Ingredients to a Great Off-site

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An off-site is an often used, yet never fully leveraged, event where a small group of leadership can work on defining the goals and strategy for the squadron. The goal is to have this work be transformed into a roadmap or campaign plan that captures this work into ideas that everyone can understand and follow along. Common outputs are Mission and Vision statements, either new or updated, along with focus areas that contain subordinate goals that are measurable and achievable. While this recipe is fairly straight forward and can be easily followed, better ingredients can make your off-site even better.

Before the event starts, you should determine the location and formality of the event. Gleaning from the title, the obvious recommendation is to hold this event off-site, as in off-base. Depending on the length of the offsite, which can be determined by how much pre-work you and your team accomplish, you can choose a back room of a restaurant and use half of a day, or you can find a conference room-like setting where you can anchor the team for a few days. Either location should have ample writing and visual support tools. I recommend staying old-school with butcher paper, markers, and dry-erase boards. If you go technical, you may lose some speed trying editing the formatting and organization of the work when you are supposed to focus on the meat of generating and quickly documenting ideas. In a similar fashion, I recommend going informal and out of uniform as the dress code for the event. You want the participants to be as comfortable as possible when contributing to the off-site. The removal of our uniforms and ranks also minimizes but does not eliminate the hierarchical structure of the group. Ideas should not favor any one member more than another; the off-site must be viewed as a team effort that delivers team results. You as commander carry the responsibility to approve the final products, yet that does not mean only your ideas will be discussed and debated. 

Another formality element is whether or not to have a facilitator help the team through the off-site process. This decision should be influenced by your individual leadership style and experience in being able to lead a group through discussion and debate. Resources are usually available through your Force Support Squadron, such as Six Sigma or similarly trained personnel who can facilitate the process of problem analysis and solution generation. These trained personnel also offer an outsider perspective that can assist with overcoming any underlying bias of the group. I prefer leading the discussion myself, using my thoughts to create an initial framework of discussion. The members of the off-site want to be led through the event, yet have clear on-ramps for their participation and input. Whether you choose to facilitate yourself or through an external party, time management will be key to driving progress. Diving down rabbit holes must be carefully avoided. Some discussions may warrant further discussion immediately, while others should be moved to the “parking lot” for discussion later as they may be taking away the focus of the primary task at hand. Recognizing and eliminating distractions is a constant issue to be managed at the off-site, and this responsibility must be explained to everyone to ensure you stay on a productive path.

Inviting the right members to the off-site is an ingredient often overlooked. The selection of squadron and flight leadership (both military and civilian if applicable) should be taken, but another group should also be considered: influencers. This group carries strong personalities that aren’t necessarily tied to a rank or position, but more with the way they influence social circles throughout the squadron. This doesn’t necessarily mean the “popular kids”, but more of the individuals who are able to swiftly shift the energy of the work center, social circle, or even the squadron. These strong personalities could be viewed in a positive or negative light, but your strategy should be to bring them in early and earn their buy-in so they can help push the goals and strategy once defined. These influencers should offer another layer of input and perspective that may not be understood or known by leadership. Off-sites must have a ground rule that allows all participants to share their thoughts and have those thoughts be considered equally. This is easy to say for those who are high in rank but must be equally applied to the influencers. 

Assuming your off-site is complete and the goals and strategy have been defined, the out-brief and follow-through with the squadron are extremely important. There have been too many times where off-sites are conducted, yet the execution falls victim to putting out fires or lack of consistent application. All members of the off-site are responsible for working towards the goals and strategy. Check-ins should be baked in the unit’s battle rhythm to seamlessly integrate and measure progress. Sometimes a goal will be revealed to be unachievable or not worth the intended effort, which could result in revectoring and removal of the goal, which is ok. Really! Ideas that are generated within the sterility of the offsite may not work when smacked against reality, and the decision to abandon the idea may have to be made. Check with the influencers to see if personnel understand and are motivated towards the goal. Prior to making that decision, careful analysis must be taken to ensure the difference between hard and impossible. Additional resources or dropping other efforts may assist in making worthwhile progress. Remember, the efforts of the off-site don’t conclude when the team has defined the goals and strategy. If anything, the work has just begun.

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