Why plan in a retreat setting?

Posted by on Feb 6, 2012

Retreats can be highly productive

During my career I’ve worked with more than 100 client organizations, public, private, for-profit and not for profit. The most productive planning meetings I’ve facilitated have been multi-day meetings held offsite, usually in locations requiring an overnight stay.

Plan in Retreat Setting

The reason for selecting a retreat location is well known to those who have participated. These meetings are nobody’s idea of a vacation. It’s common to work 10 to 12 hours per day, interrupted only by breaks, and without the distraction of people rushing off to deal with “emergencies” or leaving early to take the kids to piano lessons or hockey practice. The day usually ends with discussion of the key issues over dinner and a few drinks before turning in for a good night’s sleep.

This format makes it possible for executive team members to get to know each other better, and to spend uninterrupted time analyzing and planning responses to complex issues that can’t be resolved in shorter meetings punctuated by interruptions. Many times I’ve seen an idea surface over a few drinks after dinner that has changed the company’s direction.

A tale of two meetings

Part of the reason retreats have fallen out of favour is public criticism. This is typified by an ironic pair of meetings I ran at the same location a few years apart.

The first was with a major division of a crown corporation. The team chose a well-known resort as their venue for three intense days of planning. Since it was held during the resort’s off-season, and the team opted to stay in the run-down old wing of the resort hotel, the price was a steal.

Of course, the managers were not paid extra for working 10 hour days and since everyone was “captive”, team building was occurring the entire time. We were able to accomplish in 3 days out of town what typically takes 6 days in town.

A TV station somehow learned that the executive team was meeting at a resort, and a news crew intruded on our lunch break, pushing their cameras in people’s faces and asking sensational questions while people were trying to eat. The senior manager asked politely if the news crew could wait until after lunch, when he’d take them into our conference room to show them what we were working on. The news crew agreed.

When we reconvened the manager invited the news crew into our meeting room to film and ask questions. He walked them around the cavernous ballroom, showing them the meeting agenda and reviewing all the plans taped to the wall on flip chart sheets. There were more than 40 sheets of analysis, objectives, strategies and action plans, complete with budget projections, time lines, and responsibilities for results. He took an hour to review our progress and patiently answer all their questions.

That evening, it was the lead story on the 6 o’clock news.

“Crown Corporation takes 3 day retreat at posh Resort! Managers dining in expensive hotel restaurant! Why couldn’t they do this in their office in Vancouver? More taxpayers’ money wasted!”

Not a word about the planning, the long days, the continuing discussions over dinner, the value of commitment from the entire management team, the challenging objectives set, or the targets and accountabilities that were painstakingly identified.

The Board subsequently banned all future retreat meetings in response to the publicity.

Fast forward a few years. I was facilitating a management retreat for the persecuting TV station, at the same resort, but in the expensive new wing. We started our days at a leisurely 9 and retired each day at 4 to the ritzy hospitality suite for drinks and appetizers.

Struck by the contrast, I decided to ask the news director (who had also been the news director when his station ran the story about the crown corporation) whether he thought these out-of-town retreats were worth the money. He said yes, it was a great chance for everyone to understand the company’s direction. Having two full days together allowed the team to work through problems that just can’t be solved in two hour meetings. It was definitely of value.

So I asked him if he remembered how his news story had savaged the crown corporation who’d stayed at the resort a few years earlier. Yes, he remembered, but that was different. It was public money. I asked if he thought it was any less worthwhile for the crown corporation than for his management team, and how he thought his shareholders would react. He defended his station’s attack on the public corporation, rather feebly, and I told him how feeble it sounded. I wasn’t surprised when I wasn’t invited back to work with this client group.

Sometimes, retreats are the best venue for planning

Team retreats are a lot less common than they were a decade ago, and I’m sure the negative publicity over similar news reports is part of the reason. Interestingly, I still work with client organizations that hold their planning sessions in retreat locations. They tend to be owned by the CEOs, who willingly pay the costs because they believe the value to their organization exceeds the costs. These organizations don’t have to answer anyone’s sensational questions about “waste” and “privilege”. They just get the job done the best way they know how.

When your team has thorny issues to resolve or needs a breakthrough for a new direction, I highly recommend holding your planning session in a retreat location.

© 2012 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication or publication in any form, in whole or in part, is prohibited.

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