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Why Retreats Don't Work and What to do About it


April 1, 2013 by Eric Svaren
Category: Management , HR Advisor

By Eric Svaren, Principal
Groupsmith, Inc.

At a non-profit start-up, the entire staff meet to review their progress and address strategic and tactical challenges. Deep conversations emerge about the value the non-profit creates, people's personal commitment to the mission, and how to continue to grow sustainably, without burning out staff or burning up working capital. After two days, participants leave new clarity and understanding about the non-profit, its purpose, and their roles.

In a public utility, a team meets to clarify roles and address the “lack of safety” to raise tough issues. They focus on negative dynamics in the unit, and also on how they are all contributing to the safety problem. One staff member boldly and emotionally lays out why she doesn't feel safe. This retreat launches a half-day follow-up session and a nearly year-long process for sorting out issues, roles and expectations, including a reorganization and leadership change.

In a collaborative government services enterprise, the board's executive committee confronts difficult dynamics on the committee, as well as a lack of alignment. With intensive work on communication skills paired with a deep, candid discussion of pressing issues, the team moves to a higher, level of performance. Over subsequent retreats, the team solidifies these gains, improving the guidance and performance of the enterprise and also improving relationships with the staff and board members.

The very best retreats are pivotal moments for the team. You vividly remember the retreat-the activities, outcomes and the “feel” of the event. The retreat is a milestone; conversations include references to the retreat: Was that before or after the retreat? I have seen retreats begin profound transformation in teams. I've also seen them used to support on-going transformation.

While many retreats don't achieve breakthroughs, they can help you to clarify work plans, build dialogue, clear the air or chart a new course. Retreats can be very useful tools for achieving important business objectives and improve organizational health. The team comes away renewed and refreshed, with more confidence that the team can achieve its goals.

Sadly, many retreats don't achieve even these more modest objectives. I recently met with a team looking for a facilitator to help plan a retreat. I asked the group about past retreats; they told me that people left the last two retreats feeling very discouraged. I thought to myself that is exactly not what you want people to feel as they drive home after a retreat.

Over the last 18 years, I have designed and facilitated nearly one hundred retreats, summits, and off-sites. Here's my advice about why retreats don't work and what to do about it.

Why retreats don't work

  1. The leader's not involved. Many retreats are “designed by committee” without the leader's active participation. Instead, they are initiated and designed by a committee of well-meaning employees. In fact, managers can adopt a “hands-off” attitude. (On more than one occasion, I've been told by leaders, “We're only doing this because my people want it.”)

    You might think these laissez-faire managers are demonstrating high regard for their staff. In fact, they are demonstrating indifference to the retreat and the outcomes. The leader ends up with little stake in the retreat, except that “people have fun or feel satisfied.”

    Many retreats fail because the leaders choose to “underlead.” (High staff involvement in planning a retreat is good, but the leader must be involved as well.) Retreats are special opportunities for leaders to lead. They can clarify the mission, ask for and weigh ideas, step back and look at how the team is performing, discuss changes to improve performance, or to change direction altogether. Retreats also provide time for leaders and staff to engage in more collaborative and generative ways. They step back from the day-to-day tasks and focus on the bigger picture and long-term objectives. Leaders smooth the way going forward by engaging informally with staff, sharing perspectives, and airing questions and ideas.

    Effective leaders use retreats to strengthen, not relax, their leadership. Retreats are no time for the leader to sit back and check out.
  2. Fuzzy objectives. Many retreat objectives are vague or have nothing to do with the performance of the team. There are no clear business objectives (e.g., time, money, quality and quantity). Instead, planning committees focus on activities they think would be fun or they've done at other retreats. Retreat agendas become a hodgepodge.

    The best retreats are treated as opportunities to bring the team together to focus on important work. Business objectives are clear, and the retreat design builds logically to achieve the objectives. For example, retreats provide a chance to have a deeper conversation about how well the team is performing; later, the discussion focuses on how to improve and action planning. Effective leaders and planning committees use retreats to achieve objectives that are important for the success of the unit.

    The most driven leaders use retreats to frame new stretch goals for the unit. They discuss with the staff on changes in the larger context and focus on how the unit's mission and approach to work need to change. Leaders pose challenges for the group to address.
  3. Retreat is a one-off. All too often, retreats are seen as separate from the regular work, as a stand-alone event. Consequently, retreats are not well-integrated into the work of the unit. Not surprisingly, this leads to the “Monday morning problem”- when you return to the office, forget about the retreat, and carry on with business-as-usual. Later, you hear complaints that “there was no follow-up from the retreat” or “nothing happened.”

    The best retreats are treated as moments of intense activity in a larger process. The leader, the committee and the facilitator lay the groundwork so that the retreat time is used most effectively. For example, employees review performance data, read articles, or do advance homework to prepare for the retreat. The retreat builds on ideas and conversations that are already happening.

    And, there's a follow-up plan in place before the retreat. After all, the follow-up items from the retreat shouldn't be a surprise; they come from the objectives and design. Good retreats end with an action plan. You'll want to see if follow-up is happening, and whether it's producing the desired results.

    Let's face it; little can change in a single day. Serious, lasting change takes more time and effort. Set the stage for success by preparing well and planning what will happen after the retreat-instead of treating it as a one-off event.
  4. Avoiding tough stuff. Many retreats steer around the real work. Many workgroups have important, “undiscussable” issues. One of the hardest is when the leader thinks the team is fine but the team thinks there are big problems. It feels too risky to bring up tough topics at the retreat, so we avoid them. Instead, the team focuses on something less meaty and important. Most everyone knows that there is “an elephant in the room,” and since it's not being addressed, cynicism grows.

    Another, related problem is retreats that focus only on symptoms and not underlying conditions or issues. For example, when “communication” is a problem, the retreat is focused on training in communication skills, rather than directly confronting the lack of trust or safety people feel.

    The best retreats are ones that address the tough issues. If the leader and staff engage in a candid dialogue about what's going on and what to do about it, retreats can be amazing, transformative experiences. But, it takes careful planning and a lot of time to ensure that topics can be adequately addressed and brought to some kind of closure in a retreat. You don't want to leave hot topics dangling.
  5. Only an annual ritual. Many groups plan their retreats because they've always had one, or they always have one at a certain time of the year. Some folks believe that just having a retreat is good, even if there's no purpose or pressing business needs. It doesn't really matter what you do at the retreat, but it's just good to get away and have fun together.

    If you don't have more pressing work to do, or if resources are plentiful, then perhaps you can afford to have a retreat just for fun. (Having fun at a retreat is important, but I don't suggest it be the primary purpose.) Most of the time, there are important things your team needs to address-including topics that are draining away people's energy.

Retreats are important tools for leaders and their teams. Nearly all organizations would benefit from concentrated attention to matters that hinder optimal performance, innovation and morale. The most effective leaders use retreats as a means to advance their enterprise's mission and impact in the community. When you devote time and careful attention to the objectives and design of the retreat, teams can achieve significant transformation and renewal.

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