Lessons from our team’s annual offsite
By Charlie Brown
Delivering exceptional value to our clients is something we’re obsessed with at Context Partners. So, why would we close our doors and queue up our “out of office” replies for a solid week each summer? Well, it’s simple. We practice the same principles of building community that we would share with any client. Here are five lessons we brought back:
Go somewhere new.
We eased into our offsite simply by getting out of the office for a uniquely “CP” brand of scavenger hunt. In groups of three and four, we dispersed throughout Portland on public transit. Our charge: visit three communities—ones you’d otherwise never experience—and immerse yourself: observe, interact and discover something about them.
In our work with clients, we take a similar approach in our research. But this exercise forced us somewhere new, literally and figuratively. We visited the Japanese Garden, a skate park, a dispensary, the Grotto, the Church of Scientology, an occupation at ICE’s offices, a fire station and several other communities. We returned with great stories, yes, but we also stretched how we think about uncovering insights, including how communities form, grow, disband, forge identity or even exclude. These were powerful moments we can’t help but incorporate into future work, and would encourage other companies to do the same.
Ditch the tech.
Going into the retreat, we knew that our venue at Stoller Family Estate could only support a low-fidelity, tech-free experience. Our lodging was spread among four dispersed homes, and our primary space couldn’t support the Powerpoint decks and sophisticated tools we often rely on.
Despite our initial grumbling, this forced us to find tools we often neglect in our daily work, yet which are readily accessible: using facilitated discussion, performances and storytelling to articulate our views and unearth new ideas. It is too easy to rely on spreadsheets and apps to get our work done. Forcing ourselves to use tools and techniques that we often neglect opens our minds to new ideas. We stumbled at times, but we landed on some amazing, practical outcomes, too.
Play, laugh, eat.
As a CEO, it’s easy for me to force “productivity” in our time away from clients. It should be time well spent, we should accomplish tangible outcomes—these are the scripts that can run in my mind.
But we also have to remember that community is built across the connections we forge when we’re not working, not producing. This year’s retreat offered more space for the team to play together, laugh together and eat together than any other. Something as simple as gathering to cook a meal can reveal just how connected (or disconnected) a group is, and thankfully for us, it revealed a tangible synergy across our team. Laughter was abundant, and I stood in awe of the creativity and wit of my colleagues.
These are two words we’ve used a lot lately inside the walls of Context Partners, and we carried them into the retreat as well. We pushed ourselves to call out gaps, to name roadblocks and to problem-solve ways we can be sure we’re delivering on the promises we’re obsessed with—like delivering value to our clients, growing high-performing communities and unleashing their collective potential to make the world a better place. To deliver value to our clients we have to tap into what makes each of us passionate, even obsessed, about our craft. For me it is the power of coming together to do something we could never do alone, whether that is a social movement or a sing-along. It is the human need of belonging.
Like many companies, we distribute a handful of formalized awards to team members at our annual offsite. Team members cast their votes and awards are delivered by the previous year’s winners. But sometimes formalized awards can be just that—formal. They can also be exclusionary; team members who have the most public-facing roles often get the shiniest trophies.
So this year we started a new tradition. Using silly, handmade awards with paper and markers, we also elevated the quirks, the stand-out moments, the personalities and the folks under the radar who are also a critical part of our well-oiled team machine. Celebration is an essential part of building a community—because everyone wants to know they are a vital contributor to the community’s success.
Heading home from Stoller Estate, the deep greens of the rolling vineyards receding behind us, we all knew we’d be plunging right back into delivering on our work. But we’ll take these lessons with us, along with the strengthened relationships and creative insights that the retreat delivered.