So, you say you want a retreat? Sometimes departments call us to “do a retreat” without realizing how complex a process it is to design a substantive, useful retreat. To many, a retreat is a day or two spent off-site. Some think of it as a time to play. Others view it as an agonizing exercise that requires they spend time with people they don’t even want to be with on campus, let alone at some isolated location.
Yes, retreats are frequently off-site, though they don’t have to be. But the key difference between a retreat and other types of meetings is not location; rather it is purpose and complexity. The essence of a retreat is the creation of physical and psychological space for a work group to “get away” from the day-to-day and “retreat” to a place where they can be more reflective and expansive in their thinking.
This Service Might Be For You If...
To plan successful retreats we spend significant time working with client groups to understand the culture and needs of the organization, its leadership, and its other key stakeholders (e.g., students, parents, funders, etc.) We engage in a thorough data gathering process; the primary client or a retreat working group partners with us to determine those from whom we most need to collect data. Based on the data we then develop a set of draft outcomes for the retreat. A retreat is only as good as these outcomes and the facilitation team’s ability to design conversations and activities to help the group achieve those outcomes. It is these outcomes and the data collected that determine the length of a retreat. The consulting team can give a realistic appraisal of how long it will take for a group to achieve the number of required outcomes. If that amount of time is not available, the leader or retreat planning team is at a key choice point – do they shorten the list of outcomes or increase the amount of time for the retreat? Alternatively they may decide to achieve the additional outcomes in some other way, such as ongoing staff meetings throughout the semester, task groups, etc. Once the client group has approved the retreat outcomes, we create a step-by-step design for the retreat, taking into consideration both general and specific group dynamics and the culture of a group – a retreat designed for civil engineers may differ significantly from one designed for MFA faculty in the Creative Writing program, even if the broad goals are somewhat similar.
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Retreat design is both a science and an art. It takes years of experience and a thorough understanding of group behavior and dynamics to do well. In our field of organizational development, it is estimated that skilled designers spend up to eight hours of design time for every hour of actual facilitation. Our purpose in design and facilitation is to always keep the client and the needs and goals of the group as our foremost consideration.
We partner throughout the design process as well as during the actual retreat facilitation to make sure we are on track and getting the group where it needs to be. We fully recognize the investment of time and resources that a department puts into having a retreat. Retreat, especially for faculty groups, can be infrequent events, making the stakes for success particularly high. Because of this our designs are elaborate and detailed. Paradoxically it is the precision of our design work that actually provides the latitude to be flexible and change course at a moment’s notice if that is what the group dynamic requires. If done well, this is not obvious to retreat participants; our work is a finely planned and practiced concert with improvisation woven throughout.
Another essential consideration is retreat follow-up. The ultimate effectiveness of a retreat is only as good as the follow-through afterward. We don’t aim for a feel-good day or two, but for a retreat that energizes, directs, and sustains a group over time. We aim for a retreat that provides tangible direction so that every participant leaves knowing what is going to happen next, who is going to do it, and by when.
For these reasons a professionally run retreat can take a number of months to plan. We ask clients to give us at least two to four months notice to facilitate a sizable retreat. When asked if we can facilitate a retreat scheduled to occur within a short time period, we almost always have to decline. Often the only role we can play with such short notice is that of meeting facilitator, and while that still requires planning, it is a very different kind of design and facilitation process. We can certainly guide a group through a discussion, but the outcomes will be very different than those that could be expected from a process in which we were involved from the start (see Meeting Design and Facilitation).
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This service might be for you if:
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- Your department hasn’t had substantive discussions in at least a year or more.
- There are factions among the faculty making the direction of the department contentious or murky.
- You are a new leader and want to better understand the nature of your department and establish your authority with your whole group in a positive way.
- There are work or intellectual climate issues that are plaguing your department to the degree that factions aren’t even talking with one another, let alone collaborating.
- Your dean is preventing you from making an important hire until your department “gets its act together.”
- You need to make significant curricular changes and two-hour meetings are just not enough time to get you there.
- Trust is at an all time low and any attempt to increase it results in further blaming and backstabbing.
- Your department hasn’t reviewed its progress – or lack thereof – on its strategic planning goals.
- Junior faculty don’t speak in regular meetings and the department would benefit from a facilitated discussion to get their voices heard.
- Your workgroup is completely tired and burned out.
- Collective time has not been set aside to acknowledge progress and success.
- You need to have substantive discussions to prioritize upcoming faculty hires.
- You are a new leader and want to share your vision and involve your group in determining how to take your vision to the next step.
- You need to have serious discussions about the nature of your department and whether it should get divorced, merge with or marry another department, attempt to change colleges or navigate any large structural questions.