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

Just as building designers follow universal principles and work with dimensions like angles, color, and shape, so must meeting architects consider a unique set of design dimensions. Once the foundation of the meeting — the purpose — has been laid, other dimensions of the retreat design must be considered.

In my last blog I shared the process by which I help clients get to the “why” of their retreats — a purpose that is consequential, realistic, and fitting for the unique context of an offsite. Now let’s build on that foundation to integrate key elements into the design of your retreat. Here’s what comprises sound structure for a great team gathering:

Participants – Given the retreat purpose, who needs to be present during the entire event? Are there content experts (external or internal to the organization) you want to bring in for certain segments? If you want to create intimacy or make complicated decisions, a smaller group is preferred. Excluding specific people from a retreat often feels lousy for them and for you but it also is the most important action you can take as a steward of the retreat purpose. Size is an important consideration.

Place – Retreats should be offsite. “Away” can mean many things but fundamentally it means a place that offers time free of daily demands, noise, distraction, and interruptions. Retreats can take place at a circus school, 5-star hotel, art museum, or mountain lodge. Just chose your place with the specific goal of supporting the retreat purpose. Other considerations include travel time, cost, and physical accessibility.

Space – How the actual meeting space is configured matters. A living room setting is ideal for teams of 8 or less but depending on the purpose, length, and size of the retreat, other seating configurations might be more appropriate. Other space-related considerations include natural light, air flow, temperature, wall space for posting charts, and access to outdoors.

Norms – Think carefully about the fewest number of shared agreements to which you need participants to commit prior to the retreat. The goal of agreements is to create a meeting “container” that feels safe, productive, and encouraging of creative honest, creative expression. Norms should guide how participants will navigate differences in power.

Flow – Agendas are often designed to provide a logical sequence of discussions but often fail to take into account other considerations like group fatigue and learning. In designing an agenda, ask how you might balance activities that involve sitting vs. moving, critical thinking vs. creative thinking, discussion vs. silent reflection, large group work vs. pairs and small groups.

Outputs – Retreat outputs include the insights, decisions, and commitments of the group. You want to make sure that you have a plan for capturing these outputs. Consider having a dedicated person charged with the role of “recorder” or make this part of the facilitator’s role.

Facilitation – A capable facilitator is a neutral third-party who helps the group structure its discussions and when asked, provides feedback and coaching regarding how group members are working together. The higher the stakes, complexity, and emotions, the more likely it is that a trained facilitator will be a useful presence at your retreat.

In next week’s blog I’ll provide some guidelines for selecting the right retreat facilitator.

Photo credit: RawPixel Ltd

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