A couple of months ago, I wrote a column that offered some tactical suggestions on how to have an effective business lunch. The idea came to me after observing a number of really productive lunches—and some that were a complete waste of time.

The column struck a nerve with many of you, who posted thoughtful replies and followed up via e-mail with some interesting stories of “business lunches gone bad.”

In this column, I want to look at another common management tool, the off-site team meeting, and offer similarly tactical tips on how to plan and run one. As a technical manager, you know that your team’s time is precious, so take a few minutes to learn how to make your next off-site as productive as possible.

What kind of off-site?
There are all types of off-site meetings, so let’s be clear what kind we’re going to focus on. For example, I just got back from a couple of days of meetings at our corporate headquarters. These meetings included a cross-section of people from every part of the company. It was interesting and useful but not the kind of off-site that I’m thinking about here.

For this column, I’m talking about an extended team meeting, when you take just the men and women who work for you out of your regular environment, so you can focus on a specific set of issues.

What kind of issues? Well, there are a number of reasons to schedule an off-site. Perhaps you need to roll out a new initiative for your department, and you want some time to explain it in depth. Or maybe you’re going to be introducing a new technology, and you need to provide a detailed overview. If your IT department recently reorganized, you might have additional staff or responsibilities.

On the other hand, you might schedule an off-site to fix a specific problem with your team’s performance. Maybe there is a lack of trust or poor communication between team members. Whatever the reason, let’s assume that you’ve scheduled an off-site for your team, and you want to make the experience valuable.

Planning and more planning
As with most things in life, the key to a successful off-site lies mostly in the planning. Here are some things I’ve learned from planning off-site meetings that might help you in your preparations:

  • Try to do your off-site off-site: I know that it’s expensive to actually rent a meeting facility, but actually having everyone drive to another place in town is a good way to get them away from potential distractions and ready to focus on the reasons for the meeting. Of course, some organizations have extensive meeting facilities that are appropriate for these kinds of gatherings. If you’re looking for a place to hold your meeting, and funds are low, call up a friend or vendor and see if you could “borrow” their meeting space for your off-site—perhaps you could arrange a trade?
  • Check out the facility: No matter where you hold your meeting, visit the site first to make sure it has what you need. Some of the essentials include: multiple whiteboards or easels with large pads of paper for brainstorming, enough chairs for all the participants, plenty of room to move the chairs into small groups or into a large circle, outlets for laptops and a projector (if needed), and convenient parking.
  • Know your goals: Before you start actually planning the structure of the meeting, make sure you can answer the following: What am I trying to get done here? At the end of this meeting, I want every participant to be able to [fill in the blank]. There is no point in going any further if you don’t have a firm handle on what you’re hoping to accomplish.
  • Create an agenda: Once you’ve worked out your meeting’s goals, create an agenda. Lay out on a single piece of paper how you want your off-site to unfold. Be sure to estimate how long each item will take, so that you have a realistic timeline for the day. At the off-site itself, don’t forget to publish the agenda, so that all participants understand what the schedule looks like.
  • Consider when a moderator would be appropriate: For some types of meetings, you should investigate using an independent moderator. If you’re going to be rolling out a new technology or discussing a pending project, a neutral voice probably isn’t necessary. However, if you’re trying to solve a problem with team dynamics, getting a facilitator from outside your group can be very helpful.
  • Remember that less can be more: Since it takes so much time and money to set up an off-site team meeting, you naturally want to get as much out of your investment as possible. However, you would be wise to limit both the scope of the agenda as well as the length of the meeting. It’s very difficult to run an effective all-day meeting. You tend to run out of gas at the end of the day, and so do your troops. It’s much better, all things considered, to drill down on some issues for four to six hours and leave while everyone is still focused. (Besides, you might find that giving people an hour or two off at the end of the day is a great motivator to work through your agenda.)

On the big day itself
If you’ve done the proper planning, most of your work will already be completed before the off-site begins. Most, but not all. Here are some tips for running the meeting:

  • If the group is big enough, get name tags: Just because you know the names of everyone in your department doesn’t mean that everyone else will. Most IT groups suffer from a certain amount of turnover, so odds are that at least some of your team members are new. Help them out by having everyone wear name tags.
  • Turn in pagers and cell phones at the door: If you don’t, you’ll be plagued by interruptions all day long. (You could also request that participants turn off their phones and pagers.)
  • Don’t let people self-select their groups: In other words, break up any cliques or subgroups by randomly assigning participants to small groups for any breakout sessions during your off-site.
  • Don’t forget about the food: It sounds trivial, but don’t forget to feed everyone.

How do you manage your off-sites?

Do you have some other suggestions for how to make an off-site meeting effective? Send us some mail or post a comment and let us know.