It’s time to revisit the corporate retreat. Usually, too much time and money are wasted on the annual tradition with far too little to show for the effort. Most people if asked would say that they are at best a waste of time and at worse a cringe worthy event best avoided.

The problem lies not with the idea of an off-site meeting per se but rather with how most are conducted.  Too often the facilitator gets the blame for the unsuccessful event. To the degree that they were unable to convinve the client of a better use of the time they have to accept that. Too many annual retreats are simply tasks that many senior managers feel they must do and are therefore ‘check off’ events, that are intentionally bland affairs that skirt the important issues, reinforce company lines or worse purport to ‘build team spirit’ in pointless games or activities.

A one day or even over night experience will not create team building while issues that affect the daily work continue to go ignored. If you want to put together a retreat that really has an impact on your company? Here are some guidelines:

1.    Get clear on what you want to accomplish.Unless you have a compelling reason to have a retreat, save your time and money. Believe me, your team will be jubilant. Most people today work hard, putting in more than the weekly 40 hours in order to keep up with the avalanche of emails and constant interruptions, so asking them to invest time in other than mission critical activities will be an unwelcome opportunity. You have to give them a good reason for doing so. Even more so if you expect them to commit to an overnight.

2.    An overnight can be a great contribution for germinating creative ideas and for creating informal, non-scheduled time to interact with colleagues. But nothing will build good team spirit more than working for a company they can be proud of with the confidence that everyone understands his or her role and responsibiity and everyone is held truly accountability for their contributributions. If your organisation or team lacks these, enjoying a nice meal and few glasses of wine around the fire isn’t going to do it.

3.    Be prepared to tackle the tough stuff.To reach agreements you have to deal with conflict and controversy. Differences of perception and view are what creates the good decision.  Touchy subjects can not be avoided and tough decisions can not always be relegated  to a “parking lot” for discussion by a smaller group after the retreat. Meaningful consensus isn’t built that way. Real agreement is built when different points of view collide in constructive conflict or ’creative abrasion’.

How to do it

If you anticipate contention or you want to ensure that the tough issues are addressed ask participants two to three weeks before the retreat to provide you with a confidential list of what they think are the most important and difficult questions facing the organisation, department or team. Encourage them to include internal as well as external items. Design your agenda on the things that your people cite most frequently.

1.      Plan a ‘draft’ of the agenda — but not the outcomes. Use the time together to genuinely explore the full context, and be prepared for the session to lead you in a completely different direction.

2.       In general the more minds you involved the better. Put together a group which has a true diversity of opinion. You might include external people (external to your organisation or your team) , and your resident cynics.

3.      Create an environment where people feel safe and are willing to tackle the real issues.

4.      Retreats need to include all people or representatives of those who will be impacted by the decisions. Make sure you get input from a lot of different areas (involve people from all functional areas, departments, and regions).

5.      Plan methods of consolidating, aggregating all input into the decision-making process. Insist on small group discussions that feed  into the larger group, rather than permitting plenary debates that are usually dominated by one or two people and do not allow for equal contribution by all.

6.      Get outside help.It’s difficult for a manager to conduct this kind of meeting. You either influence the process too much, or if you are true to the role of facilitator you are not sufficiently involved in the discussions. To get people really thinking outside of the box, you’re going to need the help of a skilled facilitator. She’ll help the group identify the key issues and will create a forum where everyone gets heard, and where ideas are discussed crisply and decisions are reached. A neutral facilitator can also see that sensitive or controversial issues will be addressed without people becoming fixed to their own points of view, or worrying about protecting their own turf.

If you design the process correctly, you’ll deliver outcomes that far exceed any you have seen from previous retreats, and instead of dreading it, the team will be looking forward to the next one.