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Resources: Planning and Implementing Retreats Facilitation Skills for Trainers, Facilitators, and Group Leaders Volume1 Facilitation Skills for Trainers, Facilitators, and Group Leaders Volume 2 How to Use Feedback to Improve Performance and Enhance Motivation A Guide to cotraining How to Deal with Participant Resistance Connecting People and Performance: How We Do It Striking a Healthy Work-Life Balance Coaching for Improved Business Results

Planning and Implementing Retreats


A Managements Guide

By James A. McCaffery
TRAINING RESOURCES GROUP Another article in TRGs series of How-To Articles for Trainers, Facilitators, and Group Leaders Copyright 1992 Training Resources Group, Inc. (TRG) 909 N. Washington Street, Suite 305, Alexandria, VA 22314 All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means is prohibited without TRGs written permission.

Planning and Implementing Retreats A Management Guide


A retreat is an opportunity to engender creativity -- a time to remove your nose from the grindstone and look to the hills, a chance to think about what ought to be -- and devise steps to get there. Most people work hard in their organizations and want their work to be meaningful -- they want to be involved and working toward an ideal. Even in the face of conflicting demands and increasing pressures, they need to see that what they do every day moves their work group in a desired direction. Employees are more productive and motivated when they feel a greater sense of involvement in establishing their organizations goals and ideals. A carefully-planned retreat motivates employees because it enlists their creative participation in setting goals and contributing to decisions. Just as important, effective retreats produce concrete approaches for tackling long-standing and difficult organizational problems. Managers in our workshops frequently discuss the value of using a retreat as a management tool. There is a general sense that they can be useful, but, in fact, people have had widely varying experiences with retreats. One reason for the mixed reviews is clear: managers often underestimate the complexity of preparing for and conducting a retreat. This paper will address the various issues and actions you as a manager must face in planning a retreat. We hope it can help you attain the vision described above, and insure you of a successful, results-oriented retreat.

The Purpose of a Retreat


A retreat may have one, two or several purposes. Its important to think carefully and clearly about retreat purposes since they become the foundation for the retreat design. Its also critical to share the purposes with participants. This will help set their expectations about what the retreat intends to accomplish. Retreats can be used to: engage in a planning process that involves all the major contributors build a more effective team in the office or organization

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take stock of progress in project or management initiatives engender creativity and synergy around problems or future directions create a degree of shared ownership in key planning issues, or in solutions to organizational problems discuss issues at a much deeper and more thoughtful level than they can in the controlled chaos of the office environment. No matter what the purpose for the retreat, everyone must understand that the retreat is not an end in itself. It is simply one step among many in a continuing process to begin or maintain an improved management approach. All too often, the retreat is seen as something separate from the real world of the office, something that starts and ends at the retreat site. Retreat results must be carefully planned to fit in with ongoing activities. And you must be very zealous and persistent in following up on agreed-upon action items. The most compelling reason for retreat failures is the lack of follow-up. People often remember such retreats as being productive or fun, but nothing happened as a result.

Deciding on a Retreat Facilitator


You can choose to lead the retreat yourself, or to bring in an outside facilitator. If you decide on the latter, that person should be involved in the early planning stages. There are several occasions when its best for you to consider outside help. For example: Its difficult to achieve a high level of participation with large groups. Getting decisions made or problems solved is harder than it might initially appear. An outside facilitator is helpful if there are 20 or more people involved, if the retreat members include more than staff, or if it is unusual for the individuals in the group to meet together. A facilitator is useful when you want to participate fully in substantive programmatic or management issues and not worry about running the meeting. This is especially true if you are going to be taking an advocacy role at various times of the meeting. Enlisting the help of an outsider is appropriate when there are warring factions in the group, and at least part of the reason for the retreat is to reduce or manage these conflicts more effectively. Outside help promotes a sense of neutrality that may help clarify and reduce the conflict. You may, in fact, be neutral in a particular situation, but people involved may not share that perception. You may decide that creating participation is not one of your strengths, and a facilitator is necessary to get people fully involved. Once the level of participation is increased during the retreat, you may be able to continue it at an appropriate level back at the office. Facilitators can help develop the agenda, facilitate the meeting, and act as a catalyst for stimulating and assessing progress with follow-up activities. What characteristics should you look for in the facilitator you engage? A good facilitator should be experienced in helping teams deal with complicated issues in a way that optimizes participation. The person doesnt need substantive experience with or knowledge of programmatic business. Indeed, at times such knowledge may actually hinder a facilitator (who may, if not careful, get too involved in the subject of the discussion). The facilitator must have the organizational experience to tell which problems are significant and appropriate for discussion at the retreat. The facilitator must also sense when a problem has been discussed sufficiently, and to push for closure on it. The person needs to be an extremely good listener and an effective discussion leader -- asking open-ended questions, and getting a variety of people participating and involved with responses. Experienced and effective facilitators are bent on helping the organization achieve concrete results, and they see the retreat as only part of a larger organizational process. If a candidate does not exhibit this approach when interviewed, it is perhaps best to seek other facilitators.

How To Prepare for the Retreat


Once you decide on the facilitator, the next steps are: developing the agenda, creating expectations about the retreat for the whole organization, finding a suitable site, and deciding on who is to attend. Developing the Agenda There are a variety of ways to develop the agenda:
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You can identify what you think are the salient issues for the retreat, and organize them in an order suitable for the time allotted. Key people or a random sample of employees can be surveyed using a paper and pencil instrument. This instrument can have a series of open-ended questions (for example, what are the issues with...), or a series of scaled questions (rank the following issues on a 1-5 scale). The agenda can be based on, or at least influenced by, the data produced through this process. You can call for a planning committee, or series of planning committees, that include a cross-section of employees. Such a committee should have no more than 5-8 people on it, and should have its role and timeline clearly defined (is it to plan the retreat, give advice on key issues, or react to your plans). How such a committee actually gets used is largely a question of management style. A cross-section of people can be interviewed by the outside facilitator, or if there is none, by members of the planning committee The most effective approach is to modestly combine all four of the agenda-development methods spelled out above. If one of the methods needs to be eliminated, I would recommend not using the survey instrument. Such an instrument is somewhat tricky to construct, and the results can be ambiguous -- some-what akin to reading tea leaves. The other three methods are powerful as well as economical, especially if realistic resource limits are provided. >For example, given a good cross-section of people, only a few staff need to be interviews before the important issues become clear. A planning committee only needs to meet a couple of times to develop the agenda, and it certainly should avoid writing papers.

Creating Retreat Expectations for the Whole Organization


After setting the agenda, its important to create expectations for the organization, and there are three factors to consider here. First, it is important to be clear to people that it is better to focus on a few agenda items, and do them well, than to focus on many items and address them superficially, or not finish some at all. Its also important to stress that discussions at the retreat are meant to produce concrete outcomes that will make a real difference to the organization on an operational level. Its not a time to simply have discussions. inally, it is important to emphasize that there is to be a balance between content (for example, programmatic plans, management issues for the office) and process (for example, building a team, increasing participation, having fun).

Choosing a Site
In general, high performing teams are able to work hard and play hard. Having fun at a retreat contributes to producing important results. Thoughtfully choosing an appropriate environment will help ensure that the work hard - play hard ethic actually materializes. Yet, finding a suitable spot is often left to the last minute -- almost as an afterthought. Ideally, a retreat site should be just that -- a retreat from town to a place where people are truly free from routine work pressures. The amount of work that gets done at an off-site retreat setting is significantly more than gets done at one held in town. If budgetary restrictions preclude an out-of-town site, then find a conference room that is outside the office -- as far outside as possible. And retreat-goers should expect the firstdays session to run into the evening. If possible, the conference room should have windows, comfortable chairs, and enough room for smaller groups to work. Another suggestion is to end the first day with some kind of social event (cocktails, wine and cheese, tea, or whatever). All of these arrangements help to indicate that it is not just business as usual. Why is the site and environment so important? Its critical to keep in mind that the informal aspects of the retreat contribute measurably to work output. Serious issues are often discussed at breaks, or at lunch, or dinner, or after dinner. The climate -- more informal and participatory -- encourages people to be open and clear with one another in ways that the office environment discourages. Even apparently meaningless social time contributes -- for example, a person will find that discussing something socially over lunch with another person will help pave the way for a subsequent in-session discussion on a controversial topic.

Deciding Who Attends


The decision about who to invite to the retreat depends largely on the goals. Retreat participants can vary from the CEO and senior staff to all professional staff, or to everyone in the organization or office.
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If the goal is to make sure management reach agreement on the organizations direction for next year, then it makes sense to limit participation to just that group. If the goal is to increase staff participation, then it is logical to extend an invitation to a greater number of people. In that case, it certainly makes sense to invite support staff or at least representatives from those groups. Deciding who should come is often difficult. Some departments or functions are quite large - how many people can be at the retreat and still have it be productive? Ideally, between six and ten people work best. However, organizations or groups are often larger than that. If wider participation is desired, retreats can be held with 40 or 50 people, but they have to be designed very carefully to succeed. Some mixture of small group activities and reportouts to the large group is necessary here for effective output. When retreat numbers get over 25, it is a good idea to get some professional facilitator help for the design or delivery stage, or both. Another difficult aspect of the who comes decision should be entitled who does not come. Once you make a decision to have a retreat that includes people beyond the senior staff, it sometimes becomes difficult to draw the lines -- just professionals? What about support staff? There are no right answers here, but the decision about who does not come, what that implies, what message it sends, needs to be carefully considered. Generally, it is better to err on the side of too many than to omit someone or some group that may be critical for future team effectiveness. One last note here -- participation decisions are often made based on conventional wisdom or parochial suggestions. For example, the following logic suggested eliminating one office: We neednt invite anyone from that division because they are not interested in marketing discussions, and they dont have much to contribute in that area. Perhaps true, perhaps not. But the manager in that case needs to consider whether that kind of vision is consistent with his/her own agenda for the organization. The retreat can be used for consciousness raising, to create new and different roles for individuals and divisions, and to help people rethink linkages and interrelationships.

The Essential Ingredients for Implementation


As part of the preparation process, the retreat planners should have identified clear goals, an agenda, and a rough sense of timing for each agenda item. (Retreats may last anywhere from a half day to three days.) In addition to the preparation work described above, there are six essential elements for effective retreat implementation. 1. You need to begin with a well-planned opening presentation. In this opening session, you need to articulate a clear rationale for the retreat -- including how the retreat can contribute to the units agenda for the next year or so. You need to stress the importance of the retreat and that it is but one step in a series of management activities you intend to continue or begin during that time. You then state your expectations of retreat behavior (full participation or open exploration of these ideas or advice to me so I can make these particular strategic decisions or whatever); it also needs to be stressed that interruptions will be kept to a minimum. 2. After the opening presentation, the retreat leader (you, the outside facilitator, or planning committee member) needs to share the goals and the agenda for the retreat. This should include some time for questions and any participant input to the final agenda. It there has been any data-gathering work done prior to the retreat, the results should be shared at this time. Ideally, the issues identified during the pre-retreat data-gathering should serve as the basis for some of the final goals and agenda. 3. Once the framework and direction for the retreat has been firmly established, the major activity involves substantive discussions around clear topics or problems. If the retreat groups is small (below 10 or 12), these discussions can be done almost entirely as one group. If the group is larger, its important to combine small group and large group work. In situations like this, small group work optimizes participation, and gets better, more substantive thinking. Some people will resist, and may ask, Why not just discuss things in the large group, there are only 25 of us? At this point, it is extremely important to push ahead with the small group idea. In large groups usually only the most verbal participate -the quieter, more introverted people are generally silent. And the discussion tends to hop around in ways that almost preclude rigorous thought and clear decisions. To make these discussions fruitful, it is important for the retreat leader to stress participation within time limits, and to provide clear small-group tasks if such a method is being used. Also, it is important to assign leaders and reporters, or to ask the small groups to choose them. 4. The retreat leader must moderate discussions and report outs. The leader needs to
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constantly check with the group to see that things do not become over-discussed -- he or she must be clear about helping the group realize when discussion on an item is completed. The leader must also make sure no one person is dominating the discussion, and help everyone who wants to participate get a chance to do so. You (whether or not you are the facilitator) need to be clear when decisions are to be made, and how you are using the group in the decision-making arena -- to advise, to vote, to reach consensus, or to provide input to you, who will then make the decisions. 5. The retreat leader must record decisions or agreements as the retreat proceeds. Recording decisions helps determine (a) whether agreements are real, and (b) that people are clear about the agreements. It helps to publicly record these items on a flip chart or board of some sort. Keeping them in view reminds people of progress. 6. Near the end of the retreat, the retreat leader must review decisions and agreements, and -- with the groups input -- assign responsibility with time deadlines where appropriate. The more specific and trackable these assignments are, the more likely these things will actually be accomplished after the retreat ends. Finally, this list needs to be reviewed by everyone, and tested for reality. People at retreats can generally plan far more than they can implement, and this sets people up for failure. In this final review process, it is good to ask questions like the following, Think of our regular workload -- can we do all these things and still get the work out? Are there things here that should take priority over some of the regular work? Upon further reflection, should we eliminate or temporarily shelve any of these items? Other things could be added to this retreat implementation list. Some retreats include short training components -- for example, if conflict has been identified as a problem, a part of the retreat might be devoted to enhancing peoples conflict management skills. But the above six items, at a minimum, will help ensure a productive retreat.

The Managers Role


There is one final element which needs special emphasis -- your role as the manager. You need to be a role model, and any actions that you take must be consistent with your normal management style. Or, on the contrary, you might use your behavior at the retreat to signal a slight (or not so slight) change in management style. This obviously needs careful thought. You must participate fully, offering opinions without dominating, and sometimes waiting until near the end of the discussion to contribute. You may think that your role at the retreat is to be silent and listen. That is indeed part of it, but you also need to register your views and lead the decision-making process. Although it is appropriate to put an emphasis on listening, if your retreat behavior is completely out of character, the staff will think something is wrong, and may view the proceedings as not being real. The difficult thing for you, of course, is to maintain a balance, and share views while encouraging participation from others. It is also extremely important for your to avoid gamesmanship, that is, trying to indirectly steer the group so they get the right answer or make the correct decision. If you know there is only one acceptable answer on a particular topic, it is far better to state it from the outset, and not waste everyones time creating the illusion of participation. People respect a managers own agenda or sacred cows, but not if they feel they are being manipulated to agree. This of course means you need to think carefully about what is truly open for discussion and what is not, and what kind of input is needed for which issues. In general, your behavior needs to be reasonably consistent with your normal management style -- a retreat does not necessarily mean democracy.

Ensuring Appropriate Follow-up


Follow-up to retreats is absolutely critical. Retreats are hard work, and they take people, who probably already see themselves as overworked, away from their job for two or three days. Expectations then get raised about progress, and about organizational change for the better. If this progress -- or at least some of it -- does not materialize, people will often get more disheartened than if the retreat had not happened at all. If you cannot commit the energy to ensuring effective follow-up, then it is better not to do the retreat at all. The goal of retreat follow-up is to make it clear that actions planned during the retreat are a vital part of the organizations regular agenda. There are several ways to do that. Usually one output of a retreat is a series of action items with responsibilities attached. To integrate these items into the organizations fabric, the first step is to get the items typed and distributed. Then, as soon as possible after the retreat, you need to hold a meeting with the retreat participants and assign (or agree on assigning) responsibility and time deadlines for each of the priority items. During this meeting, people may decide to put some
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of the items on hold, agreeing it is better to choose fewer items and accomplish them than to choose many and fail. You then use these items as a plan, and systematically monitor progress against the plan. A key part of this process involves finding appropriate times when you can reinforce the need to accomplish the action items. In addition, when one of the action items is accomplished, that act should be noticed and celebrated. This is an instance where cheerleading is very appropriate. You can look for positive accomplishments on an ongoing basis, and point out these accomplishments in public forums. You can also nag in those areas where there has not been appropriate progress on a certain action item. After six months or so, you (or a member of a planning committee or the outside facilitator) can construct a simple evaluation instrument from the action items. This can be used to collect data which will help assess follow-up progress. A simple 1-5 scale can be used with all or selected action items, asking how satisfied people are with progress against the particular agreement. The results of the survey can be tabulated and shared at a meeting. The reasons behind peoples assessment are discussed -- this generally results in satisfaction about some items, a redoubling of effort about others, and elimination of the rest. It also calls peoples attention to the overall follow-up process, and sends a signal that you are indeed serious about these efforts. It is sometimes useful for you to identify someone in the office who is particularly interested in management and the retreat process. You can enlist this persons support to assist in the follow-up process. This assistance can include reminding you about important milestones, sharing reactions staff are having over time, helping to develop short action assessment instruments, and so on. Between nine and twelve months after the retreat has ended, a final review should assess long-term progress. The data from this might help shape the next years retreat. There is one almost foregone conclusion about retreat follow-up: if you do not take an active role in tracking progress and reinforcing work on the action items, most of the plan will not be accomplished. Indeed, often people will never look at the plan again. The rush and priorities of everyday business will sidetrack the intentions of almost everyone. Thus, your follow-up role is essential.

Summary -- A Review of the Critical Steps


If you are a manager and you are thinking about undertaking some sort of retreat activity, this section is meant to be a review and checklist which should help you as you manage the retreat process. 1. Well in advance (2 months or more) of the retreat dates, decide on the following: a. What are your goals for having a retreat. b. Should you have an outside facilitator or not; what about a planning task force.

c. Who is to come from your organization or office -- check your assumptions very carefully here so that important groups do not unthinkingly get left out. d. What site will you use for the retreat; check availability. 2. Manage any pre-retreat data collection process; decide who does it, kinds of data to be gathered, who on the staff contributes. 3. Assure that the retreat goals and agenda are developed; check how the data collected has influenced goals and agenda; examine the plans for realism -- it is better to do fewer things well than many superficially, or to leave things unfinished. 4. Manage expectations of the whole organization about the retreat. 5. Begin the retreat with a cogent opening statement which includes your sense of how the retreat and retreat output fits your overall agenda. 6. Help lead (if you are not the facilitator) and participate in the retreat; be a role model; make or help crystallize decisions as they evolve; record decisions. 7. Review decisions, action items and responsibilities at the end; spell out plans for followup. 8. Follow-up on action items persistently; be a cheerleader, acknowledge accomplishments, push when action is not forthcoming.
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