How a two-day, facilitated adventure allowed a team to understand and address key business objectives.
“I think it’s fine that the team wants to do an off-site. It will be good for them, and I look forward to hearing about it afterwards.”
When first speaking with Devin*, a senior vice president at Western Union Digital, it was clear that he was supportive of his team’s interest in an offsite. However, his reaction not only reflected his reluctance to participate in the experience — a common obstacle when working with senior executives — it also foreshadowed many of the issues later uncovered as key objectives for the offsite.
Devin’s team at Western Union Digital was comprised of three distinct departments, each with its own separate function and leader. However, the three groups were all involved in the same work flow, and hand-offs were a critical part of the overall team’s success.
Sarah*, Devin’s righthand, was the driver behind the idea of a team offsite and led the initial planning. She shared an upfront assessment of the team and outlined goals for the experience. Sarah observed weak relationships between the leaders of the three departments, difficulty completing hand-offs efficiently, and confusion around responsibilities, including those of Devin himself.
Armed with these insights, it was not difficult to convince Devin of the value of participating in the offsite and assisting in program planning. He was an essential part of the group dynamic and deserved an opportunity to learn and grow along with his team while experiencing his own transformative moments.
Pre-Planning: Identifying Objectives and Customizing the Program
Western Union Digital’s team had a disengaged leader and distinct silos between departments. Additionally, the team was facing three large and all-too-common interpersonal dysfunctions: lack of trust; lack of accountability for results; and a lack of role clarity.
In planning a program for Western Union Digital, GEL considered three key questions:
- How can a group like this be inspired to examine themselves and their team dynamics?
- How do we set the team up to have candid conversations, safely?
- What will make participants look forward to an offsite, when most members of dysfunctional teams view them as a waste of time?
Fortunately, the answer to all three questions could be found in one of GEL’s core recommendations: Get the team involved early, weeks before the offsite.
Before our multi-day off-site programs, GEL encourages clients to complete a short assessment survey. We ensure anonymity, allowing people to weigh in candidly on things like alignment around business goals, role clarity, obstacles to success, and dynamics that support or impede progress. Each survey can be customized to best explore any known challenge areas and provide GEL with a head start in designing an off-site suited to the specific needs of each team and organization.
A few of the questions that have proved most useful in identifying the overarching issues impacting teams are:
- What aspects of your team dynamics are most supportive of success? Which are getting in the way of achieving results?
- If this team became the best team you’ve ever been on, what major changes would need to happen? What would you and the team need to stop doing? What would you and the team need to do more or less of?
- What topics would need to be discussed and resolved to allow you to leave the offsite feeling completely confident that the group had created a path to a culture of high-performance?
- What is the elephant in the room that never gets discussed?
Based on the issues Sarah helped us identify related to collaboration and communication, the survey also asked the eight leaders on Devin’s team to identify the team’s top three objectives. Their answers revealed that the eight leaders cumulatively believed that 18 different objectives were “top-three.” From a single question, Devin and Sarah identified creating alignment as a vital off-site objective.
The other survey questions revealed that the leaders were almost completely in agreement around the issues Sarah had initially observed. The honest feedback from the survey helped GEL design an offsite that was tailored toward the needs of the Western Union Digital team.
The Offsite: Bringing the Program Design to Life
The focus on day one was addressing the primary challenges identified after speaking with Devin and Sarah: building trust and fostering identification as a team of leaders rather than as individual managers of functional silos.
To do so, GEL relied on sailing, one of our favorite activities to promote bonding and strengthen communication. The team spent the morning learning basic sailing techniques aboard two separate sailboats. Building on that knowledge, the afternoon consisted of sailing challenges in which all participants rotated through a primary leadership role. For all of the challenges, collaboration between the two boats was critical to success.
Following the sailing, the adventure continued with a surprise docking on a state park with scenic campsites that are only accessible by completing a 45-minute uphill hike. GEL provided the team with backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and food, along with a map to their site. No leader was assigned, but the stated expectation was that the team would work together to follow the map and complete the hike. GEL facilitators did not accompany the team, instead waiting two hours before hiking to the summit, hopeful they would rejoin the full group there. When the facilitators arrived, they found that the Western Union Digital team had located their campsite, set up their tents, and begun cooking dinner, all before sunset.
After the day’s activities, the team was armed with the insights needed to begin having necessary conversations about how they worked individually and together. GEL facilitators led the team through a fun exercise to address the lack of team alignment involving a deck of the 18 “top three” objectives. By the end of the evening, the group understood the challenges they were experiencing and were beginning to see the benefits of candid communication.
The following morning, the team built on their experiences from the previous day, connecting their main takeaways to specific business targets. The session took the team through the process of mapping the steps required to meet the now-clarified objectives. Overlapping roles and misperceptions were addressed live while process pain points requiring modifications were identified.
The final program debrief focused on ensuring alignment, acknowledging the “aha moments” team members experienced, and finalizing actionable takeaways to ensure Devin’s team was able to continue the positive momentum generated over the previous day and a half.
Next Steps: Achieving Lasting Results
The Western Union Digital team’s key insight from the experience was not surprising in its simplicity. They attributed their successful business discussions to the increased trust developed during the experiential activities during the offsite – sailing, hiking, and camping together as a team.
The group scheduled future sessions intended to make necessary changes to their practices and communication, noting that the sessions would also include participation from the extended teams effected. They were able to apply what they learned about their work and relationships to a real-world objective, building the foundation for more effective processes in the future.
Having a clear picture of the team’s challenges early on allowed GEL to create a customized off-site that put participants in situations in which they needed to work together and trust one another to complete challenges. This relationship-building translated to the business-focused discussions, encouraging everyone to speak candidly and address the issues that had been hindering the team’s overall performance. Now, the Western Union Digital team has the tools needed to reach their full potential.
*All names in this case study have been changed for privacy.