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Memorable Staff Retreats

By: Jeffrey B. Cufaude , Idea Architects
Source: Executive Update
Published: January 2001

While planning alone cannot determine the value and success of a retreat, mastering some retreat fundamentals can greatly enhance the odds of making your next retreat meaningful and worthwhile for individuals and your association.


Starting the new year off right with that time-honored tradition: the staff retreat? For some individuals, retreats mean positive team building experiences, productive brainstorming and strategy setting sessions, and enjoyable interaction with colleagues. For others, retreats are associated with time wasted away from the office — forced "touchy-feely" experiences that avoid the real interpersonal issues, dictated priorities and agendas by senior managers, and unproductive or pointless conversations about issues participants believe are unlikely to change.

If you’ve served in the association community for any length of time, you have probably experienced and survived both kinds of experiences. While planning alone cannot determine the value and success of a retreat, mastering some retreat fundamentals can greatly enhance the odds of making your next retreat meaningful and worthwhile for individuals and your association.

(1) Have a clear purpose and outcomes in mind.
Stephen Covey exhorts us to "begin with the end in mind," and his advice is particularly useful at the onset of retreat planning. Why are you holding a retreat? Having a very clear, specific answer to this question is critical because it is the initial framework that should guide all subsequent decisions.

Retreats are held for many reasons: to establish a team spirit and develop stronger working relationships among a board, staff, or other group of individuals; to engage in visioning, strategic planning, or goal setting; to "clear the air" and resolve real or perceived conflicts inhibiting a group’s effectiveness; to develop a detailed plan of work for a particular project or time period; to simply renew relationships and enthusiasm; and to facilitate transitions of responsibilities or orient new individuals to an organization.

"For a retreat to be successful, people need to have immediate take-home value, be it getting to know a colleague better, learning a new way to approach a difficult task, etcetera," says Frank Wilton of the Label Printing Industries of America. "Retreats take time away from our appointed tasks, so there must be value."

It also is beneficial to guide the retreat design. Answering the question, "At the end of this retreat, what do we want to say was accomplished?" is perhaps the simplest way to establish outcomes. Another question that achieves this purpose is: At the end of the retreat, what do we want people to be (a) thinking, (b) feeling, and (c) committed to doing? Finally, make sure you design a retreat evaluation that measures the level of success achieved for the purposes and outcomes originally established — no generic evaluation forms!

(2) Engage as many people as possible in the planning process.
You know the old adage, "people support what they help create." Few people like to come to a retreat without any input into how their time will be spent. Combining both a breadth and depth of input is generally most effective. Breadth can be achieved by electronically surveying all participants and asking for input on a few core areas. The following questions gather a valuable range of input:

1. What most needs to happen in order for you to feel the retreat is a worthwhile investment of your time?

2. What are the most important ideas, issues, etc. that you would like included in the retreat agenda?

3. What topics or issues need to be discussed, but no one may feel comfortable raising them with the group?

Anonymity for respondents is important. Aggregating their responses into a summary is generally acceptable, but to get the most-candid input, comments should not be attributed to individuals.

This breadth of input can then be teamed with a representative planning committee that can offer a depth of insight into an appropriate retreat design. Consider using what facilitators call a "maximum mix" group. A maximum mix group is one of a manageable size (generally seven to eight individuals) that offers the maximum mix of opinions, perspectives, experiences, etc. This planning team could include representatives from every department if your organization is large, or it could simply be a group others would deem as being representative.

(3) Don’t underestimate the importance of place.
"How can we expect people to think outside the box and push to the fringe if they are stuffed in a square box room with artificial lighting?" inquires Erik Lofgren of the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society.

We know the behavior people exhibit occurs from their interactions with each other and the environment. Selecting the appropriate retreat location and environment is critical. Location should always support the original purpose and outcomes you have identified. A visioning retreat should be held in a setting that inspires creative thinking and visioning, not a generic, windowless meeting room that you happen to be able to get for free.

Most planners miss the enormous opportunities the selection of place offers. They turn to the "usual suspects," including another organization’s conference room, hotel or conference center meeting space, etc. Broaden your notion of what is possible by considering museums, galleries, athletic venues, educational institutions, fitness facilities, and much more. The cost often is less, and the space definitely more unique.

And comforts of the environment go beyond just the space itself. As Gary Schott of the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association-International notes, "Of course, a key aspect of any successful meeting is to have good food and plenty of it." Nothing can be worse at a retreat than to meet in a great space but to not have the food and beverages throughout the event to sustain participants’ spirits and energy.

(4) Socialize your participants to the retreat experience.
You are likely to accomplish far more during the actual retreat if participants have been socialized appropriately in advance. Communicating the basic logistics, agenda, and participation expectation is key, but so is building enthusiasm for and commitment to a productive experience.

Many organizations find it useful to have a theme for their retreats. People learn and retain information through metaphors and the power of stories. Theme events tap into this spirit by providing a metaphor that can anchor all individual activities and segments of a retreat.

Our own organization held a "Back to School" staff retreat last year. We met one day in an elementary school. We took a field trip as a social event. We gave ourselves a report card on goals and projects for the year. Backpacks embroidered with our logo were given out as a gift. Our opening icebreaker was a fictitious yearbook page that individuals completed for each other. This theme allowed us to have more fun while being very purposeful about the work we had gathered together to complete. Making retreats, particularly multiple-day events, memorable experiences is a worthwhile goal.

(5) Plan a retreat that engages everyone.
Planning teams often plan the retreat they would like to attend, but it may not connect with the needs and expectations of other attendants. "Make sure discussions and activities are set up to engage as many learning and sharing styles as possible, so everyone feels they are able to contribute and feel comfortable doing so," suggests Adena Bryant of the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society.

This requires acknowledging the similarities and differences participants will bring: knowledge of and experience with the organization; demographic differences such as age, gender, race, ability; and learning styles; level of comfort with self-disclosure; and much more. It also requires facilitators to acknowledge these similarities and differences early in the retreat and help the group commit to honoring the levels of participation that individuals prefer to bring to the event. When individuals feel forced to self-disclose, it violates the implicit safe space that retreats are designed to foster.

(6) Determine facilitation needs.
While a retreat often involves one or more external facilitators, many retreats are facilitated successfully by members of the organization. Determining whether to use internal or external facilitators should be based on the original purpose and outcomes for the retreat, as well as how you anticipate participants would respond to an internal or external facilitator. You also need to determine how active a facilitation style you want. Facilitation can be gentle (making subtle suggestions to the group, restating key points) or direct and forceful (challenging the group on issues they are unwilling to address, asserting powerful observations about how the group interacts, etc.). Facilitators will draw on their natural style unless you articulate your preference. External facilitators are useful because they allow everyone in the organization to participate, often breaking down some hierarchical relationships that may exist in the board, workplace, etc. They can offer significant training and experience in the art of facilitation and can challenge and support individuals and the group as needed throughout the retreat. External facilitators also are often best positioned to help a group raise and discuss difficult issues that need to be addressed.

Internal facilitators can bring credibility with the group if they are viewed as "someone who understands what we’re all about." If the retreat involves a subset of your organization, you could draw on someone from another part of the organization to facilitate. Internal facilitators also can be useful when the retreat involves nuts-and-bolts planning, when someone familiar with the inner workings of the organization perhaps can be of greater value.

Regardless of which option you pursue, it is incumbent on the retreat planners to adequately articulate the purpose and outcomes for the retreat, to socialize the facilitator(s) to the type of experience you envision, to orient them to the relevant history and current status of the group, and to provide meaningful feedback on their draft design of the retreat experience if that is one of their responsibilities. And for strategic planning retreats, "make sure the facilitator keeps the group thinking strategically instead of tactically," suggests Roger Stromberg of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, Inc.

(7) Have an agenda but don’t be ruled by it.
The agenda needs to be both rigid and flexible, according to Lofgren: "Let everyone know upfront what the group is working toward. Then develop a schedule that will help them get there, yet is loose enough to allow for relevant tangents that always seem to pop up."

Retreat agendas in the hands of skilled facilitators are essentially road maps, a "best guess" at how time should be allocated in order to arrive at a final destination. Focusing on the destination is what counts, however, and that means allowing subtle deviations from the predetermined route that seem to meet the group’s needs at any particular moment.

Let the group help manage the agenda: "You seem to have a lot of energy around this conversation, but we have gone past our allocated time for this segment. How would you like to proceed?" Rigid adherence to an agenda can frustrate participants and ultimately undermine the group’s ability to achieve the outcomes initially established for the retreat.

Similarly, do not underestimate the need for a sense of closure that many individuals will have. Closure, however, is in the eyes of the beholder and can be viewed both at the cognitive and emotional levels. Forcing closure on an issue that really cannot be completely resolved at the retreat offers a false sense of security that "all is well." Simply acknowledging the desire for closure and measuring whether or not the group thinks it is at a point where an issue has been adequately addressed for the time being is an effective facilitation strategy. Ensuring that emotional conversations are not left "hanging" also is important to provide some temporary closure and to help the group move on to other activities and discussions.

(8) View the retreat as one significant element of an overall process to achieve your desired ends.
Well-intentioned planners often invest all their hopes for progress into what happens during the actual retreat schedule. No retreat can accomplish everything a group wants to address. Time inevitably will not play out quite as anticipated. Experienced planners know it is critical to identify and build in clear follow-up mechanisms as part of the initial retreat planning process.

Waiting to do that at the retreat or as an afterthought will rarely leverage the group momentum a retreat can foster. "The most important commitment an organization must have when engaging in a retreat is to be sure to maintain a commitment to follow-up on the learning that occurred. Nothing is more frustrating than to have a great retreat and then not integrate the learning into the everyday work of the organization," according to Kae Livsey of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses.

Mark Golden of the National Court Reporters Association echoes Livsey. "I have been through some fabulous retreat experiences, and a week later, no one remembers what was talked about. A year later, nothing has happened as a result of the retreat. You lose credibility, destroy trust, and promote cynicism if participants can justly claim nothing came of their efforts and contributions."

Closing retreat activities should include both individual and group reflections that focus on answering questions such as, What did I/we learn? What do I/we need to do now to leverage that learning? What do I/we need to start, stop, or continue doing? What commitments am I or are we making as a result of this retreat? Help formalize the action items by producing "minutes in minutes," a quick summary of the key learnings and commitments that are distributed to everyone within 24 hours of the retreat. Have a retreat follow-up team that serves as the "conscience" of the group to ensure commitments are met.

Beyond the Fundamentals
Mastering these fundamentals will greatly enhance the possibility that your next retreat will realize its potential. No single article, however, can address all issues associated with effective retreat planning, so keep one final overarching principle in mind: "Plan with intention." Successful retreats challenge and support individuals and groups to grow, develop, resolve conflicts, build cohesiveness and understanding of each other, and make strategic choices and decisions. These can only be accomplished via a retreat design built into every element and every decision.

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