When your organization needs to gain perspective on a situation and initiate change, a staff retreat is the way to go. Unlike corporate meetings, where the objective is to teach or motivate participants — or just to deal with day-to-day priorities — the staff retreat has loftier goals.

The following 10 steps will help you to design and implement an effective staff retreat:

  1. Define and stay true to your purpose.

    Make sure that the retreat format suits your goals. Also make sure that you have enough time to plan properly: The ideal time frame for organizing a retreat is four months for a group of 15 or fewer people.

    Remember that, unlike meetings, which can have multiple purposes and are usually led by someone within the organization, retreats begin with specific intentions to create change and typically are led by outside experts. Also, they do not end when the attendees go home, but include post-retreat sessions to ensure that the ideas that were generated are translated into action.

  2. Choose the convener (four months out).

    The convener — or group of conveners — decides which subjects to explore and what outcomes are expected. The convener also communicates and delegates the arrangements for the event to the planners, who handle the logistics. On the content side, the convener works with the facilitator to establish the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the retreat.

    The biggest advantage of using a single person as convener is efficiency of process. The greatest weakness is limited perspective. The greatest advantage of a group of conveners is potentially more buy-in. The greatest weakness is that the process can get bogged down because of multiple agendas.

    Beware: Every professional facilitator I know will tell you that the biggest problem in setting up a successful retreat is access to the convener, so you need to choose someone who is accessible and responsive and who communicates clearly. Also important: Choose conveners who are trusted and who will not feed the company rumor mill.

  3. Hire a professional facilitator (three to four months out).

    Facilitation is a combination of soft and hard skills, people skills as well as goal-setting, assertiveness, and execution skills.

    When you interview prospects, consider the following: How broad is their background? Do they have at least 10 years of experience? Have they ever run a business? Do they have the charisma or inspirational quality that you're looking for? Remember, the facilitator will have to take the edge off sometimes-difficult subjects.

    [For more on hiring facilitators, read “How to Work with Meeting Facilitators,” from the October 2005 issue of our sister publication Corporate Meetings & Incentives, which can be found in our archives at meetingsnet.com.]

  4. Craft a desired outcome (as soon as you hire the facilitator).

    This should include at least one tangible component and several intangible ones. An experienced facilitator will help you to understand what can be achieved in the allotted time.

    Like a good novel, retreats follow a type of arc: situation, crisis, and resolution. First, you explore the situation, identifying what is or could become a crisis. Then you make decisions associated with the resolution of that potential crisis. Finally, you design and assign the initial steps to enact the decisions. Typically, the optimal length of time you will need to accomplish this is 2.5 days away from the familiarity of home and office.

    Can you still have a retreat if taking 2.5 days is not possible? Sure. A skilled facilitator can help you to limit your agenda and can suggest the most workable alternatives.

  5. Hold pre-retreat interviews (two months out).

    I require this as part of the retreat process when I facilitate. It works like this: The convener provides a list of participants and representative nonparticipants, including what we call informal leaders (the more outspoken employees — positive or negative — who are listened to within the company). An announcement is made that an outsider is going to be talking with this group of people to do a needs assessment. The facilitator, with the aid of the convener, prepares a list of questions, the answers to which will be useful during the retreat. (Remember, at this point the retreat has not been announced.)

    The participants and nonparticipants then call the facilitator for an appointment. If a nonparticipant does not respond, he or she is typically contacted one more time. If there is still no response, that person is not included. All retreat participants, however, are required to participate in the interviews.

    The facilitator and the convener then decide when and how to give the persons interviewed feedback on whatever is undertaken as a result of the interviews. Important: Always provide feedback. Trust is built by kept agreements.

  6. Create the agenda (seven weeks out).

    The facilitator, now armed with input from the employees and desired outcomes from the convener, evaluates the interviews to arrive at what will take place during the actual retreat. Any changes in the desired outcomes are proposed by the facilitator to the convener. Final agreements are made as to retreat objectives. Important: Good retreats depend on spontaneity, and agendas flex with the outcome of each item.

  7. Announce the retreat (one month to six weeks out).

    The convener should be the one to announce, in writing, the decision to hold a retreat and the motive behind it. Remember that this is really the announcement of change brewing. This is sure to raise fears such as: Will I have to do something different? Will I still be needed? What effect will this have on my schedule, my life, my ego?

    Expect and respect these usually unexpressed fears. Never say: “You have nothing to worry about,” because you don't know that. From an employee's point of view, any change may be a worry. You might say: “I wish I could reassure everyone. The fact is, I'm going into this open to whatever changes are best for the organization. Any time any of us is faced with change, we worry.”

  8. Time for the retreat.

    The tone of the event is dictated in part by the choice of facility. Most companies choose a property that is nice — but not luxurious — as well as functional, interesting, and comfortable. Retreats typically exclude alcohol, and no guests are invited. They include plenty of free time for participants to spend alone or in casual groups that form after the meeting to continue the discussion.

    At the start of the conference, it's important to set ground rules, such as: Speak openly, honestly, and only for yourself; safeguard other participants' confidentiality; pagers and cell phones off.

  9. Create a post-retreat report (two weeks later).

    The convener summarizes and distributes the retreat results, and announces any assignments. He or she also creates a post-retreat schedule, a general timeline for any projects that may be implemented as a result of retreat decisions. (This is the last thing the participants establish before leaving.)

    The post-retreat report may include a general overview and the first projects to be undertaken. I usually look these over to make sure the information is not overwhelming.

  10. Hold a post-retreat meeting (six weeks later).

    The difference between retreats and other meeting formats is that they typically include one or more follow-up meetings. Reconvene the group for a day, either in person or via video- or audioconference (in person, off-site usually works best) to report progress, revamp timelines, and get any stuck projects unstuck.

Claire Crittenden founded Integrative Performance Technologies (www.iptlive.com), Rochester, N.Y., in 1971. She and her partner, Peter Naylor, have created The High Performance Management Technology, a system of strategies and techniques based on scientific models. Crittenden leads retreats, workshops, seminars, and meetings nationally.

8 Reasons to Hold a Retreat

  1. To venture into new territory
  2. To begin the change process for enhanced culture, procedures, attitudes, behavior, products, or services
  3. To profit from group dynamics and creativity
  4. To resolve a problem
  5. To establish a higher level of relating to one another
  6. To enhance or create a collective vision or mission
  7. To facilitate decisions
  8. To explore “what if” scenarios