Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

by Emily Morrow

Office retreats that really add value

Planning a highly successful office retreat is like planning a classical ballet performance: You need to know what you’re doing, carefully choreograph it while retaining some flexibility, and then deliver it seemingly effortlessly. Although every office is different and every retreat is unique, I have found the following process works well.

Preliminary Interviews

I like to have discussions with each senior member of an office before planning/facilitating a retreat. It gives me a sense of everyone’s take on reality, the office culture, interpersonal dynamics, management preferences, and the like.

Facilitated or not?

If an office has a few straightforward issues it wants to consider, then the discussion can be handled well without a third-party facilitator. However, if the objective is to discuss strategic, challenging (or divisive) issues, then engaging a professional facilitator will be advantageous.

Timing and venue

Retreats are often best scheduled during the work week in an attractive, restful, and contemplative off-site setting with great food. We all do better thinking in beautiful places, eating excellent food, and away from the harpies of daily life.

Agenda

You will get better outcomes if you circulate an agenda before the retreat indicating that the following will be discussed:

  1. State-of-the-firm presentation. An overview by a senior office member to set the stage.
  2. Outcomes for the day. A brief initial discussion about possible outcomes.
  3. Goals. A group discussion to articulate strategic goals for the office. Typically, there will be one or two “stretch goals” and these will inform the rest of the retreat discussion
  4. SNAFUs. There will always be SNAFUs that may make it difficult for an office to achieve its strategic goals. Encouraging the group to identify them at the outset of the discussion makes it easier to avoid/address them.
  5. Implementation. The remainder of the discussion should focus on the why, what, how, who, and when of acting on retreat decisions by drilling into the details of implementation. Everyone should leave the retreat knowing what needs to be done and his/her role in doing it.
  6. Blue sky discussion. In a “blue sky discussion” everyone mentions one idea to see the office implement sometime. Everyone listens to one another, there are no questions or comments allowed, and any and all ideas are okay to suggest. Although the ideas are recorded, no immediate action is taken, creating some interesting future food for thought.
  7. Closing discussion. I often encourage participants to discuss what worked/didn’t work well in the retreat and what changes might ideally be made in future retreats.

The delivery

The morning session tends to be big-picture and conceptual, whereas the afternoon session focuses on implementation. It’s helpful to focus on the details and hold the group accountable for certain outcomes. Further it’s important to ensure that everyone actively participates (including the less senior members of the office), to get buy-in. Many hands do make light work.

The follow-up

Follow-up is where the “rubber meets the road,” and it differentiates a great retreat from an adequate one. Everyone should come out of the day feeling energized, seeing old stuff in new ways, and having a clear sense of direction and a strong commitment to achieving compelling goals.

Someone should take retreat notes and promptly prepare/circulate minutes to all participants. During a retreat, I often make a lot of notes on whiteboards, and these can be photographed and incorporated into the minutes.

Careful retreat planning takes some time and effort, but if you get it right, the benefits will definitely outweigh the costs.•

Emily Morrow, JD (www.emilymorrow.com), of Shelburne and Auckland, New Zealand, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives, and HR personnel.

Index of Contributed Columns

For information on submitting a contributed column see here.