Leadership Off-Site 101: Part III — Substance design

This blog post is a part of a larger Facilitation collection that explores the various aspects of crafting and leading successful corporate events.

Part I of the Leadership Off-Site 101 series offers a basic background on the anatomy of leadership off-site design. Part II, covers the topics you should consider at the very beginning of the planning process: context, objectives, and basics. This post, Part III, addresses the next step in off-site preparation — event design. Specifically, it discusses the substance dimension of event design.

Three dimensions of event design

I strongly believe that any event design has 3 important dimensions to consider:

  1. Substance This is the most important dimension of the 3. It is the “hardcore” look at the event and is what executives truly care about: What outcomes are we creating? What content are we discussing? What work are we advancing?

  2. Structure The second most important dimension addresses the logical and systematic approach that would allow the group to achieve its objectives. How are we breaking down and sequencing activities? How are we socially engineering alignment? How are we allocating time? How are we making decisions?

  3. Style If substance and structure determine what and when it needs to be done, style determines how it should be done. In general, this should be the third dimension to consider, as “form follows function” in off-site design as well. That said, the 3 dimensions are interrelated and the “feeling” you want to create may impact the other 2 dimensions.

In fact, these 3 dimensions apply to speeches you give, presentations you develop, and even blog posts you publish.

Systems thinking applied to off-site design

The focus of this post is to consider the substance dimension of your leadership off-site design.

I have discovered that a good way to design your off-site at a high level is to think of it as a system and describe it in terms of inputs, off-site modules, and outputs. These 3 elements are interdependent, so it takes a bit of back-and-forth as you are thinking through them.

Not only is this a great framework to organize your own thoughts, it is also very helpful when you are discussing your design with the event sponsors or setting expectations with participants.

In fact, I often create a poster visual depicting inputs, off-site modules, and outputs to hang on the wall and explicitly discuss during the opening of the off-site.

(Stay tuned, I will share client examples in a future blog and include the link here.)

So, if you are indeed designing an off-site, grab a piece of paper and start doodling as you read along. I will offer a fictitious example as an illustration as well.

What are the desired outputs?

Starting with the end in mind, articulate the desired outcomes from the off-site. If you have asked the right questions so far, you can jot down objectives with tangible and intangible outcomes. You can refine these later as you iterate the off-site plans.

As an illustration, let’s say that we are designing a meeting for the CEO and his direct reports. Further, the CEO has identified these 3 objectives for the off-site:

  1. Assign each high performer (“HIPO”) in the organization a mentor from the leadership team

  2. Agree on which products to invest in “as is,” which to modify, and which to discontinue

  3. Commit to specific actions to strengthen the top team‘s effectiveness

So, we can put down our desired outputs as:

  1. HIPO mentor assignments

  2. Products listed in 1 of 3 buckets: invest “as is,” modify, discontinue

  3. Top team agreements

What off-site modules do we need?

Next, we have to think backwards and consider what needs to happen to produce the results we want.

To continue with the illustration above, we would need 3 basic off-site modules:

  1. Talent discussion

  2. Product discussion

  3. Top team effectiveness discussion

The details will be fleshed out as you continue to iterate the plans.

What inputs do we need?

Next, you continue to work backwards from the desired outcomes and decide what the group would need for each of the off-site modules to be productive. This step builds on the questions you have already answered to understand the current state of alignment, how decisions are made, and work that has already been done.

For example, in order to assign leadership team mentors to individual HIPOs, you need the list of HIPOs. However, if during your discussion so far you have learned that the list does not yet exist, you have to figure out how to develop it. Your next choice is when and how you want to develop the HIPO list — do you want to accelerate preparations and have the list ready before the off-site? Or do you want to have the group develop the list during the off-site? Let’s say you chose the latter, given time constraints. So you consider as inputs a roster of employees, org charts, and available performance reviews — the better inputs you offer, the more productive the discussion will be.

Similarly, to make the desired product decisions, you will need a decision framework, a list of products, and performance data for products. Again, the better the inputs, the better the discussion. And also, you have a choice of how much to “digest” the data ahead of the off-site. Do you want to bring the raw facts and let the team work through them in real time? Or do you want to develop recommendations ahead of time to be challenged and approved by the team at the off-site?

Finally, to equip the top team at the off-site with what they need for a fruitful top team effectiveness discussion, you may want to bring in an external facilitator. And she may recommend some other inputs as well — say, 360-degree leadership assessments or top team self-assessments. And again, you will have to make the design choice of how much gets done before the off-site and how much gets created in real time.

Highlighting Design Choices

As a wrap-up to this post, it is worth explicitly articulating that you have a choice: How much do you want to advance the work ahead of the off-site? And how much do you want to do during the event?

On one hand, the more work you do ahead of time, the more you can advance a given topic at the off-site itself.

On the other hand, sometimes it is better to engage the group in the grunt work — for example, to create greater buy-in, when the knowledge is implicit and distributed among participants, when you simply do not have the time or resources to prepare ahead of time.

Once you have a good idea on the substance of the off-site you are designing, it is time to think about its structure. I will discuss that in the next blog post.

Disclaimer: While I am breaking down topics in a neat linear fashion, in reality, the off-site design process is iterative and the design choices you make are interdependent. Do read the companion blog posts from this Facilitation collection to prepare for, and lead, a fantastic event.

Written by Aneta Key. Last edited March 2019.