Why I love team off-sites
Wednesday, June 3, 2015/
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker
Three weeks ago, I took our combined team to an off-site in the Blue Mountains. We passed two-and-a-half days discussing our strategy and brainstorming big ideas for the future. We also cooked together, played pool, socialised, went on a bush walk, played laser-tag – and began to lay the foundation of a thriving company culture.
Late last year we brought together Posse, Beat the Q, and E-Coffee Card – three products, two teams, and two very different company cultures. We moved into a makeshift office for six months as we planned ahead. We’ve focused on product, recruitment, fundraising, and growth. With so much going on, it’s hard to prioritise culture.
But as the founder of modern management, Peter Drucker, once exclaimed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Our new company has a great strategy. We must nail culture too.
I’ve run my own businesses since I left uni, except for one year when I worked as someone’s assistant. Early on, I wasn’t great at culture. I thought that if I hired good people then they would naturally succeed. I was wrong, and spent several years fretting about office politics and why no one worked as hard as me.
It wasn’t until the rise of Google that I started to think about company culture. At first, the concept seemed like a big intangible challenge. The Harvard Business Review describes culture as “the glue that binds companies together, and the hardest thing for competitors to copy”.
How does a leader create glue that unites team members? Glue that promotes a set of productive, winning behaviours? How can we create a welcoming environment that people can’t wait to enter every morning? How do we keep a growing team aligned, motivated to deliver on our strategy as if they owned the company? And however can we do it on a startup budget?
I read every book I could on the topic and asked friends and mentors for their advice. Everyone had different suggestions. I thought I’d have to revolutionise the way I led the company, but found that most ideas for culture transformation were simple and easy to implement. Of course there’s the fundamental stuff – hire the right people, be transparent, be performance focused, celebrate wins – and all the tricks that help to achieve these things.
The benefits of an off-site
One of the best ideas has been regular company off-sites. We hire mini-vans, a house to sleep fifteen people for two nights – and away from distractions, we focus on the big picture. We run our strategy and goals on three-monthly loops with review and planning workshops at the end of each quarter. Every second quarter, at the beginning of April and September, we go away together and think.
Since I haven’t seen anyone else run an off-site, I’ve developed my own style. This time we arrived on Wednesday night and finished on Friday afternoon. I broke the time into sessions, combining business reflection, brainstorming, team activities and fun. The objectives are to reinforce company culture and values, encourage cross-pollination of ideas and understanding and to align on goals and strategy for the next quarter.
Here’s some of what I think makes a great off-site:
1. Radical transparency
We start with an honest reflection of the last quarter. Over this time, what worked and what didn’t. I find it hard but important to ensure that each team reports on reality – no vanity metrics! This sets a foundation to build on.
2. Include everyone at beginning
We always start with an exercise that gets each team member to speak in front of the group. It tends to help get the quieter folks more comfortable speaking up.
3. Guest speakers
I usually invite two guests to join by video conference and talk about a particular topic. This year Sizhao Yang (founder of Farmville) joined to talk about hyper-local marketing and Lars Rasmussen (Google Maps) spoke about the need to be aggressive. Inviting guests enables the whole group to hear firsthand knowledge and ask questions of advisors who usually only speak with the CEO.
4. Team brainstorming
We break into groups of four or five made up of people from different parts of the business. This time, each group created ideas for product, sales, marketing and company culture and had to present back to the rest of the team. We made sure everyone presented on a topic that wasn’t their regular role (so, sales people presented on product, engineers on company culture). It’s crucial for the team to accept that there are no bad ideas, so people are free to dream.
5. Personal goal setting
The final task is to set a personal and a professional goal for the quarter and share with the group. We take these down and measure at the end of the quarter.
6. Have fun
Location is important, and it doesn’t need to be expensive. Our place was less than $800 per night. There needs to be a big kitchen to cook together and a place to hang out and project presentations.
Off-sites can be a lot of fun, but they create negative impact if you don’t follow-up. The week after, I pooled everyone’s ideas into a strategy document for the quarter and explained why some made it and others didn’t. We then set week-to-week goals and tracked our progress accordingly.
If culture is the glue that binds a team together then, as team leaders, it’s important that we’re always thinking about how to strengthen it. Like all aspects of a startup, culture should be developed iteratively over time.
As an entrepreneur, I can feel intimidated to compete with the company culture of companies like Google with their free buffets and fancy slides. However, there are many little things we can do to create our own special glue, and that can’t be copied. I’ve found that regular off-sites are an awesome way to harness the team’s creativity and create a unique and strong company culture.
If you like the sound of our company then we’d like to hear from you. We’re hiring superstar engineers, a senior graphic designer, senior product manager, sales teams in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and a finance and operations manager. For more info or to make a recommendation, please email me directly at [email protected].