When planning a retreat, what you forget can be more important that what you remember. Here are 11 “sins of omission” you should seek to avoid.
1. Not coming to a clear agreement with the client about expectations
What are your client’s expectations for you, and what are yours for your client? Do you and the client agree about what will happen at the retreat and afterward? In addition, unforeseen events occur at almost every retreat. You and the client must be clearly aligned on respective roles and expectations so that when something unforeseen takes place, you and s/he won’t struggle over how to handle it.
2. Not interviewing participants in advance
A retreat is for everyone in the room, not only the person who convened it. Participants will cooperate far more enthusiastically when they have had input beforehand and when they can see tangible proof at the retreat that you heard them. Conducting even a few interviews can prepare you for possible hidden agendas, undiscussable issues, and covert attacks.
3. Not providing enough variety
Using the same techniques over and over simply bores people. It’s hard to keep people’s attention throughout a two-day offsite. Use all your creativity to keep participants fully engaged.
4. Not taking the big kahuna effect into account
The Big Kahuna Effect takes hold when leaders dominate the discussions or create an environment in which people are afraid to say anything they think the leader might not want to hear. No matter what the leader says to you or to the retreat participants about being open to candid feedback, you can be sure that at least some of the participants will be concerned about the negative consequences of speaking out. Failing to coach the leader on how to behave at the retreat to achieve the best results, failing to agree in advance with him/her on how you will respond if s/he forgets your advice, and failing to include activities that allow people’s opinions on sensitive issues to be expressed with anonymity will almost guarantee that the leader won’t get valuable feedback, and s/he, the participants and the organization will be the poorer for it.
5. Not making opportunities for people to think before they speak
Before an important discussion, give participants a few minutes of silence to collect their thoughts. You might have them write their ideas down before presenting them or ask them to think about something over lunch or dinner. (You may have to strongly encourage extroverts to refrain from speaking up immediately.) Such pauses in the discussions, even if brief, are likely to foster more thoughtful responses.
6. Not allowing for spontaneous changes to the retreat plan
Sticking too faithfully to your carefully developed sequence of activities and precise timetable can blind you to the dynamics of what’s happening in the room. You must be ready to stay with a point that participants become really engaged in or to abandon an activity that isn’t contributing to the outcome as you anticipated. You may have to insert an activity you hadn’t planned on to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity or eliminate an exercise you intended to include because you don’t have time for it or it’s no longer appropriate. We often describe a day of facilitating a retreat as “eight hours of improv.”
7. Not being transparent when changes occur
There is no such thing as a perfect retreat. You’ll forget something. Participants won’t follow instructions correctly. Managers will speak out inappropriately. The biggest mistake you can make when something unexpected occurs is to pretend that nothing happened. Acknowledge that something has gone wrong and ask the group for help in setting it right. We’re all human, and participants will appreciate seeing your humanity, too.
8. Not letting go of control during the unstructured time
Sometimes the best work in a retreat occurs in informal gatherings when the facilitator isn’t managing the discussions. Be sure to build some out-of-session time into your design so those moments can occur naturally. Remember that sometimes your presence can inhibit this sort of spontaneity among participants; be strategic about your place and behavior in such activities. (We tend to leave participants to themselves out of session.)
9. Not forcing the hard choices
Participants will perceive the retreat as a waste of time if the action plan is really a plan to think some more about acting. You may be uncomfortable pressing people to make difficult choices throughout the retreat, but that work is critical if the participants are to create an action plan that will lead to meaningful change.
10. Not leaving adequate time for action planning
Facilitators too often leave insufficient time at the end of the retreat for participants to review their decisions and put them into a plan that assigns responsibilities, fixes target dates and defines ways to measure progress. The time required for such planning will depend on the length of the retreat and the complexity of the challenges, but because the action plan is the end product of the offsite, it should not be hurried. Don’t leave this critical activity for the last minute, when people are nervously glancing at their watches, worried that they’ll miss their planes or get caught in rush hour traffic.
11. Not providing an appropriate close
Retreats can be emotionally intense experiences for many participants. People need some time to reflect on what they have achieved together, appreciate one another’s contributions, and plan their reentry into the workplace. A rushed closing can undermine some of the good work the group did over the course of the retreat.