champion an idea through the bureaucracy.
In 1999, the U.S. Mint developed an initiative to get all of the agency's employees to think strategically about the business. And the Mint's leaders decided to advance that goal by holding an off-site. But instead of inviting just the most powerful people, or even handpicking a roster, organizers asked agency employees to apply to attend. They issued a challenge to the Mint's six locations: This meeting is going to be a crucible of innovation. If you want to be part of it, tell us why, and tell us what you'll do with what you learn. More than 150 people applied for 25 slots, and the resulting mix of people included production managers, accountants, and a custodian.
"The application process generated a lot of excitement and momentum and set the stage for follow-up," says Janet Clement, organization development manager at the Mint. "The people who were chosen felt elite, and they also felt that they had a responsibility to represent those who couldn't attend. They came ready to roll up their sleeves and work."
Part of that work included designing a graphic of all of the steps that go into minting a coin, a complex process that few of the individual employees understood from start to finish. Attendees also went through improvisation sessions with a theater company, an exercise designed to help them think about ways to create and improvise on the job. "It was key to invite people from all walks of the company so that employees would feel that we were giving permission to everyone to be creative in their jobs, not just the senior managers," Clement says.
At Timberland's off-site, having suppliers and vendors in the same room meant saving months of development time. Suggestions for new materials could be vetted by those who would have to develop them; new ideas for design could be bolstered or shot down by the engineers who would have to execute them. "We were able to have discussions in real time that would've taken us six months to figure out otherwise," Clark says. "We came up with real product plans that were commercially viable, solely because we had the right people in the room."
Take-away #3: If you want mind-blowing results, expose people to mind-blowing ideas. Especially ideas from outside your company and industry. The most memorable off-sites force people to think about problems from different perspectives, which means feeding them content that is more stimulating than a 500-slide PowerPoint presentation.
Last year, Ford Motor Co. set up an unconventional off-site to explore the challenges facing the Lincoln brand. The brand had always been a domestic one, and the company wanted the option to expand overseas in the future but still retain a distinct sense of "American luxury." At the same time, Lincoln's consumer base was aging, and the company wanted to lower the average age of its customer by about 15 years. That meant wrestling with a difficult marketing question: How do you update and redefine a brand without losing its essence?
The off-site immersed executives in settings that represented American luxury: a Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan, an architect's loft, a trendy restaurant on the Upper East Side. At each venue, executives heard speakers share different perspectives on what American luxury means to their respective brands: a jeweler from a chic shop in SoHo, a writer from the New Yorker, an auctioneer from Christie's.
"The immersion got them to explore the meaning of the brand," says Carolyn Lantz, executive director of brand imaging at Ford. "The point was for people to stretch their minds beyond the heritage of the car in order to come up with something that was totally different and yet completely brand appropriate."
After the brand immersion, which included designers, engineers, senior executives, and marketing people, Lantz was able to take the team's recommendations and incorporate them into the brand cycle for prototype cars, which
is under her purview. The result was the recent debut of the sleek Mark IX. Details such as the design of the seats, which resemble Charles Eames chairs, came directly from the Ford off-site.
Take-away #4: What people think is influenced by where they sit. You can't drag people to a boring, ho-hum conference center and expect anything but boring, ho-hum results. An off-site's environment — both the physical and mental surroundings — makes a huge difference. For a second immersion off-site that focused on exploring the Ford brand, executives gathered in a converted loft warehouse in Chicago that was furnished with IKEA furniture to create the atmosphere of simple, affordable style.
"The place that you choose is critical," says Brenda Williams of the Lab. "We've rented out football stadiums and held sessions in locker rooms for discussions about sports products.
For a meeting about a new cereal product for kids, I might plan a session at a playground. It's about finding a space that reminds people of the meeting's strategic goals and themes."
An environment is mental as well as physical. It's not just the shape or design of a room that makes people feel creative. They also need to have permission to be daring, to risk voicing outrageous ideas, says Geof Hammond, a facilitator and coach for Play, the creative agency that designed Timberland's off-site. "You have to make people feel comfortable about thinking differently and breaking the rules," he says. "You try to create a common language and shared risk around creativity."
For the Timberland event, Play's coaches warmed up attendees by having the three teams design an outdoor recreation area. Because none of the participants were civil engineers, they were able to ignore the rules of "how things should be done." That gave them the freedom to start talking about footwear with similar abandon. "When you say to a group, 'I want you to think creatively,' a lot of people shut down," Hammond says, "because they think that creativity only applies to the arts. You have to give them a safe environment to experiment in."
Take-away #5: To make it work, keep it real. Translation: Go easy on the team building, and focus on the business. Whether it's a ropes course or a game of paint ball, team building for its own sake is a waste of time. "You've got to make it real," Williams says. "Everything that you do should relate to the task at hand. The bottom line is that people are busy, and they have lives outside of work. The only way to justify taking up their time is to solve a real problem that's on their plate."
For Ford, keeping it real meant putting executives in the shoes of consumers (those without six-figure executive salaries) in order to help them understand the trade-offs involved in a car purchase. On the second day of the three-day immersion on the Ford brand, Lantz introduced her executives to the real world. "It was about 7 PM, and I told them, 'Okay, throw your wallets on the table. I want all of your credit cards too.' They thought I was insane, but they did it anyway. Then I gave them each an envelope with $50 in it and loaded them onto a bus to go to Old Navy," Lantz said. "I told them, 'You have 20 minutes to find and purchase an outfit that you have to wear tomorrow. You are busy people looking for great design at a great price. Those are Ford's customers.' "
J Mays, vice president of design at Ford (who bought a dark-blue pair of chinos, a matching shirt, and a baseball cap with his fifty bucks), said that the exercise was a powerful way to make an important point: "Everyone walked out of the store with a new appreciation for the idea that products need to be extremely well designed, but democratically priced. It brought a new sense of purpose to our process of evaluating how a car looks and functions."
For International Truck and Engine, keeping it real meant sharing stories from real customers. In preparation for the training sessions, event planners at Jack Morton went into the field to videotape interviews with customers on what they liked about the new truck as well as how interacting online with the company would make their lives easier. When the salespeople showed up for training, they watched the videos of customers explaining their needs. "The salespeople weren't interested in marketing buzzwords or corporate vision. They wanted stuff that they could really use," says Kathleen Finley, a senior account manager at Jack Morton. "It was easy to get people excited about the training, because they could see that it was directly relevant to their jobs."
Take-away #6: You don't always have to beat the clock. Most off-sites exude a quasi-military obsession with sticking to the schedule. But a slavish adherence to the clock doesn't allow people to react to what's unfolding in the room or to embrace unexpected brilliance. And that can be a huge mistake, says Hammond of Play. "You have to let the ideas lead the schedule, not the other way around," he says. "If you let time dictate the process, people get worried about whether they are moving fast enough, rather than coming up with new ideas."
With Timberland, Hammond's role, along with the other coaches from Play, was to take the group through specific exercises and ask provocative questions to spur ideas. For instance, the group whose challenge was to redesign the yellow boot considered such questions as, What makes an icon? When you update an icon, like the Volkswagen Beetle, how do you retain the iconic, timeless quality and yet make it more relevant? Structured exercises such as examining other icons pointed the conversation in the right direction. But the coaches had to be careful not to manage the conversation too aggressively.
At one point, during an exercise in the group that focused on new Mountain Athletics footwear, Hammond noticed that a materials scientist in the corner was blowing on a small piece of cardboard in his hand, watching how the card curved upwards in response to the moisture in his breath. Sensing that something important was going on inside the guy's head, Hammond interrupted the exercise and asked him to share his thoughts. The scientist explained that his research involved studying how different materials responded to heat and water. "What if we were able to make a shoe with material that had pores that would expand to let out heat when your foot got hot, but wouldn't let in water from the outside at the same time?" he hypothesized. The scientist's idea, and the unscheduled discussion that followed, spurred the development of a new material that is unique to the Mountain Athletics line: an outer-shell cloth that breathes, but that is also waterproof.
At the U.S. Mint's retreat, Clement stopped the proceedings midday to respond to participants' enthusiasm about one particular topic. The teams that had brainstormed new initiatives for employee training and production efficiencies needed more time than the schedule allotted to present their ideas to the senior executives. Clement cut an afternoon session, worked with the hotel to reconfigure rooms, and found an additional 30 minutes for the presentation. "There was nothing more important at that moment than letting those people have the stage," Clement says. "While we hadn't predicted that they would be so excited, we had to respond to it once it happened. As a result, they left the off-site feeling like, Wow, I guess the top brass really does respect us. They do want to hear what we have to say."
Take-away #7: What gets measured gets attention. Even the most exciting and energetic off-site will be remembered as a failure if it doesn't produce tangible business results. The best off-sites build quantifiable goals into the event and the follow-up to make sure that everyone's time was well spent.
After the U.S. Mint retreat, for example, the depiction of the coin-minting process was turned into posters that now hang in every Mint location. Just sharing that information allowed each Mint employee to see how his or her job related to the big picture — and how changes that they might make in their jobs could ripple through the rest of the process. The changes that employees themselves suggested over the next year helped the Mint increase production from 20 billion coins in 1999 to 28 billion in 2000 — without increasing the resources required to produce them.
For Timberland, the off-site led to several breakthrough ideas for the company's footwear division that will guide product development for several years to come. The team that worked on updating the yellow boot came up with a boot that is 20% lighter than its predecessor, more modern in appearance, and yet true to its history: still waterproof, still rugged.
The team that worked on casual shoes found an innovative way to deliver both comfort and style. After tracing their own feet and observing how the foot expands when a person stands, they asked, "What if we could build a shoe that changed shape with your foot?" The new Timberland casual line features a sole and seams that expand and contract as the foot moves, as well as an insole that provides varying levels of support for different parts of the sole.
The team that was charged with inventing a new shoe category for outdoor athletics found a balance between sturdiness and agility by envisioning how the bottom of a shoe could be designed more like the top of a shoe. Instead of stitching the upper to a platform, they thought, why not wrap the bottom of the foot the same way the upper wraps the top of the foot? The result is the new "lightweight armor" shoe, which has a flexible forefoot and a rigid heel.
"I've been in this industry for 20 years, and I can't remember a week that was more productive in terms of product development or building relationships," Clark says. "It was the best off-site that we've ever had."
Cheryl Dahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Silicon Valley.
Sidebar: The Four Deadly Sins of Off-Sites
If there isn't a special spot in hell reserved for people who plan awful off-sites, there should be. We've identified the four deadly sins of off-site planning to help you avoid damnation.
Sin #1: Booking first, thinking later. This may be the cardinal sin: settling on a venue before the event is designed. "It's so frustrating," says Jim Oswald, a senior strategist and facilitator with Gensler Consulting, which works closely with organizations to align their business, organizational, and real-estate strategies. "We design an ideal event with a client and then can't do what we want because they booked the hotel three days after last year's event."
Sin #2: Placing too much trust in trust-building exercises. "You can see it in people's faces the minute they get the schedule: 'Oh God, not the ropes thing again,' " says Brenda Williams, a founding partner of the Lab, a branding agency in Chicago. Adds Donna Thompson, chief operating officer of Fusion Productions, which organizes events for major companies and associations: "Whether someone can climb a tree has nothing to do with whether they know how to market a product. Besides, people would rather be home with their families than playing games with their boss."
Sin #3: Investing too much power in PowerPoint. "If I could, I would enforce a worldwide ban on that software," Thompson says. "Every time we work with executives, we try to get them to do without slides. It's like getting a toddler to give up his blanket."
Sin #4: Giving too much time to Mr. Big. The best way to lose energy at an off-site is to turn over the podium to executives who aren't invested in the event. John Coné, formerly of Dell, calls it the "parade of kings" — and it drives him nuts: "The event devolves into a PowerPoint marathon presented by senior managers."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.