Advancing More from Retreating: Eight Tips


It's been fashionable for some to rename staff or board retreats as advances, presumably to signal the gathering's intention and desired impact.  I'm a firm believer in the power of language, but am a bit skeptical that a new name alone changes outcomes.

What does increase the odds of advancing more from any retreating you do are better design principles for the actual event.  Here are eight tips gleaned from my experiences designing and facilitating dozens of retreats for various stakeholder groups.

1. Design the retreat in the context of a larger menu of ongoing activity.
Too often, retreats are designed as isolated events. They need to be seen as a part of the larger context of how things get done in an organization: other professional development gatherings, planning calls and conversations, staff or team meetings, et al. How does/will the retreat honor the past, engage with and build on the present, as well as explore and create the foundation for the future?

2. Build desired follow-up and action planning components into the overall design.
Instead of asking at the end of the retreat for a few people to volunteer, review what happened, and plan next steps, be more intentional about weaving action planning into the planning and pre-work. If you have clarity about the context for your retreat and the output you want to produce, you can then back into what needs to happen during the event and any pre-work in order to produce it.  At minimum, keep an emphasis on answering so what, now what? throughout the retreat.

3. Involve a cross-section of the org in its planning and execution and everyone in contributing their ideas.
While particularly true if using an external facilitator, this principle also is relevant for retreats that internal team members may lead. A retreat should not feel like something inflicted on its participants, an intervention done to them. The experience should be co-created to build ownership for the outcomes, and the entire experience should be one that is done with the participants and in support of them.

Beyond the representative team convened to design the event, everyone attending or having a stake in its outcome should be surveyed to help frame the content of the gathering. Finally, whenever possible, involve participants in the actual presentation and management of the event … from coordinating meals and breaks to facilitating exercises and discussions. And be intentional about reaching out beyond the "usual suspects" to invite individuals to do so.

4. Focus on doing what is more difficult to accomplish in the workplace/typical workday.
The idea of the retreat is to step back from the daily demands and do what otherwise is unlikely to be done as efficiently or effectively. Honor this purpose by not making the retreat agenda a laundry list of unrelated backburner issues and action itemsReally hone in on an answer to this design question: what, if accomplished during the retreat, would dramatically accelerate the individual and organizational progress we need to achieve and enable us to be/do with each other more effectively?


5. Spend time digging deeper and thinking more about systems.
While it's fine to talk about tactics and micro-issues at a retreat, the special nature of the gathering begs that you dig deeper.  Drawing on the iceberg model, make sure your conversations don't merely remain at the results or events level. Look for patterns and organizing systems or mental models that really need attention if desirable forward movement is to be institutionalized and sustained as a result of the retreat.

6. Invest in the power of peer relationships and conversations.
As part of your initial design, consider what percentage of retreat time would ideally consist of individuals talking with each other (in pairs, small groups, the large group as a whole) instead of being talked at by other individuals, particularly those in charge. This simple metric is a good accountability check for the various content segments and formats you build into the retreat agenda. Simply having relaxed time to converse with colleagues and get to understand them more (both as people and professionals) is almost always mentioned on retreat evaluations as a highlight.

7. Have everyone take a task or get on a team.
It's tempting to involve only a small portion of retreat participants (maybe your initial planning team) in managing the output, but that limits the potential and pace of what will occur.  Instead, identify meaningful action items and tasks and have every individual opt-in and claim ownership for at least one of them.  Everyone needs to own the whole of helping the organization/entity get better, so make sure your action planning and follow-up involves them in doing so.

8. Don't make it more than it can be.
If I had to assert the #1 reason why retreats sometimes turn out to be ineffective or unsatisfying it is that those involved expect them to be more and do more than is realistic for any one block of time. This is why the first design principle matters so much: successful retreats never begin as "one-offs" into which disproportionate energy, attention, and resources are poured.  The best retreats are ones intentionally designed and utilized as part of a much more comprehensive framework for enhancing individual and organizational relationships and efforts.


Planning a retreat and need more insight?
  • Here's an article I wrote on planning memorable staff retreats.
  • Get format or activity ideas from Gamestorming or Thiagi's newsletter.
  • For more personal support, I'm happy to do a one-hour "think out loud with you" consult on your retreat design in exchange for a $200 Amazon gift card to further my professional reading.
  • I also can design and facilitate your retreat, but am doing a very limited number while on book-writing sabbatical in 2015.