Beyond Location: Factor 1

Find Focus

Factors that keep your offsite on-target

If you’re in charge of planning your team’s offsite, then I’ve got news for you: you work in experience design. Selecting the right space for your team’s offsite is step one in designing the optimal experience to get to the best outcomes for your organization. Here we offer four critical factors to think about—Focus, Flow, Fresh & Fun—to design an offsite experience that will help ensure success.

In this article we’ll look at how we can find focus when designing an optimal offsite experience.

“Every year it’s the same,” Sandeep a former colleague tells me—reflecting on the prospect of the annual strategy session her professional services firm is holding in a windowless bunker of a hotel conference room near the airport.

She’s not looking forward to it.

Sandeep explains: “we repeat the same mistakes, somehow thinking this time things will be different, but every year we walk out of our three day session more exhausted and less aligned than when we went in.

We’re a strategic planner’s definition of insanity: we do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” Sandeep’s reaction may be more extreme than your own, but she’s not alone. All too often, organizations focus on putting out today’s operational fires and neglect to plan adequately for their offsite and their investment in their future whether it’s work on organizational development and transformation, innovation and growth, or a longterm strategy.

One easy way to get a start on the big things is to choose wisely when selecting your event space, particularly if your challenge requires going beyond the same old-same-old and getting creative or even disruptive with your solutions. Driving growth informed by experience design starts with choosing an offsite space with four key factors in mind: Focus, Flow, Fresh, and Fun.

Factor 1:

Find Focus

If you’ve ever lived with a teenager or commuted with folks who have smartphones then you know human beings are incredibly good at distracting themselves. In an age of always-on media, messaging and connections, it’s increasingly hard to maintain focus on complex challenges that demand creative, design-led solutions.

Speaking on Creativity in Management, Monty Python’s John Cleese sums up a big part of our problem in finding focus: “It’s easier to do the little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.” Creating an offsite that promotes a sustained focus is a priority for success.

You can begin finding focus by simply choosing a location that isn’t your office—that is, select a space that’s physically and temporally apart from your day-to-day operations, where folks are much more procedurally- and functionally-oriented and often much less open or design-driven. This may seem obvious on the face of things, but the rationale may be less clear.

“We’re a strategic planner’s definition of insanity: we do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.”

OCAD U CO Innovation and executive training studio

At a high level here’s how it works: through his foundational work at both Berkley and the Centre for Creative Leadership, Dr. Donald MacKinnon discovered there are two basic modes of work: open and closed. For the most part, the challenges of innovation and strategy creative, design-led work— demand we work in an open mode, one, for example, where where we’re willing to suspend assumptions, build on the ideas of others, remain capable of embracing ambiguity, and be willing to diverge in our thinking to stretch, explore, and iterate around new possibilities. On the other hand, most of our everyday operational work requires we work in a closed mode: where we converge on choices, seek certainty and compliance and evaluate and judge suggestions with tactical intent foremost in mind—in other words, where we act and act quickly (yesterday, if possible, according to many bosses you may know). Both modes—open and closed—are necessary for success, however we need to be able to work in the mode appropriate for the job to be done; typically, that’s the closed mode for operational and functional tasks that are repeatable or well-codified, and the open mode for activities that demand creative, new or disruptive thinking—which is often what we’re doing when we dare to create the future—something that’s going to be different than the past for our organization, industry and customers.

The challenge we face when, for example, we run our supply chain meetings on the 24th floor supply chain centre and our innovation sessions on the 23rd floor innovation centre is that the supply chain conversations, activities, and mindset often “leak” into the innovation centre’s activities where an open mode of working more effective. Many of us don’t question this operational spillage—after all, these closed-mode, supply chain activities and decisions are important and deserve a lot of airtime, right?

Yes, they do, and yet . . .

If we let our closed, operational approach soak into our largely open and design-led conversations then our innovation and strategic efforts may not get the oxygen they need and may never get off the ground. Worse, we may invest in them heavily and yet in a same old-same-old way where they never actually reach an effective degree of openness, focused acceleration for escape velocity and ultimately for marketleading differentiation and growth.

OCAD U CO | Modes of Work Diagram

For most of us, most of the time, being able to focus on work that demands an open mode of work requires that we work in a way where we’re separated from our functional work in both time and distance, and not just with a new sign on the door, a coat of paint of the wall, or multi-coloured post-its. You don’t have to book time in a monastery or visit a deserted island, but you’d do well to choose an offsite space that’s purpose-built for promoting an open mode of work, and all that implies, for the time that’s needed for your design-led initiatives and strategy development to reach escape velocity.

Moreover, you’ll want to choose a physical space and discrete blocks of time where, first, it’s clear what mode you’re working in, where you can do focused work in an open mode and employ physical and temporal markers for moving into convergent modes of work, as a shift in design-led focus will demand—with no leaks. This brings us to our second key factor: Fostering Flow.

“Both modes—open and closed—are necessary for success, however we need to be able to work in the mode appropriate for the job to be done.”

What Focus looks like in action:

A senior leadership team of thirty five directors and VPs from one of Canada’s largest pension funds needed dedicated time and space to define their strategic aiming points in a sea of industry turbulence and uncertainty. They chose our space and made use of our facilitation expertise to serve as a port of calm concentration where they could focus on the task at hand, emerging with a clear articulation of five priority issues with which to move forward quickly. As one of the C-level members told us: “This really helped us to stay focused. Focus helps us with clarity, clarity gives us accuracy, and accuracy is speed. We got much further much faster than in any strategy session I can remember.”
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