Over the last twenty years I’ve encountered quite a few collusive away days.
Businesses and other types of organisation often take their team or group (which could be the management team or a team from a particular part of the organisation) out of the day to day office or working environment for a day (or more) to step back and take a fresh look at things, to hold a crisis meeting, to rethink, to turnaround, to build a better group cohesiveness, to make some key decisions, or to explore a critical issue, challenge or question.
In most cases, the ideal outcome will be some action or actions which will take the organisation forwards in some positive way.
Awaydays can be costly. Often they involve hiring a facilitator. I’ve been to quite a few that are in a hotel in the countryside, involving overnight stays.
The stakes are high because it is an awayday!
It’s interesting to note this starting point – that somehow we are more likely to get a deeper, better, more impactful outcome if we all get away from the office for a day. It’s a presumption that has a potentially good and bad side. On the good side, we all know from personal life that a long walk, or a holiday, or taking a bit of “me time” away from things can give us fresh perspectives, a bit of detachment and distance, and even rejuvenate us a bit. On the bad side, the need to get away points to an inability to go deeper, and get detachment right where we are. Being immersed in a specific place can mean we are too far in, too involved. But feeling a need to get away is also a sign that we’re too involved in a way that has potentially lost us some objectivity.
Some organisations have tried awaydays in their own meeting room on site and it rarely goes well. There’s too much subconscious habit in a place this is used regularly for day to day, routine decisions. The room can evoke in us too much cautiousness and also bring up a kind of cynicism that this is going to be “just another meeting”.
Awaydays need to feel a bit unique if they are to have a chance at generating unique, fresh and authentically innovative thinking.
So, we get away from the office. We book a venue where we think we might think out of the box, because we haven’t booked our meeting in the “usual box”!.
So, it makes sense to hold the awayday … away.
Or does it?
In twenty years of facilitating awaydays, I have often had to face, on behalf on my client organisation, a powerful enemy. An enemy that will scupper the awayday and ensure that little of any significance will survive when everyone is back in the box, back at work.
This enemy is very clever, often manipulative, and nearly always determined to block significant change. Who is this enemy?
This enemy is usually my client.
My client wants me to collude with mediocrity – to join in a fake ritual of pretence – pretending that the awayday is important, real and yielding powerful conversation. The unspoken deal is that I will get my fee – and possibly follow up work – as long as change is, at best, marginal and incremental. We will need to talk the mediocrity up as high impact, even revolutionary.
The awayday becomes a collusion between the team or group engaged in the awayday, and with the facilitator.
Why do such collusive awaydays arise?
1. Because people fear change and have learned that occasional “apparently significant” away days can create the illusion that change is taking place. The awayday becomes a kind of cosmetic substitute for the real, needed, and probably uncomfortable change. In really collusive awaydays, the amount of spending on the awayday venue and catering will rise in inverse proportion to the amount of resulting action and change. Often a written report will result and sit in a drawer, possibly forever.
2. Because some organisations that have endemically collusive cultures don’t know how to really change (or have turned that knowledge into a tab00) and have become used to the idea that competence and professionalism equals risk aversion, so the awayday “plays the game” of holding an apparently deep team conversation, but any outcomes must not put the organisation at risk, or draw upon already “stretched” resources. The awayday becomes a ritual rejection of change in the service of “responsible stability”
3. The facilitator (behaving unethically) plays upon the fears and inertia in the organisation and tries to lengthen the timescale for action and change, in order that he or she can charge for more days in the future. The awayday often becomes a day of diagnosis that arrives at the need for further diagnosis before action can be taken (thus resulting in the need for more chargeable awaydays). You might think this is rare. I believe it is less rare than you think.
4. The team or group attending the awayday are dysfunctional and there are often hidden and undealt-with “issues”, irritations, grudges and conflicts suppressed in the group dynamic. These play out during the day and serve to distort the agenda, block or delay action, and most tellingly, limit or deny consensus decision making, leading to fudged diluted or non- action. The faciulitator may attempt to deal with this or name the behaviours, but these rarely get dealt with during the day.
Collusive awaydays are collusions of mediocrity because the result of the collusion is something less than could or should have been achieved. Usually there are some actions, a few “deliverables” and these are collectively named by the influential majority as “the best we could have achieved given the timescale”. Mediocrity is often “labelled upwards” into success, and even called “revolutionary change”.
The facilitator has a strange conflict of interest if the person who has engaged their services is a prime colluder. For then, the facilitator, in order to break the collusion, will be going directly against their current (and potentially future) paymaster. There is often an unspoken “deal” with the facilitator which runs as follows: “Deliver mediocrity and we’ll give you a brilliant reference and possibly, further work with us”.
It is for each facilitator to make their own moral judgment on whether they will accept such work. Some do and have no issue with it. They are there to deliver to ‘spec.’ and nothing more. Some know there is a collusion but want to “get in the room” and they genuinely try to deliver something of use, and even to change the heart of the collusive paymaster. Some go in, ignore the demand to collude, try to shift things significantly anyway, and are then thrown out, often having delivered something important in the way of authentic change. They become the unsung, or much-later-sung heroes of authentic change. Finally, some refuse the work in the first place, being prepared to walk away from the client before the collusion ever kicks in. A few are even prepared to walk away DURING an awayday, if an intractable collusion surfaces and there seems to way to lessen or remove it.
I’m a facilitator who won’t collude with mediocrity. Often though, I will raise this entire issue at the contracting stage and see whether the organisation is open to breaking its collusion of mediocrity early on in the awayday process. Many teams have sudden recognition that they are colluding and they genuinely don’t want to. It can come as a shock that we’ve so normalised and habitualised our comfort zone, that the organisation is suffering because of our sluggish culture, and that we, the management team, are to blame. Even then, the realisation can turn into yet more collusion, as we name the collusion in the hope that we can then park action by simply being open with each other about how unchanging we are! I call this “false revelation” where many groups becomes suddenly very honest and brutally real with each other, but it all gets talked about and parked on flip charts and, by the time we get to real action, we’ve run out of time. Even when action is mooted, attempts are made to dilute it, to keep it depersonalised, devoid of timescales and consequences of non-realisation.
So, my role as a real facilitator of change at an away day is not to serve the group who are meeting, not even to serve the person who booked me, but to serve the needed change, to stand up for the potential that remains to be named and realised. I have to be the ally of change, not the ally of the collusion. Collusions of mediocrity often emerge, subconsciously over time. They are rarely designed. For an awayday to be truly useful for an organisation, it cannot be collusive at any level, and the facilitator must never collude either. The facilitator is only the ally of the organisation when that organisation is prepared to be truthful, honest, committed and open to turning talked about change into tangible action.
These days, I turn down more clients than ever. I’m not being precious or pompous. I’m being honest and I’ll only accept a fee, if that fee is an input to the whatever that the awayday needs to uncover. An awayday should be a catalyst for change, not for further collusion.
If you are looking for things that need to be done, in ways that are warmly honest and passionately real, then get in touch. If you’re looking for another collusive awayday, good luck, but look elsewhere.
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