A client asked me for my thoughts on running retreats and I thought I’d share them here too.
One of the main reasons for having a retreat is to create a different way of engaging with each other than happens in day-to-day meetings. Sadly, some events which are billed as retreats turn out to be just doing the normal sorts of meetings only in a more expensive venue. Let’s try to get away from that.
I think retreats must temper the desire for clear outcomes with the value of creating genuinely reflective and sometimes provocative space. Yes, your event needs some structure but we want participants to take some risks to embrace more difficult conversations. There’s a way in which people need to ski off-piste and it won’t happen if we stay in the blue runs of conventional structures.
One of the greatest pitfalls is to have important sounding conversations that actually avoid useful engagement. For example, everyone can agree that there needs to be more action, greater effectiveness or stronger teamwork – but then not be specific about the details where this isn’t happening and where people want a change. In the end, we have to name names and get into some of the mud. Without some creative friction, nothing really useful can happen.
So sometimes you need the facilitator to disrupt safe-but-anodyne conversations and help to create a space in which people feel able to take more risks and have more challenging but much more creative conversations. Ideally, you create an atmosphere in which this feels tempting rather than merely hazardous.
This is much more about intelligently improvising based on experience and what is happening in the room now, than trusting in any particular technique. It involves not always playing safe when tricky topics arise, and being willing to ask more challenging questions of the group. It means I have to risk looking like an idiot sometimes.
I tend to avoid long plenary sessions in which one person gets to talk and everyone else (a) just listens (b) catches up on email or (c) fights with others to be the next person speaking. That involves greater discipline in the plenaries you do have, and not simply defaulting to the loudest voice in the room; and also creating structures in which people work alone, in pairs and smaller groups for much of the time.
I often don’t understand the technical content of your meetings and usually that’s a good thing as I can pay attention to the process and not get bogged down.
Yes, I do make use of creative activities and some more playful approaches, but I don’t see these as any kind of substitute for real and practical engagement with the issues you need to explore.
One of the undersung values of good facilitation is to pay attention to changes of pace. Groups of people often get stuck, sometimes in quite frantic forms of conversation, and sometimes in rather torpid ones. Having changes of pace makes it easier for all participants to engage and also to allow more creative thinking. Knowing when to press on, and when it’s better to pause and refresh is an important judgement call for the facilitator. Facilitators often feel under pressure to “make things happen” and panic where things seem a bit slow: I think it’s often really important not to scare too easily, and absolutely not to be the Butlin’s Redcoat endlessly setting out to “energise” the group. The path to David Brentdom is strewn with good intentions.
The other thing that’s often expected, and that I tend to resist, is the urge to “get everyone aligned”, to necessarily end on a high and in agreement. That sounds lovely but often leads to half-hearted commitment. It’s less thrilling to end reflectively, or with an understanding that there remain unresolved differences, but it’s better to be honest and clear than to go away with fake consensus from a commitment ceremony.
Would be interested in what you would add or take away!