Staff Retreats: Embracing the maddening crowd

I’ve always been ambivalent about staff retreats.

In the seven I have attended over the last 9 years, they always seem to occur during transitions in either my personal life or my place of employ. And just like life’s transitions, they tend to be messy affairs. Either they are so meticulously planned that participants engage without actually being engaging, or they are unstructured to such a degree that participants manage to deeply engage but don’t actually accomplish anything tangible.

I’m not sure at this point if there is some happy medium or if I need to employ different strategies to lessen my concern about these often annual work rituals. Maybe the trick for me is participating in a retreat when there isn’t some transition in the horizon. Maybe I need to stop taking my work so seriously. In any event, I had the opportunity to participate in a staff retreat with my glorious co-workers in the Engagement Division at Consumer Reports this week and have a few takeaways.

Actually, I have seven….

Avoid civilization. To call our retreat location “secluded” would be an understatement. The only other times in my life where I did not have cell service was backpacking in the Ethiopian highlands, criss-crossing the Sahara desert, and exploring Central Borneo. As with those jaunts, the effect on my concentration and willingness to avail myself to the possible was electric and so it was during our retreat. For a retreat, I highly suggest avoiding the jolt of the city and find some place to gather your maddening crowd.

Step back. If you’re the kind of person on your team that tends to grab the spotlight, step back and let others shine. I tend to be that person. But, given so much is in flux in our organization and team, I arrived with the goal of doing far more listening than talking with my colleagues. Sure, I weighed in during key moments to either push a controversial idea during the many abstractions we grappled with during our sessions or to keep the agenda moving but these were few and far between. The result? I allowed other voices, particularly those that don’t speak up often, to be heard.

Make the agenda as you go. Structurally, our retreat was broken into two thematic sessions over two days. The first day dealt primarily with our internal work (processes, tools, and culture to produce our particular “product”) and the second day our external work (marketing that product to the world). For the sessions for both days, we didn’t adhere to a prearranged agenda. Instead, we created it together in a similar process familiar to those of you who have ever attended an “unconference”. For those of you not familiar with this approach, the process begins with participants ruminating on one or two big picture questions about the scope of the work, teasing out particular pieces, dividing those pieces into categories, and democratically choosing which categories to discuss as sessions. At that point, everyone self selects which session to participate in, a facilitator is chosen, and, post session, a reportback is given to the full group. While the “strict agenda” approach has its merits, if you find yourself on a team or organization grappling with change the “unconference” approach encourages the best kind of interative thinking and engagement.

Outsiders and stakeholders? +1. We were lucky to have two of our most senior executives attend a portion of our retreat in addition to all of our primary consultants. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive as one of the primary reasons one retreats is to deepen bonds within an existing team. In our case, however, their active participation in sessions helped broaden our sense of who is the “team”- an awareness that is really important in an organization that is increasingly more flat.

Mix it up. As professionals, we pride ourselves on seeking out, and displaying mastery in, our chosen field. Thus, when deciding which session to participate in, it’s probably the case most of us will choose a session that dovetails with either our professional specialization or area of responsibility. I think this is mistake. I purposely choose to attend sessions about topics outside of my professional responsibility so as to deepen my understanding of the key challenges we face as a team and to broaden my understanding of how my role in it affects those challenges. I’m glad I did because I now have greater context about our teams strengths, weaknesses, and key questions which can only help guide my own work moving forward.

Mix the facilitators up. During our retreat, staff who bottomline key portfolio’s our team is responsible for were picked to facilitate sessions While this is obviously an efficient way to ensure the ensuing discussion stays on track, it is my opinion that it contravenes a central ethos of the “unconference” approach- namely, encouraging diversity of ideas, perspectives, and leadership. Those most embedded or responsible for a project or process could gain from engaging in a setting where others facilitate discussion about the work they oversee thereby creating a healthy mental “break”. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to provide them this “break” by nominating them as facilitators for sessions during our retreat.

Ditch “unconference” when tackling abstractions. I participated in a session that discussed the creation of what we term a participation model- or a model whereby we seek to encourage our primary and secondary audiences-primarily those who engage regularly with Consumer Reports content- to take meaningful and sustained action on issues that affect consumers. Thing is, this model does not exist- either internally or in the world. The participants of our group were thus required to take an unstructured approach to an abstract discussion. To be clear, all organizations should make room for these kinds of discussions as artists, scientists, and engineers long have. But even Duke Ellington guided his work with a set of questions before commencing a musical piece. Thankfully, we were able to focus the discussion. But had our approach been more structured at the jump we might have held a richer and more transcendent one.

Get yourself a Sharon Maxwell. This retreat, from start to finish, was organized by our department’s Administrative Assistant, Sharon Maxwell. And given all the many things that can go wrong with these jaunts, few if any actually did. This is a testament to her dedication and professionalism and any team in any organization would be in good stead with an event planner of her skill, grace, and imagination.