Ah… September is around the corner. And with the return of fall, college football, a fresh season of The Big Bang Theory, and… planning retreats.
I’ve been to a lot of planning retreats over the years and facilitated a fair number, for organizations big and small, for for-profits and non-profits.
For your consideration, here is a list of my top “don’t's” for retreat planning:
1. Don’t turn the planning retreat into making a new list of stuff to do. One Board I used to serve on created a new “strategic plan” every three years. Every three years, they started over, brainstormed a list of possible new programs, prioritized it and called that the strategic plan. We did not get a chance to talk about how the environment was changing, how the portfolio of current programs did or didn’t make a difference. Planning retreats were about adding rather than winnowing and refining.
2. Don’t let fun and games dominate the agenda. If you’re Herb Kelleher and a fun-loving attitude is a core value, that’s one thing. Touchy-feely stuff has its place, but people are time challenged and resent what they view as a waste of time. Volunteers on an effective nonprofit board presumably are there for the right reason: they want to share their expertise, talents and connections to help achieve the mission. That means they need to use their brain cells and contribute. Retreats must feel productive.
3. Don’t wring the juice out of it. I know one CEO who was so terrified by the prospect of free-ranging discussion that he turned the retreat into a three-ring circus of management presentations. Discussion was to consist of limited opportunities to react to the presentations capped by a request for approval of management’s strategic plan. I said “was to” because the Board chair hijacked the agenda and said the Board was going to have the conversation that it wanted to. He even drew a picture of himself wearing a cowboy hat. Yee ha!
4. Don’t forget where the group is in its formation. Despite the warning about the “touchy-feely” stuff, Boards with new members need to take time to loosen up. Ice breakers have their place even among grown ups. Have some fun! The facilitator has an important role in setting discussion rules including reminding participants that everyone, even new members, are there for a reason. The facilitator can also help to draw out participants.
5. Don’t assume the CEO or executive director knows where the Board is. Board interviews or a survey can be very helpful in discovering issues that may need to be discussed, or concerns that could take the retreat off in an unexpected direction if not accommodated or dealt with. I’ve seen CEOs conduct the interviews themselves (which can be relationship-building) or they can be undertaken by the facilitator.
6. Don’t ignore pacing. We as humans are primed for stories: we need a hook that grabs us, a desire to achieve something, conflict we can gnash our teeth over, rising energy, and satisfying resolution. Good stories don’t drone on. In a retreat, pay attention to the movement created by the length of the presentations, their point, and the balance between presentation and dialogue. Avoid death by Powerpoint!
7. Don’t forget to start with clear objectives for the retreat itself. You know the old dialogue from Alice in Wonderland:
Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
As an example, yesterday, I met with an executive director to discuss objectives for an upcoming retreat. Here were the five we identified based on her perception, Board interviews and a Board survey: 1) Check in on the progress of the strategic plan to ensure alignment and/or identify any new steps that need to be taken to ensure its implementation; 2) Engage the entire Board in a strategic discussion about a new program, in development; 3) Continue to develop relationships among Board members, since the Board has a number of newer members; 4) Identify ways to enhance the Board’s functioning so that they are fully and appropriately engaged throughout the year; and 5) Enhance Board understanding of their group governance role and their individual responsibilities.
With that under control, you can worry about the important things this fall. Will the Huskies get back in the national conversation? Will Cal’s new coach be able to speed up the Bears? Will Leonard return from his research trip and Amy and Sheldon get together? Stay tuned…