When times get tough, many organizations get budget-conscious by reducing the number of staff and executive-level meetings they hold off-site. Nowadays, says Bob Frisch, managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group, Boston, more organizations are looking at their entire calendar year of meetings and rethinking aspects like the sequence of events, who comes to each meeting, and the agenda items, rather than just cutting certain meetings out of the budget. “People are starting to look at meetings in the context of the entire organization and make changes to who meets when or the objectives of each meeting, rather than just cutting an entire meeting.” More organizations also are holding their executive retreats closer to home, instead of flying everyone to a golf resort.
One thing that hasn't changed, he says, is the importance of developing a clear set of objectives ahead of time.
“Until you know what the objective of the meeting is, it will be impossible to succeed,” he says. “It's asking, ‘What do I want the team to have discussed and explored by the end of this meeting?’” That means leaving off the agenda any topics that can be handled in other forums, such as staff meetings. It's also, he says, about minimizing the amount of time spent sitting through PowerPoint presentations and maximizing the time spent engaging in conversation and strategy.
There are a couple of rules Frisch says he likes to live by when running an off-site. First, think about the size of the group that will be in attendance. If the goal of the meeting is idea sharing and brainstorming, a group of 25 to 30 people might make sense. But if you are using this meeting to make key decisions, 25 to 30 people in the room is going to be a disaster. “You need to have a smaller group of people in the room when it comes time to make those decisions.”
It's also important to be realistic about how much time the leadership group will spend watching a PowerPoint presentation, playing golf, or having dinner together, and how much time they will spend actually discussing new strategic directions, he says.
“If you look at the number of hours spent on those strategic topics, and only four or five hours out of a three-day meeting is spent in these discussions, then it's not really a strategic off-site,” explains Frisch. It then becomes “a conversation wrapped into a whole bunch of other activities.”
That doesn't mean your conference attendees, who may be from around the country or even around the world, shouldn't spend time interacting with each other socially — that too has an important place in many leadership retreats. “You don't want to miss that opportunity for socializing and networking, but it has to be the right balance,” Frisch says.
One thing that commonly gets in the way of getting effective results from a leadership retreat is that organizations often don't adequately plan for what is going to happen when the leaders return to the office. Before everyone leaves, it's important to decide on next steps and be very clear on these. Collect those action items that were established during the meeting and do a recap of what was agreed on and who is going to do what by when. “It sounds trivial, but it's actually very important because you usually end up making some modification at that point,” he says.
“Also, we like to ask attendees what they are going to tell to their subordinates about what happened here when they return to headquarters. It's important that everyone agree on the common themes of the meeting and what came out of being away for two or three days,” says Frisch. “It's not about scripting responses, but rather about being clear on the outcome and having a set of agreed-upon communication points for discussion following the strategic off-site.”
A lot of momentum is created at the end of a well-designed off-site. It's not just about what happens during the time away from the office, but it's about the planning and execution of those decisions afterward that makes the meeting truly effective.
Pick Your Format
The best retreats are tailor-made to fit an organization's specific needs, but specialized retreat formats often fit the bill. In their new book, Retreats That Work (2008, Pfeiffer), Merianne Liteman, Sheila Campbell, and Jeff Liteman analyze some options.
These sessions involve many people — often more than 100 — representing many different segments of an organizational system (or even the entire organization) who gather to explore and plan for change.
What is unusual about these conferences is that stakeholders from all groups affected by the organization participate. Having all these voices in one room can have a major impact on the organization involved, helping attendees to find new ways to support one another's work.
Developed by organizational consultant Harrison Owen, Open Space sessions call on participants themselves to determine the topics they would like to address and the individuals who will convene various subgroups to consider each topic.
The participants decide which subgroups they will join to discuss the issues that are most important to them. The concept sounds (and sometimes seems) a little chaotic, but it takes place in a well-structured environment. For example, there is a formal process for involving the entire group in the work that has taken place in the individual sessions, so all participants have the opportunity to discuss any and all topics.
Open Space is not suitable for every situation. It will not work in an organization where the leader wants to maintain tight control. It yields a different result than tightly structured retreats do, one that often can't be foreseen but that does very accurately reflect the group's concerns.
Juanita Brown and David Isaacs developed the World Café method for creating collaborative dialogue for groups of at least 12 participants. The World Café conversations take place in small groups of four to five people.
While individuals talk about issues that matter to them and to the organization, they draw their key ideas on paper tablecloths. In the course of several rounds of conversation, people move from table to table, carrying themes from their previous conversations with them. In a whole-group conversation at the end, participants share key themes and highlights.
Much like Open Space, World Café is not suitable for environments where there is a predetermined answer, where detailed information-gathering and action-planning is the goal, or where the time available for the conversations is very limited. It works well, however, when the group wants to explore a topic in depth and increase buy-in for the outcomes.
AI is a methodology that, in the words of its primary originator, David L. Cooperrider, uses “the best of the past and present [to] ignite the collective imagination of what might be.”
Rather than focusing on an organization's problems — identifying them, finding their causes, deciding on possible solutions, and taking action to overcome them — groups following the AI approach explore what they do well, envision possible scenarios for the future, discuss what they would like to see happen, and come up with innovative solutions that are grounded in current successes.
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When skillfully facilitated, AI works particularly well in organizations that have undergone difficult transitions. The authors discuss using AI as a retreat structure for an organization that has gone through a poorly managed downsizing. For the first time, employees who were frightened, cynical, and burned out are able to talk about what they do best and what they aspire to for the future. This serves as the beginning of a process that allows a healthier organization to emerge, something that had eluded the executives in the post-downsizing problem-solving sessions they had previously convened.
There is no formal training required to lead an Appreciative Inquiry retreat, but when you're using it for the first time, you're more likely to be successful if you work with a facilitator who is skilled in this methodology.
The aim of the Work-Out, a concept developed by Jack Welch when he was CEO of General Electric in the 1980s, is to improve processes by eliminating bureaucracy and non-value-added work.
Typically a Work-Out is a structured two- or three-day event for multilevel, cross-functional teams of 20 to 50 people. The teams participate in a progressive series of large-group and smaller breakout sessions.
One premise of the Work-Out is that the returning teams will get quick approval from decision-makers about the recommendations they offer. At the end, the teams meet with top managers to report their conclusions.