It’s fashionable to poke fun at corporate away days. There’s even a Famous Five parody devoted to the subject. Many of you will no doubt be familiar with these events. They usually start with some fine words about openness and trust then finish hours, or even days later, with a set of statements on flip charts.
Such things were the original inspiration for the title of this blog. For, all too often, no-one actually believes in the things written on the flip charts. Either that, or they are so ambiguously worded that people can interpret them in any number of ways. It often takes as long to wordsmith the statements as it does to come up with the ideas in the first place. The result is that people sign up to what is on the flip charts, then go back to their day jobs and carry on pretty much as before, while slagging off their colleagues and complaining about what a waste of time the away day was. As a result everyone will start next year’s away day with even lower expectations, which will duly be fulfilled.
It sounds like the Cabinet’s away day was a classic of the genre. From what I’ve heard it had much of the usual paraphernalia, including breakout rooms. You have to have breakout rooms. And the result was predictably meaningless.
“So, we’re going with Canada Plus Plus Plus and Managed Ambitious Divergence then. Are we all happy that we are strategically aligned on these principles?”
“Yes. Looks good to me.”
“Should we have another Plus, you know, like Canada Plus Plus Plus Plus? Might that look a bit more ambitious?”
“Actually, I think we’ve already got too many pluses. Another one will just look silly.”
“But David has already talked about Canada Plus Plus Plus, so if we lose one it’s going to look weak.”
“OK, OK, let’s go with it. I’m not that fussed either way.”
“Right, so that’s agreed then.”
“Hang on, Managed Ambitious Divergence, that’s M.A.D. That spells mad.”
“Oh bugger! That’s true. Right. Anyone got another idea?”
“Er, how about Ambitious Managed Divergence?”
“Yeah, that’ll do. Just draw an arrow, Amber, so it shows we are swapping the words around to read Ambitious Managed Divergence.”
“No, write it all out again, Amber, otherwise we’ll get confused.”
“Write it in capitals.”
“Shall I use a different colour?”
“Look, get a new flip chart and write the whole thing again.”
“What, all of it?”
“Come on, Amber, it’s not that bloody difficult.”
“Well if you’re so clever, Boris, you come up here and do it.”
“Give me that pen. Look. AMBITIOUS. MANAGED. DIVERGENCE. There. Job done. Are we all agreed on that? Good. Now can we go for dinner?”
I jest, of course, though it is usually one of the women that ends up doing the flip charts. So too, it’s often a bombastic man whose contribution to the process has consisted of content-free grandstanding and rhetorical hand grenades who complains about the lack of pace and progress.
Executive team away days can work. I have seen people come up with useful stuff. I even saw one team spend an entire day-and-a-half exploring lots of ideas only to discount them all. That was time well spent because by eliminating what they shouldn’t do, it helped them to focus much more clearly on what they should. The trouble is, away days have a bad name because, a lot of the time, they simply paper over the cracks.
Team events fail for four reasons, which I call the 4 Cs: Capability, Conflict, Courage and Collusion.
- Capability – where the team doesn’t understand the problem and/or doesn’t have a clue what to do about it;
- Conflict – where members of the team are at loggerheads, either because of personality clashes or opposing vested interests;
- Courage – where no-one in the team is prepared to acknowledge either of the above and challenge their colleagues, which leads to:
- Collusion – where everyone tacitly agrees to paper over the cracks with an inane statement that all can agree on because no-one’s position is challenged.
The result of this will be that the elephants in the room are left alone and the sleeping dogs are left to lie. None of the important issues are addressed and they are still there at next year’s away day, when the whole process starts again.
How long a management team can keep going like this depends on the organisation’s external environment. If the market is changing rapidly, if there are hostile predators or if there are far-reaching regulatory changes, the management team’s inertia may get found out fairly quickly. However, if the environment is relatively benign, an organisation can trundle on for years happily avoiding any difficult decisions.
Unfortunately, our government doesn’t have that long. The EU has already dismissed the output from its away day. Ambitious Managed Divergence also contradicts what the EU thinks the UK government agreed to in December. Essentially, Paragraph 49 of that agreement commits the government to keeping Northern Ireland in some form of customs union with the EU and Paragraph 50 commits it to preventing barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If you follow the logic, that means the UK staying in a customs union with the EU. The contradiction between the December agreement and the away day statement will have to come to a head soon if any progress is to be made in the rest of the negotiations.
The output from away days is often rendered irrelevant by subsequent events. That from the Chequers event may be particularly short-lived. Six months from now we will probably have forgotten all about Ambitious Managed Divergence. Another flip chart consigned to the shredder of history.