What is a Hothouse?

A hothouse is a 1-3 day, intense deep-dive meeting that helps align participants on priority and accelerates intelligent decision making. The format - which really just brings highly knowledgeable parties together to problem solve together, in person, free of distraction - can be applied to all sorts of uses. The most common use I’ve seen it applied to is building out and aligning organizational strategy. Other uses are intense software building or prototyping events (much like a structured hackathon), sessions dedicated to determining the correct execution model or management of dependencies between related groups, and “backlog building” sessions that prepare for product delivery sprints.

A hothouse, or a hothouse on a regular cadence, can significantly improve strategy, alignment, execution, and morale across an organization. That said, considering the dedicated time away from email and potential travel involved, the pressure to make the event successful is high. Follow these best practices will make your event a success – and it might even be a little fun, too.

  1. Identify the key outcome(s) before the calendar invite goes out. The very first question you should address when planning a hothouse is “why are we doing this?” In other words – what are the outcomes? The more specific and measurable the better. The fewer outcomes the better. Don’t go overboard and don’t overcommit. Even something as simple as “alignment on next steps” or “build a working prototype” is clear and concise. The most important thing is that the outcomes are explicit. Make sure all attendees understand the expected outcomes – this will make it easier for the facilitator to drive toward the goal as the hothouse unfolds.
  2. Ensure decision makers are in the room. “Decision makers” depends on the desired outcome – if your outcome is to build a working prototype of an app, for example, there may not need to be big titles in the room. But the attendee list should in sync with the desired outcome. If your outcome is agreement on a company-wide strategy, then the decision makers that manage the execution of that strategy should be there. Push back strongly on the potential participants’ desire to delegate.
  3. Come in with a structured agenda – but then be ready to pivot away from it. Hothouse time is valuable time – it’s hard to get all these people together, free of distraction. That means you’ll want a pretty structured agenda. Use clear, definitive time boxes. Try not to make any one period within the hot house agenda too long, and allow for built-in breaks, check-ins, and pivot points. Make sure your agenda kicks off with a vision statement where the facilitator is explicit about the goals of the session. After the first few time-boxes, it may make sense to pivot the rest of the agenda based on what you’ve learned so far. A good point to review the progress against the objectives and potentially pivot is in between any timebox, or after the end of day one.
  4. Engage a strong, objective facilitator. The most important thing about your facilitator is that they should not be a participant in the content of the hothouse. Ideally, they’re external to your organization entirely. They should be neutral, without prejudice to the outcomes that the participants are working toward. I also recommend finding a facilitator experienced in guiding, pushing, timeboxing, and sometimes even interrupting even the most vociferous – or senior – participants.
  5. Everyone is fully engaged – all day. It’s very hard to keep participants – especially executives, project managers, or highly technical SMEs – fully engaged for the entire hothouse. Outside forces always vie for their attention. But assuming your hothouse outcomes are important enough to bring participants to the event to begin with, then they are important enough to expect their full attention while they are at the event. Make it clear that all-day participation is not optional and laptops will be closed. Build in breaks where participants can respond to email or make phone calls – but be ready to reel them back in as soon as the break is over. The pull away can be strong – another thing you’ll have to rely on a strong facilitator to control.
  6. The last thing on the agenda is your next steps. Whether you pivot on the agenda or not, be sure that the last thing you leave participants with is clear next steps to keep momentum going. A hothouse is an exciting event that often gets participants pumped up about whatever decisions or progress has been made – but then people go back to their day-to-day routine and that energy and focus can quickly wane. If your facilitator was only engaged for the event itself, be sure someone is designated to shepherd the outcomes to fruition post-hothouse. Ideally, single owners are named for individual follow-up items. You should likely have a date for the next session with the group picked out – even if it’s only a half hour check-in.

Consider these 6 steps your guide to an exciting, impactful, and fun hothouse. If you’d like some support facilitating a hothouse in your organization – just reach out.