10 Reasons to Hold That Big Meeting Away from the Office


Meetings are an essential element of running any organization.  Even in an Agile world, the necessity to bring individuals with diverse viewpoints, values, and needs together to arrive at a single, agreed upon decision or solution is inescapable.  Further, not every meeting can be conducted as a 30-minute standup.  Some require several hours or even a couple of days.

Effective meetings do not happen by accident.  Any meeting – be it a daily scrum or a two-day planning retreat – requires both purpose and structure.  Meeting objectives and output need to be clear, and the participants need to understand their roles.  Further, meetings that are more than merely informational benefit from facilitation, whether formal or informal.

In general, institution-level matters are the ones that demand meetings of longer scope.   Annual planning retreats are a good example.  These are usually conducted by Boards of Directors and/or senior management.  Of course, there are other reasons for retreat-style meetings.  These include institutional problem solving, task force deliberations, project or product road map development, and team building.  Each example has a specific objective, concrete outputs (e.g., documents, decisions, plans) that must be delivered, and require that the participants have achieved some level of consensus by the end of the meeting.  In each case, objective facilitation is a key success factor.

An equally critical success factor is the need to move this category of meeting away from the normal place of work.  This is not a trivial consideration and it deserves thoughtful planning.  For instance, moving the meeting to the office building across the street will do little to help you achieve the desired outcomes.  Instead, the meeting location should be treated as a destination, some place special where the participants will thrive and unexpected synergies can emerge.  In fact, locale is almost as important as the process itself in achieving success both for the meeting and the organization.

Following are the top ten benefits I have observed over the years when key meetings have been moved to an offsite destination.  Taken together, these benefits are powerful.

  1. Eliminate Interruptions: Critical meetings can suffer from the distractions of the work environment.  It is just too easy to reach someone and ask them to “step away for a few minutes” to put out a fire.  Off-site meetings send a strong message to both participants and non-participating co-workers that this time is important and is not to be interrupted.
  1. Boost Morale: Off-site meetings boost morale in a variety of ways. Just being included in such an event can provide a lift to a person’s attitude.  But imagine a group of individuals returning from a successful retreat with a body of successes to share with their co-workers. This is value that will penetrate across teams and departments throughout the organization.
  1. Recharge Your Batteries: As it is, many of us do not take sufficient time off.  Getting away from the grind and commotion of the office environment is a way to clear our heads and open our souls up in fresh new thoughts.  If the meeting is truly located at a destination where the participants spend a night or two in a hotel or retreat center, it almost becomes a mini-vacation while still being a working “holiday.”
  1. Change Your Perspective: New vistas and experiences always change one’s perspective.  We cannot help seeing things differently when we have new input.  By taking away the familiar sights and sounds, the brain is more open to new ideas while creativity is boosted.
  1. Enhance Meeting Focus: Interrelated with all of these benefits is the increased focus that the group will have as a result. The usual distractions are gone and the increased effectiveness of the participants can create additional energy and focus for what might otherwise be a grueling and tiring experience.
  1. Nurture Social Capital: When individuals come together in retreat situations, they begin to work together in new and different ways.  Combined with the social events that accompany destination retreats, new relationships develop, trust is heightened, and stronger teams materialize.
  1. Optimize Your Tools: Destination retreats offer tremendous flexibility with respect to meeting tools. Spaces can be reconfigured (sometimes on the fly) to be able to respond to the distinct requirements of the process.  Technology components (e.g., projectors, file sharing, sound systems) can be customized. Unique or different tools can be incorporated that might not be possible at the home office.
  1. Generate Energy: Remote retreats, properly conducted, are energy factories.  New experiences, achievements, and fresh viewpoints all generate excitement that is simply infectious across the participants.  It is not unusual, in fact, to see an energy boost at the end of a long day even if that leg of the process is running overtime.
  1. Embrace Flexibility: One of the true benefits of the destination retreat is that the time “boxes” become elastic.  A process segment that runs a few minutes long does not impact someone else’s meeting.  Participants do not have to be out the door at precisely 5:00 to catch the train or ferry.  The process can evolve to meet the group’s needs as they change over the course of the retreat.
  1. Build Your Team: Whether or not specific team building exercises are incorporated into the retreat experience (although I heartily recommend them), the process of working together more effectively and creatively will enhance your team’s long term performance.  Every member will have a clearer idea of the strengths and capabilities of their teammates, and will be better able to contribute to team success.

On the surface, destination meetings are expensive.  There is the cost of travel, food, lodging, facilitation, and ancillary activities to consider.  But viewed in the light of the overall value that the enterprise ultimately reaps from the meeting output – value which is measured not only by the desired objective and products but also by the ten benefits discussed above – the return on investment is high. Consider these when planning your next big meeting.

What other values do you see from off-site meetings?  Do you have retreat success stories to share?




Predictions_HeaderOn Thanksgiving Day, one of my dinner guests handed me what she called “an early birthday present.” Inside the exquisitely wrapped package I found an original copy of the book Predictions by the historian John Durant. A.S. Barnes and Company published the book in 1956, fifty-eight years ago.   My guest works for a local used bookstore and had talked about the volume some weeks earlier. I’d expressed keen interest at the time, but never got around to going down to check it out.

Predictions is a compilation of illustrations and cartoons selected from a variety of vintage publications dating as far back as the early 1850’s “whose artists dipped pen and brush into the crystal ball and sketched the events of tomorrow.” Durant organized these pictorial predictions into general topic areas such as “The Airship to Come,” “Glimpses of the City of the Future,” and “When Women Get their Rights.” In all cases the author provided the date, source, and caption of the picture. In many cases, he also provided his own commentary about the content and context of the image.

I read the book through in a couple of evenings. As I did, I was struck more by Durant’s commentary than I was by the relative accuracy of the source material. In many cases, he was opining on a cartoon or image more than century old at the time he was writing. In my case, I was experiencing his viewpoint from the vantage of nearly sixty years later. In other words, the book has become source material for 1956 as well as 1856 simply because of the passage of time. Consider that the first working silicon transistor had only been developed two years before Predictions was published. The concept of the Internet was still over a decade away, along with many of the other conveniences of contemporary life that we take for granted.

John Durant himself is something of a mystery. His principle claim to fame was as a sports historian, beginning with The Story of Baseball in Words and Pictures (1947). His career in this vein continued into the 1970’s with such works as The Dodgers: An Illustrated History of those Unpredictable Bums (1948), The Yankees: A Pictorial History of Baseball’s Greatest Club (1949), Highlights of the World Series (1963), The Heavyweight Champions (1967), and Highlights of the Olympics from Ancient Times to the Present (1973). But during the 1950’s, he authored a series of books with his wife, Alice K (Rand) Durant such as Pictorial History of American Ships (1953), Pictorial History of American Presidents (1955), and Pictorial History of the American Circus (1957).  As you can see, the visual image was a primary element of his work.

But despite all of these publications, virtually nothing is known about John Durant the man. I have been completely unable to unearth a single biographical fact on him, save what I found in this undated post by baseball author and historian Marty Appel. “We learn in Highlights of the World Series… that Durant was a sportsman. The author bio on the jacket says he was on the Yale track team, and went to England to compete against the Oxford-Cambridge combined team on behalf of Harvard-Yale, and that he was a champion hurdler and a member of the New York Athletic Club track team. We believe he was Yale Class of ’25…He wrote prolifically for magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Life and others, and was a Florida west coast correspondent for the New York Times for many years, writing fishing pieces and other sportsman like articles from his home in Naples.” That is all I could uncover after spending more time than I should have looking.

Such anonymity hiding in plain sight adds further irony to this perspective on perspectives. To be a published historian who lived into the early years of the information age and to have disappeared so thoroughly is certainly ironic and borders on the eerie. It goes to the heart of just how ephemeral a perspective – any perspective – really is. Each of the original predictions has a strong point of view, but many now appear nonsensical, unrealistic, or politically incorrect. Durant’s perspective suffers less from the passage of time, largely because he limited his role to that of historian but also because he offered no overt predictions of is own. Nevertheless, many of his observations – absent the technological and social changes of the past sixty years – still appear dated from our perspective.

But perspective is important. It provides a sightline for our thoughts and actions in the moment. What Predictions demonstrates is how perspective changes over time. Viewing the difference over the span of a century or two is easy. One can identify changes in social and technological conditions that have taken place. Recognizing the difference over the course of months or days is more challenging. The changes may be imperceptible but they are there. My perspective on Predictions has changed in subtle ways just in the few days I have been writing this piece.

Similarly, no two people can share precisely the same perspective on any one thing. We could be standing side by side looking at the same picture but our perspectives will be different because we are seeing it from slightly different angles, have dissimilar senses of color, have diverse tastes in art, and do not share the same knowledge of the medium. This is one of the fundamental challenges in meeting facilitation. How do we harness the diverse perspectives of the participants in the service of group alignment?

This is most easily accomplished by focusing first on the articulation and organization of group values and purpose. These are the components of identity. By establishing group identity early in the process, the group also establishes group perspective. Group perspective does not replace individual perspective, but it does give participants a tool that helps them step away from their own perspectives in order to see a problem from other points of view.

Values and purpose are clearly in evidence throughout Predictions. They are behind the message in every single cartoon in the volume and help to throw the change of perspective between then and now into dramatic relief. One wonders how these artists and satirists would see their own work if they could view it from our perspective. By the same token, if we knew that we could see our efforts from a perspective so far in the future, I suspect most of us would become too self-conscious to write anything at all. And then what would be accomplished?

In the spirit of this essay, I will end by making a prediction or two of my own. First, I predict that someone sixty years from now will stumble upon my body of writing in some digital dustbin and wonder who in the world wrote such twaddle. I also predict that, unlike with John Durant, the information age will have made my life an open book to my future reader right down to the color of boxer shorts I ordered from Amazon.   I wonder if she will be appalled at my lack of fashion sense?

How do you reconcile diverse perspectives in your organization? Do you regularly examine core values and purpose?


Learning from the Big Push


“No pain, no gain,” is the way the saying goes.  Indeed, there is wisdom in the aphorism.  It is true in our workouts, true in our personal lives, and true at work.  Sustained effort that stretches us helps us to grow in a myriad of ways.  But do we actively recognize and manage these benefits?

As IT professionals, we have all had those projects where hard work, crazy hours, and intense focus over a long period of time were required.  We rise early and work from the hotel room or our home office.  Then we spend the day in a cube or meeting room.  After a bite of supper we’re back at it.  Frequently we are solving some new set of problems or having to incorporate new skills.  The harder we work, the more tired we get.  Mistakes begin to creep in.  As the deadline for deployment looms, we push even more, stealing hours from our families and our sleep.  Finally the project ends and we experience the inevitable letdown.  All too soon, the cycle begins again.  Sound familiar?

What did we gain from it besides a paycheck?  Allow me to expand the discussion to include all big pushes, not just those projects that occur at work.  This brings balance to the inquiry because personal pushes inform the professional ones and vice versa.  Over the past three years, I have had a succession of such projects that have stretched me in essential ways. Looking back, I see how the challenges of each have enabled the success of subsequent ones.  They came in a variety of sizes – from two weeks to more than a year in scope – and each was intense and exhausting.  Each overlapped with other projects.  Here are the five key endeavors.

  • Major client project away from home (14 months)
  • Relocate family from California to Washington (13 months)
  • Major client project away from home (6 weeks)
  • Building project at new home (2 weeks)
  • Clean out and prepare for sale the home of ailing relative who “collects” things (in process)

The first project taught me a number of new professional skills that I have employed since.  Most important, though, it taught me patience.  This was not just because of its longevity but also because of inherent people challenges.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not by nature a patient person.  I am easily frustrated and quick to snap.  These are not productive behaviors anywhere, but on this project they could not be in evidence at all.  I must confess that I was not 100% successful, but the stretch paid off.

Patience was essential for the moving project.  Over the course of thirteen months we had to refinance the old house, find and buy the new house, divest ourselves of 60% of our belongings, pack and move the remainder (including two full-sized grand pianos), prepare and sell the old house, and settle in the new one.  I thought we would never get here.  In the course of that time we had to deal with bankers, real estate agents, buyers, contractors, movers, and a host of other personalities.  In addition to the stamina gained from the sheer physicality of packing and carrying all this stuff (we moved everything but the pianos ourselves), I learned to play the doglegs.  In golf, that is where the fairway angles away in the middle. In life, that is when you are presented with direction-changing setbacks.  Playing the doglegs will be the topic of a subsequent article.

The next client project was rife with doglegs in spite of a compressed time line.  I could not have coped as well with the stress of so many setbacks if I had not already learned that another way would be found, and that it would probably be a better way in the long run.  I learned several new skills on that gig, not the least of which was how to delegate effort.  Maybe sometime soon I will learn to manage effectively what I have delegated. That is what we call an “opportunity.”

My home building project (the construction of a pair of large compost bins) drew upon both patience and the physical benefits of the move.  I constructed them in a corner of the property where everything had been completely overgrown with weeds and ivy.  Not only did this have to be cleared, the roots removed, and the ground flattened, the supports had to be both plumb and level for the design to work.  This part took more time than the actual construction, and of course it was the least fun.  But patience served me well and the results exemplified the lesson.  The project also brought me back to a state of a Zen with my tools that had been absent for some time.

The current project seems to be drawing on most of the strengths I have acquired in the past three years.  Patience – both for the enormity of the task and the personality challenges – tops the list.  I draw on the ability to play the doglegs almost daily.  I am tapping the physicality of the move and the compost bin projects.  I am delegating key aspects of the project in a way I would not have been able to a year ago.  The project is in process now, and its conclusion is not even on the horizon.  Consequently, I am not yet ready to assess what benefits I might take away from this one.

I am convinced that success in life is based on self-awareness.  I am not a big believer in (nor do I necessarily discount either) fate, karma, or divine plan. But when we take on challenges that stretch us and the resultant paybacks occur, do we stop to take stock of them?  What did I gain from the pain that I just endured?  What new tools have I added to my life toolbox?  How do I apply them to the next big challenge?  How has the experience sharpened my game?  Here are my thoughts on how to take advantage of the big push projects.

  • While engaged in a big push project, take note of what is working and what is not.  For me, it is more of a mental note than an entry in a diary, but either is fine.  If you are not getting the results you expect, can you draw on something from a past project to change the game?
  • When you get to the end of the project and before the post project letdown sets in, make a list of those areas where you learned something new, gained a specific skill, or improved on some personal or spiritual level.
  • Over time, see if you can connect the dots from project to project.  If you are being aware and honest, you should begin to see how the personal capital is accumulating.  But beware; this will also reveal your shortcomings.  Those are your opportunities.

This form of self-awareness is new to me.  At least, I think it is.  I first noticed it during that initial client project.  It surfaced again during the move and while I had not begun to connect the dots yet, I became aware of how the doglegs were working.  It was not until the compost bin project that I saw the picture emerging.  Since then, it has been enormously helpful to me both in looking for and also accepting new challenges.  More important, it helps me to retain both perspective and balance between my professional and personal lives, in spite of the fact that the line between them is no longer distinct.

In the end, it is this perspective that changes our big push projects from the labors of Sisyphus to that of Hercules at the Augean Stables.  In the end, of course, the stable gig didn’t count as one of his “labors,” but he did get paid for it.  And boy oh boy was old Hercules good at playing the doglegs.  As for us mortals, it makes us better employees, consultants, spouses, parents, people.  Coffee break is over.  Get back to work.

Do you have a big push payoff to share?  How do you manage that line between your personal and professional lives?