(verb) withdraw to a quiet or secluded place.
(noun) a designated time of seclusion from routine activities to gain clarity and/or renewal.

Retreats do two important things. First, they take us “away”—far from the demands of the office and shielded from everyday interruptions. Second, they bring us “together”— into a common, in-person, relaxed space. How many hours per year do you and your colleagues have a chance to spend away and together? Away and together time is the kind of time that catalyzes depth, intimacy, and imagination on teams. It is precious time that should be thoughtfully planned.

Retreat time is indeed precious time for the boards, executive teams, departments, and project teams that use it. And yet, retreats frequently disappoint. Participants often lament that such gatherings turn out to be a waste of time and have little lasting impact. They complain about conversations that skate around the “real issues” and spend too much time spent on tactical concerns. In this series I’ll share some of my secrets for holding a purposeful retreat that will bring value to your team members.

When planning a retreat, the most consequential decision you will make is not the retreat location, the lunch menu, or even the facilitator. It’s deciding “why” you are having the retreat. That said, the #1 cause of mediocre retreats is a failure to define a clear, significant, and realistic purpose for the offsite event. In attempting to define the purpose of the retreat leaders often fall into the following traps:

*Too many goals which results in an agenda that feels overloaded and superficial.
*Goals that are really activities resulting in a really busy but unremarkable meeting.
*Mundane goals that can and should be accomplished in the course of normal business.
*Apple pie goals that are sufficiently vague to be unobjectionable.
*Someone else’s goals that fail to generate the interest and excitement of retreat participants.

Identifying retreat goals that make a difference comes through a rigorous practice of asking the right questions of the right people, meaning everyone who will attend the retreat. Getting input from all participants in advance of the retreat is a way to ensure that people feel a sense of personal ownership of the agenda and thus feel accountable to to the agenda. In advance of the retreat I typically interview or poll retreat participants using the following questions:

What can we accomplish in the retreat setting (multi-day, uninterrupted, relaxed time together) that we won’t be able to accomplish in our usual business setting?

Six months after the retreat what would we hope to point to and say proudly, “We set that into motion during our off-site retreat. It would not have happened unless we had worked on it at the off-site.”

What are the two most important conversations this team has been deferring or avoiding that we need to have? What would we talk about together if we were more courageous?

Once you have answered these questions and drafted retreat goals, ask these questions to refine them:

*Consequential: Do they take on the issues that matter most to team members?
*Sharp: Do the goals focus our attention?
*Fitting: Are these goals best achieved during “away and together” time?
*Edgy: Do the goals move us beyond our comfort zone and into provocative territory?
*Realistic: Is there sufficient time to accomplish these goals at the desired level of depth?

Ultimately, the purpose of your retreat can take many forms, including:

*Making tough decisions and mobilizing commitment to a shared direction
*Harnessing collective creativity to take on a particular issue
*Strengthening working relationships among the participants (including dealing with buried conflict)
*Confronting a chronic problem that is inhibiting strategy or undermining culture.

Regardless of the purpose you choose for your retreat, knowing the “why” makes every other decision easier, from the venue to speakers to the length of the event. A clear purpose also serves as a sort of sentry at the gate of your retreat, allowing you to determine what conversations are allowed in and which must remain at the threshold.

In my next blog I’ll share what I view as critical design elements for retreats that result in positive and sustainable change. They include space, pace, and place.

Photo credit: Adrian Scottow

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