Is it all kicking off in your kick-off? If not, maybe it should?

We are in the heart of kick-off season in many organisations and it’s got me thinking, “what’s the intention of these events, and how could we make more of these valuable opportunities for people to connect face to face?”

I believe the intention of kick-off meetings is to get people aligned on a common direction in the actions they take for the year. Most kick-offs comprise a blend of leadership presenting the goals and plans for the year, presentations on any significant market changes, product presentations, team building, personal planning, and often, some social time. They are usually delivered through a presentation-plus-Q&A style of working so that most of the preparation is focused on the content development.

As described above, I believe the intention of a kick-off is sound – the desire to get everyone in good shape for the year ahead is a worthwhile cause. However, there is a belief inherent in the way most kick-offs are run, which I think is flawed!


The belief above is also connected to the way we plan in large organisations – a subject that warrants a blog in itself. Suffice to say, I think traditional planning approaches don’t work. I say this as someone who has tried them all and has seen all our plans proved to be works of fiction; any correlation between our year-end results and the original plans was largely coincidental. I think this is because:

A) the way we make decisions in groups is often fraught with pitfalls – things like, people saying what they feel they ought to say, rather than what they think.

B) more significantly, the world we work in is so complex and fast changing that we cannot predict and control in the way that our planning methodologies were designed to do.

In my opinion, planning is an approach to anxiety management for leaders and managers, sustaining an illusion of control. Again, more to come on planning in another blog>>>

So, back to the kick-off. I’ve stated that the belief underpinning the traditional kick-off is flawed. My rationale for this bold claim is:

* there is loads of evidence that people can’t take in more than the first 10-20 minutes of presentations. This is quite a well-known fact and yet, it is still blatantly ignored in meetings, where people are expected to absorb hours of content.

* what motivates people to commit to action is complex and personal to the individual, so ‘mass alignment’ doesn’t work. People need to make meaning for themselves before they will commit to action.

* the underlying organisational metaphor that reinforces this way of working is that organisations are machines, that people are the component parts of the machine, and knowledge is the oil that lubricates the parts.

Having spent most of my career working in groups I see organisations as simply very large groups of people, living human systems. If we take a human systems approach to getting in good shape for the year, then the focus becomes: how do we nourish these people and the connections between them so that they are in good shape for the year ahead? Of course, the underpinning belief for this approach is different.


My experience is that this is not the dominant belief in the leadership of most large organisations. There is a growing awareness that we need to attend to the human system, but this is still secondary to the mechanical approaches. In fact, it took me a long time to really GET this myself. Even though I specialise in working with human systems, I needed to try all the traditional planning and alignment stuff, and see it fail, before I was willing to throw those traditional crutches away and try something different. Last year we used our own January meeting entirely for the development of the team. We faced into some tough stuff and one team member described it as the “best and worst meeting” all in one. We ended the meeting with the smallest list of actions ever and yet the most significant action I have ever experienced in our 18 years of business was taken after the meeting, resulting in a year of profound and ongoing change for the organisation.

Just to be clear… I am not a complete Hippie. I know that business performance is important. I run a business myself. I am not proposing that we spend our valuable face to face time sitting around singing, or tree hugging. I am proposing that we attend to organisational health as a means to achieving business performance. I believe we can have both. In fact I think we need both.

So, if you are open to trying something different from the traditional kick-off, maybe you’ve tried the tired old ways and they haven’t worked, or maybe you are a visionary who intuitively sees the potential of a human systems approach. I would encourage you to consider what your team needs individually and collectively to nourish and prepare them for the year ahead. Some questions to support this thinking:

* how clear are the group on their collective aims?

* how much do they trust each other? Are there any unresolved conflicts?

* how clear are they about their roles and how they need to work together?

* how committed are they to action? And how well do they hold each other accountable for their actions?

Your answers to these questions should help start to form your views about where you focus in your meeting on the people and their connections.


If you have already done a traditional kick-off meeting and have a sinking feeling that it didn’t achieve much, DONT PANIC!!! All is not lost! This work can be done throughout the year once we realise the limitations of the traditional approach and are willing to learn from this and try something new.

I would advocate the benefits of external support for this work. I called upon a skilled facilitator and OD practitioner to support me in this work as I believe it is impossible to facilitate effectively whilst holding a leadership position and deal with group conflicts.

From someone who has been on a journey of letting go of transactional approaches and is now embracing new ways… I wish you well.