Ever hear of a Rube Goldberg device? Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor, and author, was perhaps best known for his comical illustrations depicting complex systems performing relatively simple tasks. Goldberg’s cartoons consist of simple parts (for example, pulleys, levers, and gears) and often include humans, animals, plants, and such common household items as boots, baskets, and birdcages.
What makes Rube Goldberg’s creations so amusing is that, despite the simplicity of the individual objects that comprise them, they are complicated to the point of absurdity. It’s been said that “while most machines work to make difficult tasks simple, Goldberg’s inventions made simple tasks amazingly complex.”
Have you ever worked on a team that functions like a Rube Goldberg device? Simple processes and tasks are made extraordinarily complex due to a lack of communication, mistrust, poor decision making, inadequate conflict management skills, and a host of other reasons. What would normally take an hour to accomplish takes a day, and what would normally take a day takes weeks! The results are always the same – teamwork is compromised, morale plummets, and frustration grows until many employees “check out” altogether.
Today may be a good time for you to ask whether simple tasks are being made amazingly complex at your organization. Are bureaucracy and red tape slowing processes to a crawl? Are layers of approvals stifling creativity and innovation? What opportunities exist to relieve bottlenecks without compromising critical procedures and protocols? The answers may surprise you.
With budgets and time tight these days, leaders can’t afford to host offsite meetings that are not carefully thought through and well designed.
When was the last time you were at an “offsite” and your eyes glazed over at an agenda overloaded with speakers, action items, and activities? Were the objectives accomplished? Did you even know what they were? Was there any down time or was it just a PowerPoint marathon? Since your time together is limited – not to mention expensive – your offsite needs to make efficient use of the brain power in the room and accomplish the primary objectives: decision-making and problem-solving.
Here are some tips that will help your next offsite go from good to great:
- Figure out the right agenda topics. In advance, send participants an anonymous survey of 8 to 12 questions: 4-6 questions should ask participants to rate the company’s/team’s effectiveness on specific issues. Use a 1-5 scale. Remaining questions should be open-ended to solicit their viewpoints on major issues. The survey results will point you at least three of the offsite’s top agenda topics.
- Create specific agenda topics (“Should we buy Company A?”). If topics are too broad (“the budget” or “mergers”), people come to the offsite with their own interpretations of the topics and you waste time getting everyone on the same page.
- Identify the right attendees. Remember why you’re hosting the meeting – it’s to make decisions, not keep everyone updated (which you can do in more-efficient, less-expensive ways). If an individual is not a decision–maker, seriously consider keeping his/her name off the invitation list. Decisions are seldom finalized with groups larger than 8 people. If the goal of the offsite is simply idea sharing and brainstorming, a larger group of 25-30 makes sense.
- Find a good facilitator. The facilitator will make sure no one, including you the host, dominates the meeting, and all voices are heard. Consider an outside facilitator to help take the stress off you and other participants and ensure timing and flow. You should also have a recorder to document the proceedings and especially the decisions made. (This is not the same person as the facilitator, and not one of the participants.)
- Send out agenda and pre-work in advance. Think of your offsite as you would a board of directors meeting. Prior to a board meeting, directors should receive a package of information so that they come prepared to make decisions, not sit through a day of presentations.
- Assign each agenda issue to a participant, who’s responsible for presenting a summary of the issue at the off-site in under 5 minutes. This summary is not an opportunity for the executive to show everything he/she knows about a subject; anything that can be included in a PowerPoint presentation or a memo should be distributed and read prior to the meeting.
- Dine together the evening prior. As your participants congregate the night before the offsite, plan an informal meal to allow them to relax, reconnect and socialize. If they’re traveling to join you, this is even more important. Casually field questions and set the stage for the next day or two. This scheduled downtime in the evening will ensure a more business-focused and productive team at the start of your meeting the following day.
- Enlist upper management to kick off your meeting. A concise 5-15 minute launch from upper management or a critical influencer establishes the sense of urgency, gravitas and support for your agenda. Suggest key points for them to keep their message relevant to your mission and how it supports larger goals within the organization. Upper management can’t come? Consider a video address or have a representative read his/her presentation.
- Establish – and respect – the ground rules. This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many offsites get bogged down or derailed by small professional discourtesies. Cell phones and other electronic devices should be turned off or set to vibrate, and interruptions only allowed in emergency situations. Remember confidentiality, courtesy and respect at all times. The facilitator can keep you honest here.
- Stick to a timed agenda. You need to be strict with your time. Don’t think in terms of morning and afternoon sessions. Break each agenda topic into segments of 45-90 minutes. Because people grow tired or distracted and become less effective during longer sessions, give ample time for breaks. Don’t skimp on a lunch break; it offers a great opportunity for building relationships in less formal settings. To avoid being sidetracked, use the “parking lot” approach for issues that are important, but not pertinent to the agenda issue under discussion.
- Strategically breakout, brainstorm and report back. For larger groups, the 80/20 rule works well here. Allow 20% of a segment for the problem overview: this may be the 5-minute summary mentioned above. Assign smaller breakout groups to convene and develop solutions over the remaining 80% of the segment. Allot time for the teams to report back.
- Tackle a tough, significant business challenge first, while the team is still fresh. Downsizing, budgeting, operational issues fit well here. Resist the temptation to impose brain-numbing status reports or updates on an energetic atmosphere. Harness the brainpower you’ve assembled.
- Take on a broader topic or challenge in the afternoon. Issues such as cultural change, talent retention, recruitment or shareholder perceptions are best addressed in the lunch when people are more relaxed but (if you’ve done your job) a bit taxed by the issues of the morning.
- Factor in informal networking; (i.e. Fun). Make sure to balance business time with social and networking time. It is a good idea to have some kind of social interaction – a dinner, a golf outing, teambuilding exercises, etc. Give your participants the time to enjoy their destination and time together. Making decisions and problem-solving might be the main objectives, but never ignore the power of enjoyment and the valuable business insights that come with it.
The successful offsite or retreat is a carefully orchestrated blend of structure and discipline combined with an environment to stimulate creativity, dialog and synergies for maximum results.
The Nyman Group has organized, lead and facilitated retreats for leading clients worldwide.
Finding Top Talent Can Help Your Business Thrive
By Marilyn S. Nyman, M.Ed., CCC/SP
First the good news: with recession fears subsiding and your business outlook brightening, you’re now ready to rebuild or revitalize your leadership team with some fresh blood. And now the not-so-good news: finding the best person to fill a key leadership position is never an easy task.
A wrong hiring decision can have far-reaching impact on you, your leadership team, your employees and your shareholders. A good hire, on the other hand, could help propel your company from your current survive mode and into a thrive mode.
Here are a few tips to help you find the right person for the right seat on the bus:
- First determine “what,” then “who.” Yes, you’re very busy, and so is the rest of your team. No doubt, you’re tempted to dust off an old job description and try to find, as quickly as possible, a person who fits that description. Resist the temptation. You can’t delegate the job of finding a new leadership team member entirely to your existing leadership team or the Human Resources department. Take a deep look. What are your expectations for this team member? What’s your vision for the company — and what role do you see this person playing in your vision?
- Lead – don’t delegate – the search. You need to actively participate in the search. One of the biggest mistakes a CEO can make is staying out of the search process until the final interview. You can work closely with your HR/employment team to ensure that you will be presented with the best candidates for interviewing. Use social and professional contacts to stay abreast of what’s happening in your industry, and tap into these same contacts to find appealing candidates for your open leadership position.
- Interviewing: the art of the question. It’s counter-productive to dust off the same questions that candidates have heard time and again. Develop new questions or refresh old questions to help you bring out a candidate’s character. Tailor the questions to the type of person you are looking for. A good idea: use the formal part of the interview to test knowledge, business skills, and industry savvy; the informal portion helps screen candidates, above all, for cultural fit. (Take the candidate to lunch or dinner with another member of your team and observe how he/she interacts with you, the colleague and even the wait staff.)
As the economic picture brightens, you must anticipate what you need to stay ahead of the curve to achieve a competitive advantage. A new, post-recession business environment calls for new thinking, which includes the right leadership team. Take an active role in the selection of new executives you are expecting to help accomplish your business plan. Finally, here are Nyman Group’s recommendations for five great interview questions…
Five Great Interview Questions
These are for illustrative purposes only, but you can see how answers to these questions would help you dig deeper than the standard (dare we even say, stale) interview questions.
- Tell me your story.
- What makes you think you fit well into our organization?
- How would you define success in this role?
- In your opinion, what are the major challenges facing our industry over the next 3 years?
- Are there any questions you would like to ask us?