Away days that work

Approaching away days from a different perspective

I thought it was worth sharing a recent experience working with a local organisation, demonstrating a different focus on changing team working culture and workplace change… Appreciating People was commissioned to work with a city-wide business support service to facilitate a process to encourage team working and identify more effective ways they could deliver business support services.

The service was operating as two separate teams (one with business start-ups and the other with business growth), with significant new staff and working arrangements, whilst also delivering a complicated European-funded project with significant outputs and outcomes.

When the team approached AP, the outcomes they wanted to see included taking steps to create one team, better-integrated working and more effective project delivery. Initially we discussed facilitating an away day, but – at the project definition stage, and building on some ideas and suggestions AP had been experimenting with – agreed that we would take a slightly different approach, consisting of pre-event interviews and two away days.

Using our standard two-day Appreciative Inquiry process, based around the 4D cycle (with the first day being Discovery and Dream and day two being Design and Destiny), the first process was to start the ‘discovery’ appreciative interviews with all team members, before they embarked on the away days.

The information and stories they shared was used to identify what was working, and what individuals felt was needed to move forward. The themes that emerged from this process provided key information for design and content; clarified the issues and also provided participants with the opportunity to experience a strength-based and appreciative-focused experience –concentrating on what worked in the organisation, rather than what didn’t. This also provided participants with an early indication of the methodology we were going to use with them…

The first day consisted of a combination of paired interviews and small group tasks, with the pairs moving into fours to share experiences and stories. The pre-interview reinforced the perception of team separation and little work on shared values and cross-team working, whereas the small group tasks led to the creation of a shared set of values and the beginning of more a collaborative approach. For the afternoon the teams stayed in small groups and moved into the Dream phase, using an ‘Imagine back’ exercise (see italics):

We are meeting in April 2014 to review progress and how things have have changed. You are
working as one group. Your agreed common values are working well and collaboration is the order of
the day. There is a constant flow of clients and there is a wide understanding across the city about
your work. Discuss how this was achieved and what strategies and actions were put in place to
achieve this. What does it look like and in detail?

You need to discuss in your small groups what actions have taken place to achieve this. Then create a short presentation, which will be presented to the wider group.

Each group made a presentation to the full team, and then, as a large group, they set out their intentions (the ideas they’d like to introduce) for the next day. At the closing circle and following debrief with the head and deputy head of service it became clear that there were indications of a group shift and a change in the flow, including a commitment to be one team with common values, stronger collaboration and a more democratic sharing between team members.

Between the two away days we had the opportunity to receive more feedback and explore the priorities for day two. General feedback was positive and an enjoyable experience, but people wanted more action and one or two individuals wanted more conflict to move things forward! Also, on reflection, it became clear that the team members needed the opportunity to re-visit and identify their strengths and talents.

Day two was broken down into a revisit of Discovery, a concentration on Design and a move towards Destiny. Starting with a open circle and answering two questions ‘Reflecting on the last away day, what did you value and find useful?’ and, secondly ‘what would be the best thing to come out of today, for you personally?’ The team then did an exercise in pairs around their strengths and talents, and created a team and strengths wall.

A couple of example questions from the strengths protocol
Q. Share the specialist knowledge you bring to the team, especially if it’s not yet in full use, or widely known
Q. If you asked your colleagues now – or in a previous role – what would they say is the best contribution you make to the work you do?

Using the strengths wall and the work displayed from the previous away day, the group came up with a number of new intentions and themes requiring further work. Breaking into small groups with a chosen subject, they created and designed the structures and required actions. The work was fed back to the wider group, and – following group consensus – each small team developed a set of actions to carry out in week one, week three and by week six. Significantly, these actions were led by the developing teams, not the team leaders.

Feedback immediately after the event and two months later indicates:

• The team is operating as one group under a new name, and there have been some minor changes to the leadership structure
• There’s much more collaborative working between team members
• Individual team members are leading the changes, based on the one-week to six-week model and are achieving the timetable
• Some of the challenges and barriers identified have been solved or are being addressed through collaboration both in the team and externally within the wider organisation
• The group responded that on day two a lot of work was achieved and it was tiring
• The team also realised that the first day was about laying the foundations

From an Appreciative Inquiry perspective, the pre-event appreciative interviews set the scene, and allowed individual contribution, plus more time in the away days for the Design and Destiny stages. The focus on strengths and appreciation built new relationships and broke down barriers. Small group work, using the 5D model as a framework, gave impetus to move things forward and provide leadership from outside of the hierarchy.

This strength-based model can be used in both team settings, board and trustees away days. Contact for more information on the approach and how we can help, and read more about our team building work here.

Tim Slack