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  • Writer's pictureSteve Hearsum

Awaydays: useful development opportunity or expensive jolly and avoidance strategy?...

Updated: Jul 2


I don’t do away days.

 

If I get asked by a client if I will facilitate or design one, my response is typically no. Not unless we can talk about the conversation that they really need to have that they may be avoiding. I say this because I spent years feeling mildly disgruntled by the awayday phenomenon, both as a participant and consultant.

 

Usually, they are prefaced by things like:

 

  • “We need to do some team building” – really? So, what is it that is getting in the way of that? What are the tensions that are not being explored? What are the conversations you know you need to have but are too scared to?

  • “We have some new people so an awayday will help people get to know each other” – ah ha! You want to do some inclusion work and re-contract around your ways of working and behaviours. Why don’t we talk about that then?

  • “We need a strategy awayday” – I get the need to get some perspective, to go to the balcony, but ‘strategy days’ can all too easily become ruminations on the abstract, a neat way of sanitising and distancing oneself from the gnarly issues that we actually need to wrestle with in order for any strategy to have meaning.

 

All of this came flooding back to me during a supervision session with an NHS client who works in an Organisation Development role. He shared with me his frustration at being asked by a director to come up with off the shelf packages for awaydays.

 

“People think that away days are the answer to world peace”

 

My client was clear that what was needed was not sticking plaster, Silver Bullet, quick fix, off the shelf solutions etc because they would miss the point and, crucially, deny the person asking for an away day the opportunity to inquire into what was actually needed. He said to me his list of questions for his clients included:

 

  • What are you here to do?

  • What are your outputs?

  • Who are you dependent on?

  • Who depends on you?

  • What is an ‘awayday’, and what is it for?

  • What are the considerations?

 

Instead, he observed a pattern where people were taken out of the organisation for a day, without understanding why. He felt there was a lack of rigour in his organisation’s culture around asking ‘why?’ more generally. Why do we need an awayday? Why are things not working? Why is there conflict? Why is patient care not what it needs to be?...


 “I feel a bit on my own”, My client commented to me. He was noticing his difference.

 



Organisational Heretics Are Valuable

Being the one pointing out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes can be exposing at the best of times, particularly when you are the person highlighting contradictions and absurdities. Anxiety and shame is kept in check by a functional collusion that means away days, programmatic management & leadership development, coaching cultures and the other ossified artefacts and rituals of learning & development that try to neaten the mess and wiggliness of organisations.

 

To have the temerity to question that orthodoxy not only challenges the norms within the organisation, there are also a plethora of consultants, facilitators, trainers and more who feed off clients’ needs for things like away days, and who may not always be willing to question to deeply. I count myself in that number, as I know earlier in my career, I had neither the experience nor courage to challenge in a way that was needed.

 

Time to kill off the ‘away day’?...

In some senses, the away day is just another example of how organisations find ways to avoid challenging conversations and working through differences. Maybe it is time to quietly kill off the away day and consign it to the dustbin of history, where it can snuggle up to some of the other tropes and crutches that we cling to, such as org charts, command and control, heroic leadership and more. Instead, we could have days about stuff that matters. Put simply, if we asked some of the questions above, or looked at what capabilities needed developing, they might be far more useful exercises.

 

Is there ever a case for an away day jolly? Absolutely! It is a great way to reward people, to create the conditions for inclusion and connection (if well designed) and to have fun. To make sure that it is worth doing that you will, however, need to do the following:

 

  1. Do the groundwork: have enough conversations with people to reassure yourself that is what people need and want;

  2. Listen out for mutterings such as “why are we doing this when we can’t even?….” or “I haven’t got time for that” or “if (person X) is there no way I am going”. All are clues you haven’t done Number 1;

  3. Co-design it: your idea of fun may not be your teams, so get them involved in the process;

  4. Cater to difference: not everyone drinks, not everyone thinks go-karting is a blast – how inclusive are your plans?...

 

Last but not least, remember they are not a Silver Bullet. They may help, but they are no substitute for attending to the underlying needs that originally lead you to think an away day was a good idea.

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