can we make staff retreats more useful?

A reader writes:

I wonder if you have any tips on organizing good, effective “away days” or staff retreats.

My department has an “away day” every year — a work-related one, not a day out paintballing or what have you. Typically we have a theme relating to some key aspect of what the department does, and the day usually consists of a couple of main PowerPoint presentations (usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon), followed by questions/discussions, and other activities where we split into smaller groups (there are about 40 of us) to brainstorm something and then report back to the whole group.

I’ve been here a few years now, and I’m finding that every year when the meeting invitations are sent out, everyone gripes about having to take the day out of their normal work, that it plays havoc with the rest of their week, and that these days are always really dull and pointless and nothing ever comes of them. But somehow when we survey them the week after the event, they tend to report having enjoyed themselves and that they found it very useful. And I think that’s genuine; it’s just that the enthusiasm generated by the discussions eventually fades when life pretty much continues on as normal afterwards.

Personally, I’m just not really convinced that these away days are helpful at actually dealing with whatever topic is the focus this time around. We usually get a couple of suggestions for very small improvements, which I jump to implement the second I’m back in the office, which is great, but for the most part with the big picture stuff, we seem to just constantly identify issues or potential improvements that really aren’t news. They’re still there because they’re genuinely hard problems, and they’re going to be just as intractable tomorrow as they were yesterday. The discussions are usually quite interesting and engaging, and I think there are probably some side benefits in building relationships with people you don’t normally work directly with, but in terms of concrete results, eh, this does not seem to be a great way to get things done.

Do you think away days (for entire departments, not just management strategy types) are ever useful? Is there any kind of topic that is genuinely best addressed in this format? Or is “getting stuff done” not entirely the point here? I’m not quite sure how I feel about it all or what to push for. (I’m not management but I do have a lot of influence and am helping to put this day together).

Well, first, get rid of the PowerPoints.

You’ve just improved the day by 25%!

Next, I think your office needs to do some soul-searching about what the point of these days are. If you’re doing them just to do them, they’re not going to be especially useful. And in fact, they can even be harmful: If it’s just a bunch of talk and not much in the way of outcomes, people will start feeling like their input is meaningless and that the company is only interested in creating the appearance of listening to people. At some point, they can start to become a joke or just an exercise in frustration for people who have been there a while.

Staff retreats can be really useful in creating time for a group to step back and talk about big-picture issues that affect your operations but which people rarely have time to focus on day-to-day. But the organizers need to be really clear about what the day is intended to accomplish: There needs to be an agenda, and there needs to be someone in charge of figuring out next steps for each item on that agenda. And most importantly, the desired outcomes for each topic need to be clear — whether it’s just initial brainstorming or creating recommendations to solve a problem or whatever. If there’s not a clear goal connected with each topic on the agenda, strike it from the list.

And if the organizers can’t anchor the topics to clear goals — if they can’t say clearly what they want to walk away from the day having accomplished — then they should save the time and money and table the whole idea until they can.

(By the way — as a real test of whether these are useful, don’t ask people the next week if they thought the event was worthwhile. Ask them in six months, once they’ve had a chance to see whether there was a lasting impact or not.)

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Coward

    Umm… I’ll be the first unhelpful one to say: Just cancel them!

    Personally these events always end up being something I’m not comfortable doing or have difficulty doing – paintball would have me aching and barely able to move in less than an hour – and usually happen when my desk is threatening to collapse from the amount of work on it. Some other sessions like this include really early morning travel – which can be a nightmare if you aren’t local and don’t drive.

    The solutions ‘found’ during brainstorming at these kind of events often are interrupted with the office clown’s irritating “no one has looked up to me for 5 minutes” antics which wouldn’t fly when in the office.

    If you want a way to do it is a intranet forum suggestions discussion out of the question? I’ve often got downtime whilst waiting for stuff and could easily browse that without affecting my productivity.

    I’ve hardly ever seen anything really useful come out of these – except a knowledge of personality traits of my co-workers which I now know I don’t like and could have been happy unaware of without effect before.

    1. Coward

      The last two paragraphs should have been swapped around – I’ve hardly seen anything useful come out of away days.

  2. JT

    “always end up being something I’m not comfortable doing or have difficulty doing ”

    It’s work. Sometimes you will face difficulty or be uncomfortable. If there is a productive outcome based on your participation, then that’s part of the cost. If the outcome is poor or lacking, then it’s not worth it. But sometimes work is difficult and uncomfortable.

    The ideas of online prep for meetings is a good one. Online discussion, or smaller group or solo work in advance, can make the full group sessions more productive, or sometimes even unnecessary.

  3. JT

    Can I make an early appeal that this not turn into “I’m so introverted, I can’t stand games at work. They’re useless” series of posts?

    Yes, we know.

    I feel it too.

    Let’s give productive advice of how to make retreats work and/or how to argue that they are not a good use of organizational time other than “I don’t like them.”

    1. Letter writer

      For what it’s worth, we don’t have games, and we don’t put people on the spot. So no one need fret on those counts. We’re far too British!

  4. Letter writer

    Letter writer here!

    Firstly thanks AAM and commenters :) All comments will be read with interest. I just wanted to add more information for anyone who’s interested.

    On a practical level the day runs fine, agendas are sent out well in advance and are adhered to.

    More importantly though we are incredibly lucky in this sector and particularly this organisation that everyone is, well, just lovely. Managing troublemakers and unpleasantness and what have you is honestly not an issue, the worst is reigning in the occasional rambler. I’m constantly amazed when we get everyone in the same room at the sheer levels of intelligence and good will. I don’t think anyone finds the day an absolute ordeal, I just don’t know that it’s particularly useful in the long run, and I think the fact that people’s enthusiasm fades by the time the next one comes along and they think just doing their day job would be a better use of their time is a good indicator of that. Also the longer you’ve been here the more likely you are to have heard it before, one way or another.

    My first suggestion when I was asked to contribute ideas was ‘do we even need to have one?’, but the answer was very much a yes and the suggestions page immediately filled up with enough stuff to fill a week. (Most of it not that great, obviously). I think the agenda we’ve got now is pretty good, but even so I’d say only about a third of it is directly useful by my standards (stuff like training on new processes that are about to go live, staff reporting back on how some experimental things we’ve been trying lately are going, the head of the department reporting back on his boss’s long term plans for the department which have just been set, etc) and the rest is discussion and breakout groups and what have you. They will probably be enjoyable enough and stop the day from feeling like we’re just being talked at for hours, but still, what exactly is the *point*? And yes, actionable items will get done (probably by me :P) but not enough of them come out of these discussions to justify them IMO.

    In conclusion, AAM, I think your advice about having a goal for each individual agenda item is spot on. I will add a column for that in the planning document to match our current timings/format/who’s running it columns and do my best to insist people come up with something concrete or rethink what they’re doing.

    As for powerpoint, ergh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s inherently a problem, some people in the department use it well (and we do often need to show screenshots of systems and tables of results and things) but you’re right that it can easily turn into a snoozefest, and definitely has done more than once. Nooo idea what to do about that, especially from my position of not actually a manager, so ideas welcome.

    Thanks all, you’re great :)

  5. JT

    Good point on Powerpoint. I saw some really good ones a couple days ago (perhaps done in Keynote or other software).

    Well done, slides can be a great aid to presenting info.

  6. Mike C.

    So my job entails a great deal of process improvement, and my biggest complaint regarding this is that many people don’t follow a good process for evaluating, solving and controlling problems. They throw up suggestions without any way to tell how big the problem is, there’s no trial run of suggestion solutions (WITH PROPER CONTROLS TO EVALUATE THE PROCESS CORRECTLY) and if a good solution is found at this point there’s no plan or accountability to ensure that old habits don’t slip back in.

    Instead of a once a year chat, these issues should be discussed on a regular basis and problems should be addressed as they come up. Your intractable problems aren’t going to be solved by a once a year campfire chat, or they wouldn’t be problems anymore.

    If it were up to me I would have more regular meetings and use this away day as a way for different groups to discuss the things they’re working on, where they’ve made progress and where they need additional help.

    1. Kelly O

      I think Mike may be on to something here.

      Have shorter meetings more frequently, and include some accountability for following up on the actual results achieved. That way it doesn’t feel like such a huge time suck once a year, and you can actually think more about the metrics you’re trying to measure, and how well you’re really doing on improving processes and procedures.

      The other suggestion might be to think less about the intractable problems, and more about things that are realistic – yes, the intractable problems will still be there, but if you can develop solutions to things that can change, even if they’re smaller things, you could potentially see a much higher ROI on your time.

      Because honestly I can understand where the frustration comes in. You spend a whole day talking, dealing with PowerPoint presentations, and making grand plans to fix big problems, and next year you’re still talking about the same problems.

      (I’ll also add I’m an advocate for the judicious use of PowerPoint. Too much definitely puts people to sleep.)

    2. EngineerGirl

      I’m going to agree with Mike C. This is really a process improvement.activity and should be treated as such. Look up six sigma, kaizen, etc. There are several reasons why you are failing.

      First, you need to do prewodk to measure what is. Then you need to analyze it. People need to see the data ahead of time to stew on it. Then you hold the event – not with everyone, but with representatives from each group.

      If you group doesn’t have any process improvement people it may be worth it to hire a specialist. My war ing is that there are some bad ones out there that can turn things into a real waste

  7. Sharon

    What I noticed first of all is the discrepancy between the grumbles at the time of the retreats, and the glowing surveys a week later. From 20+ years “in the trenches”, my advice is this: listen to the grumbles, NOT the surveys. I know that seems negative, but what people put down in surveys are politically correct answers. Not honest responses. (And I’m completely glossing over the other fact that surveys can be designed to get a particular result.) People are always alot more honest when casually chatting in the hall than they ever are in company surveys.

    1. -X-

      I think it’s important to be honest, at least if you can afford it at your job. I have fair confidence I won’t lose my job over being critical, so I am honest and critical when I can be.

      Example: at our last retreat, as an ice-breaker, the facilitator asked what people expected and I said something like “To feel I’ve wasted my time and be depressed about it.” The agenda was bad and the structure of the event was bad, so that was my expectation.

      I gave similar feedback, with more specific suggestions for improvement, based on a draft agenda before the event. And in a call for feedback afterwards. In writing. I wish more people did that.

      1. Joey

        X,
        You’re doing yourself no favors with that type of criticism. I would actually call that whining. There’s a time and a place for feedback and you’re just undermining the day with those type of comments. And I would suggest you only give criticism when you have a solution to the problem. It looks like you may have done that beforehand, but continuing to whine is pointless. They’ll either act on your suggestions or they won’t. And if they don’t you need to accept it and move on.

        1. -X-

          Joey, you’re wrong. Whining is volunteering negative information often. In the case above, I was asked to speak. When asked for feedback, if it’s negative I give it.

          In fact, it is our *professional responsibility* to give frank comments if asked for feedback, and if the comments are negative, we should share them.

          “And if they don’t you need to accept it and move on.”

          What are you talking about? I don’t think it’s possible for you to know whether or not I have “moved on.”

          1. Joey

            My definition of whining, which is common among most managers, is complaining without offering a solution or displaying a negative attitude.

            It’s great that you gave feedback and suggestions for improvement. But even if you didn’t like the final agenda you owe it to your employer to give it a chance. Saying (essentially) “I expect this to really suck” is unproductive, useless, and undermines the point of the whole exercise. And more importantly it reflects poorly on you.

            I understand you may disagree with me, but I’m just telling you that’s the impression that most employers will have if you continue to be “honest” in the way you’re doing it.

            1. -X-

              Your definition of whining is wrong and suggests you will not get appropriate feedback.

              *Unsolicited* complaining without offering a solution is whining. Complaining when *asked* for feedback is not.

              “But even if you didn’t like the final agenda you owe it to your employer to give it a chance. ”

              How can you know I didn’t give it a chance?

              Please don’t make things up, or suggest things that you cannot know are true.

              ” impression that most employers ”

              Hmmm, a member of the management team of my organization explicitly thanked me (in private) for my honesty after that event. As did my own boss, another member of our management team.

              High-performing organizations don’t stifle feedback by calling it whining if it is not positive and/or comes without a solution.

              1. Joey

                That’s the same view as the folks in my organization who never offer solutions or never want to be a part of implementing solutions. They are on their way out because I want people who can create solutions. Finding problems is the easy part.

                1. Amouse

                  I’m usually not one to jump in on other people’s conversations but Joey, I have to say I totally disagree with you and if I were X I’d be offended by the unnecessary tone you’re taking with them.

                  The whole definition of “feedback” just a speaker feeding back from a microphone is that there has to be something to feed back to. If you’re asked to give feedback that isn’t complaining as long as it’s offered in a non-attacking way.

                  Offering feedback does not need to entail having the solution to the problem. If you do have suggestions that’s a bonus and the feedback may be more helpful. But feedback without a potential solution attached is not the same thing as whining. Whining is volunteering negative info constantly without being asked for it.

                2. Ask a Manager Post author

                  I think you’re both seeing this through the lens of your own experience. Joey is absolutely right that there are employees who do this in a way that’s unhelpful and harms their reputation with their managers. And X is absolutely right that it can also be done in a way that doesn’t fall in that category. Let’s agree that X is better positioned to know if hers does than the rest of us are (and that her manager is even better positioned to know than she is), and leave it at that.

                3. -X-

                  “That’s the same view as the folks in my organization who never offer solutions or never want to be a part of implementing solutions.”

                  How dare you imply I never offer solutions. I provide solutions to problems and productive ideas nearly every day at my job.

                  Moreover, for the retreat in question I gave advice about it before the event. Here is what I wrote – please read it again: “I gave similar feedback, with more specific suggestions for improvement, based on a draft agenda before the event.”

                  Let me make that clearer: I GAVE SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT BEFORE THE EVENT.

                  And don’t give me advice about watching out for being “on the way out.” I got a small raise a few weeks after the event that put me just over $100K/year. Not a ton, but not bad for work in a small nonprofit organization.

                  If you want to rag on people who complain a lot of the time or never offer positive ideas, go ahead. But stop implying that is me.

                  Moreover, you sound like a manager who cannot take negative feedback, even when you ask for feedback. Not good. Very bad. If you want to get rid of chronic complainers, go ahead. But if someone complains occasionally to you when you *ask* for feedback, and you look on that badly, they’ll stop giving you honest feedback. Is that what you want? Really? You think that is good management?

                  And to Amouse below, yes I am offended. But really what he’s writing says more about his own management style than me, since it’s counter-factual.

                4. Ask a Manager Post author

                  This is getting too heated for people who don’t even know each other or have any reason to care what the other thinks, so let’s please end it, as I said above. Thank you.

    2. khilde

      or….perhaps could it sometimes go the other way around? That people will be more honest on an anonymous evaluation (my comment is moot if they are not anonymous), but will keep up with the facade of grumbling like everyone else in person?

  8. Sharon

    I have another comment about the issue of large, difficult-to-solve problems that keep coming up every time. In my experience these are real morale-killers. I used to work at a place with many of these issues. They weren’t really difficult to solve, and I made several suggestions on how to solve them. They nearly all required better communication between teams*. But the managers at this place were defensive and anything you (an “outsider” i.e. not in their team) suggested implied they were screwing up. No matter how politely and diplomatically I phrased my suggestions, they were ignored at best, and argued hotly at worst. Even trying to go through the chain of command failed. From the managers perspective these may have been impossible problems. (Or since they were so defensive, maybe they thought they were Sharon’s problems… who knows?) Anyway, one time the management level above them noticed a lot of conflict between the teams so called a brainstorming session. The result of which was simply to buy some equipment for one team that needed it, but not a finger lifted to solve the communication/inter-teamwork problems. This was one of the main reasons why I finally left that company.

    I hope the OP isn’t doing this. You might want to take an honest hard look at those “intractable” problems and find out exactly why they are so intractable. Also, if you have some people who seem especially negative all the time, it might not be because they’re just negative deadwood workers. It might be because they’re getting burned out from being ignored when they try to solve problems.

    * Specific examples were:
    1. spending days debugging my system to find out why integration with the other team’s system was failing before I finally figured out the other system was designed to work that way.
    2. spending weeks trying to get the other team’s system configured to work on a customer’s computer, using the other team’s documentation which was so horrible even an experienced engineer like myself couldn’t follow it correctly to make the system work in the first try. And they expected semi-non-technical customers to be able to use the installation documentation…?

  9. Joey

    The way to make your staff retreats more useful is to decide to take on the big issues- sort of a strategic plan for addressing them. If you can agree on the major issues then you can use the retreat to assign project managers and begin breaking them down into smaller projects. Start setting deadlines, start assigning small tasks to high performers, etc

    If you continually just address the low hanging fruit there’s always going to be the same gripes and cynicism about the whole ordeal.

    1. saro

      I’d like to second Joey’s comment. I only find these types of ‘away’ days useful if it’s legitimately addressing an issue too big to deal with during a normal day. It’s frustrating to discuss little projects/issues that could have been easily be addressed during a weekly meeting.

      1. anon

        I agree. Once you’ve decided at the retreat what issues need to be addressed, form committees right then and there at the retreat and schedule the next several meetings of the committees. Then the next time the meeting rolls around part of it can be the committee reporting on what it got done in since the last meeting and soliciting feedback from the group. Its not always managements’ job to “fix” all the problems, often the people dealing with them in their day to day job have better ways to address the problem, provided they have management buy-in to take the time and resources needed to address it. I’ve seen that the biggest way to stop complaints about systems is to require complainers to propose a solution to the problem and then put them in charge of implementing it. Problems with solutions get fixed, whiners either step up or shut up.

        I would also agree with more frequent, shorter meetings – half days 2x a year or 2 hours quarterly would feel like much less of an interruption in a person’s day. My biggest pet peeve about offsite events is when they are offsite for no apparent reason and could have just as easily been conducted out of the conference rooms at our office.

  10. Construction HR

    I might include a recap of the good ideas/solutions which have come from previous sessions when I solicited ideas for the upcoming event. Get them thinking about the positive before the negative can creep in.

  11. patricia

    My company doesn’t do retreats, but on a few occasions management has sent around a comprehensive survey that we can answer candidly and anonymously. We have a big lunch then discuss the results. They usually let us go early after the lunch discussion, so it makes the day festive. I do work for a very small company (around 15 employees) so that probably wouldn’t work with a larger group.

  12. Jamie

    I think some complaining beforehand, even if it’s a good event, is a human reaction to the disruption.

    When I have atypical things on my schedule, even really valuable things to which I’m looking forward (and scheduled them myself) I still feel a kind of low-grade panic about how that is going to skew the rest of my week and how late and the extra time I’ll have to put in to make it up.

    I don’t complain aloud, because that would be counterproductive since I did it to myself, but maybe people are just voicing a little grumbling about the time away without it being a real reflection on the reason for the time away. The complaining about the event itself can be an outgrowth of the legitimate hectic nature of the disruption.

    Disruptions aren’t always bad – but they are always disruptive.

    We have a project going on now that will be great for my company and I’m very happy about…but they are working on the outside of the building by my parking spot and in order to protect my car I have to park in another spot all week. I’m excited about the project, but didn’t stop me from swearing under my breath when I pulled in today and remembered I couldn’t have my spot. Not logical and the most first world of problems, but there you are. Sometimes people just bitch about being inconvenienced even when it’s for a good cause.

    1. MovingRightAlong

      “Disruptions aren’t always bad – but they are always disruptive.”

      I’m envisioning this in needlepoint on my wall. Well said.

  13. Amouse

    I hate to be a negative Nelly here but when I think of the team retreat that my office went on last year I have an auto-cringe reaction. Two outside “coaches” were brought in to help us discuss our issues at this random seminary religious retreat place. The whole point of the retreat was to discuss issues and problems that were causing frustration on the team so i don’t consider giving feedback i that scenario “whining” provided it’s given constructively.

    First off I was the only one of my co-workers (three of us) willing to be honest and open about the pretty major interpersonal issues that had been going on for months so it really wasn’t helpful because the other two just nodded and smiled and agreed with me until I got tired of actually trying to be open about stuff. I understand why they wouldn’t want to be open with my boss sitting across from them. Secondly the facilitators spoke in cheesy jargon: “Who’s got your back?” They tried to drill these buzz phrases into us. To this day I can tell if my boss has seen one of those career coaches recently because she’ll get this canned cheery expression at our meeting and say: “So what was your victory this week?” bleh.

    So if there’s one thing I learned from the ineffective retreat it’s avoid jargon-filled, canned phrases like “Ask your team ‘ what was your victory today?'” and crap like that. Excuse my French but crap is the only word. Also avoid anything religious. That probably sounds really obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. If you have a focus stick to it instead of taking a broader angle and keeping people there all day away from actual work with no focus. Maybe creating one theme that’s easily understood and not jargon-filled to tackle for the day could be useful.

  14. LL

    I have to admit, I like my company’s staff retreats. It’s a shortened day (9-3) and we always have really, really good catered food. The topics are generally big picture things like strat planning or rebranding. Lots of discussion – first in small groups then as a large group. Prizes, such as gift cards or wear-jeans-for-a-day coupons, are awarded for participating in the games. Swag gifts are given at the end of the day (usually company logo t-shirts, mugs, styluses, etc). We leave feeling pretty appreciated by our employer. Then, our company usually makes a big production about implementing ideas from the retreat, ensuring that we feel that our contributions are important.

  15. Lilybell

    I find off-site retreats to be 100% useless, especially if it’s set up to do brainstorming and team-building. Never, ever have I seen the discussions put into practice afterwards. Never. No one likes them. Don’t make your admins go – there is nothing worse than having to sit through a painful day of listening to stuff that has absolutely no bearing on my job. Do you know what I do on these days? I sit in the back and hide my Kindle in a notebook and read. If you want people to feel motivated to attend, then make sure there is a tangible result afterwards so people feel like it wasn’t a giant waste of time. This is one of those situations where I feel managers have blinders on. When your main feedback is that no one wants the meeting, then don’t have it.

    1. Lilybell

      Replying to myself – I should have taken out the word teambuilding since we are not discussing that. But my opinion is the same for discussion based retreats.

      1. Vicki

        It’s scary to realize that you are explicitly separating “teambuilding” from “discussion based” retreats (aka “offsites”).

        The primary reason I hate “teambuilding” events is that they have shifted from communication, discussion, and collaboration improving sessions to Fun & Games You’ll All Hate Equally!

        A good brainstorming session that actually addresses real issues can be a teambuilding session… _should_ be more of a team building session than “let’s shoot our co-workers with hard balls of paint”.

  16. fposte

    Practically speaking, may I suggest frequent breaks? And not just promised breaks that get tossed aside when things are running late or quick runs to the bathroom, but real breaks? There aren’t many people who can still usefully contribute toward the end of the second hour in the same chair and room. You will earn them back in focus, I promise.

  17. Guest

    Wow. All this retreat hate. I don’t necessarily love them, but sometimes it’s a good idea to have the group stop making mousetraps for a day or so, and ask if they can make a better mousetrap, use better bait, or maybe get some cats.

    All nose to the grindstone, all day every day, and no thought or discussion about the big picture, ever? I would think that that would lead to stagnation.

    1. Jamie

      Yep – I read somewhere an analogy about sharpening the saw.

      If you have two lumberjacks and they have a tight quota to meet and one keeps sawing away even though the blade is dull because he doesn’t think he has time to sharpen his saw…

      But the other lumberjack took the time to sharpen his saw so when the first lumberjack was trying to hack through with a blade like a butterknife he was blazing away.

      It was the guy who stopped to sharpen his saw who hit the quota. I think I read this on Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror.

      There was also something about painting a bike shed. Committees who spend endless hours deciding what color to paint the bike shed and don’t even bother to build the shed in the first place – so they decide on a color but there’s nothing to paint.

      Thus depletes the analogy store in my brain.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Discussion about the big picture is hugely important. I think the retreat hate comes in when people feel like they never lead to any actual changes or action; they often feel like wheel-spinning.

  18. Vicki

    AAM says “survey them in 6 months”

    OP says: “every year when the meeting invitations are sent out, everyone gripes about having to take the day out of their normal work, that it plays havoc with the rest of their week, and that these days are always really dull and pointless and nothing ever comes of them. ”

    I think that counts as surveying them in 1 year. And the 1-year survey results are not positive.

    Perhaps instead of the survey saying “Did you have a good time” you need a mid-year survey that says “What _should_ we be doing instead of this annual retreat day?”

  19. David Smith

    The OP asked for suggestions.

    When I was responsible for meeting planning at a former place of employment, I started used the model described by Patric Lencioni in Death by Meeting. (http://www.tablegroup.com/books/dbm/)

    The tactical meeting didn’t improve things that much, but the daily and strategic meetings were solid hits, and the quarterly off-site review was a home run.

    The other element that I brought into the quarterly meeting was to use David Allen’s Six Horizons of Focus as a guiding principle. This is the airplane on the runway metaphor.

    The purpose of the meeting was to discuss our work together at the 20,000 to 30,000 feet level, which is projects, not tasks, and looking forward for the next 18 months, not next week or next month.

    If nothing is happening as the result of your retreat days, then you may be flying too high. Conversations about work at 40,000 and 50,000 feet …. I’d avoid.

    Overall, these two elements (Death by Meeting and Six Horizons of Focus) worked in this setting and provided a structure that generated better outcomes.

  20. Caitlin

    “If it’s just a bunch of talk and not much in the way of outcomes, people will start feeling like their input is meaningless and that the company is only interested in creating the appearance of listening to people. At some point, they can start to become a joke or just an exercise in frustration for people who have been there a while.”
    If you have a public-sector organization with a hierarchical structure where staff have no influence on management decisions, you can make an appearance of creating a more modern management style by setting aside part of the publicly-funded budget for staff retreats. The best choice of venue is a luxury hotel which offers pleasant surroundings and gourmet cuisine (the public would want nothing less). Choose a vague theme for the day, e.g. “team enhancement”, “environmentally-friendly work practices”, “internal communication” and let the usual activities ensue: flip charts, colored pens, Powerpoint presentations, much excited talking by the usual few, much patient listening by the great majority, grand summing up and promises of change. Conduct a staff survey immediately afterwards and, if 51% say they enjoyed the day (choose the questions carefully), declare the exercise a success. Return to business as usual until more public money becomes available (it will, the public never fails) for the next retreat.

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