10 TIPS FOR A  SUCCESSFUL RETREAT   John Jay Bonstingl    Next time you plan a retreat for your leadership team and board, or for your suppliers, business partners and key stakeholders, your results will be greatly enhanced by planning with these ten tips in mind.  1. Plan your retreat with a clear purpose in mind. Communicate your purpose clearly to all the participants well ahead of time. Make sure your stated purpose is explicitly tied to the understood vision, mission, and core values of your organization. Publish an agenda, and plan strategies to stick to your announced timeframes.  2.  Make your retreat relevant. Build essential “buy-in” by giving every participant one or more retreat-related tasks to do before, during, and after the retreat. If they view their tasks as reasonable, relevant, and contributory, your participants will rightfully feel that they are co-creating the retreat and you will get fuller involvement from them. Apply the basic principle of constructivism: People learn and grow based upon what they already know and care about. Make sure your retreat provides opportunities for participants to learn and apply new skills and knowledge based upon their interests and knowledge base.  3. Build upon current and past successes. A brief, bullet-point overview sent out prior to the retreat will help your participants prepare. A carefully crafted, brief Powerpoint presentation, elaborating on your overview, is often a good way to begin your retreat. Be sure to focus on current strengths rather than a litany of problems. Invite your participants to consider how those strengths might help to grow essential competencies in areas you and they identify as crucial opportunities for improvement. You might want to begin by having your participants consider four basic questions: What’s getting better? How do we know? What needs improvement? How do we know?  Another useful Quality tool is my Plus/Delta/M Exercise, in which participants work in teams to identify the organization’s greatest strengths (Pluses), their opportunities for possible improvement (Deltas—the international symbol for change and improvement), and what is currently missing (M) from the mix or not yet on your radar screen. Note that the word “weakness” is never used in my exercise. It’s best to substitute negative words with positives whenever possible. Positive words and ideas have greater power because, rather than pointing to past mistakes and causes for blame, they point the way toward future possibilities and opportunities for growth. 	 4.  Make sure the right people are invited and focus on results.  As Jim Collins suggests in his useful book Good To Great, the first step is to “get the right people on the bus, in the right seats.” Are all key stakeholder groups represented? Are key opinion leaders present, or at least represented? Inadvertently omitting key players from your invitation list can result in hard feelings that will endure long after the retreat. Unnecessary exclusion creates unnecessary adversaries.  5. Choose a conducive environment.  Everyone likes to get away for a while, so off-site locations are often best. Choose a site far enough away from the office so it would be difficult or impossible for participants to run away to an “urgent” last-minute meeting or crisis. Select an attractive place that reflects the nature and purpose of your retreat. For example, if your aim is to improve the quality of your systems and protocols so that everyone is able to succeed (including all of your key stakeholders) then choose an environment that models what you want your people to learn. For off-site retreats, I often take my clients to a Ritz-Carlton hotel, the recipient of two Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards. Benchmarking best practices at the Ritz, as you conduct the business of your retreat, can energize your own Continuous Quality Improvement journey in a very special way. The Ritz-Carlton has systems and protocols in place that result in consistently high performance and customer satisfaction levels, ensuring success for their own employees as well as for their clients and providers. Many Ritz-Carlton practices can easily be adapted to your use for little or no cost.  6.  Establish a cell-free zone.  Ideally, all cell phones and beepers should be banned from your meeting rooms. If this is absolutely impossible, ask everyone to turn them off at the start of every session. Consider asking your participants — by consensus — to establish a protocol for violations (a five-dollar contribution to a local charity whenever a cell phone rings, for example.) Cell phones and beepers have a way of creating false urgencies. Even the anticipation of their ringing (or vibrating) can be a distraction from the work at hand. 		 7.  Focus on policies and processes, not personalities.  A fundamental ground rule: Make sure everyone avoids the temptation to make issues personal. Most problems are directly related to the way an organization’s systems and protocols are set up. The “blame game” is seductive but always counter-productive in the long run. Every person, without exception, wants to be known for competence. People resent working in environments that unfairly limit their potential. Use your retreat to create systems and protocols that will optimize the greatest potential of all your people. Rather than fixing blame, put your team’s energies into fixing your systems and protocols instead.    8. Make relevant data the basis of your work. Put your Quality an Improvement processes on solid ground by focusing on the collection, analysis, and application of relevant data. A colleague of ours is fond of saying, “Without data, you’re probably just another person with an opinion.” Accurate and relevant data will either prove a point or open it up for debate. People at all levels of your organization must feel free to challenge unsupported assumptions. In high-performing organizations, an often-heard comment is “That’s an interesting perspective. Can we back it up with data?”  Along with effect data (the results, or “bottom line”) be sure to collect and analyze causal data -- information about the possible reasons why you are getting the results you are getting. Is everyone achieving his or her fullest potential?  Why are some performing below their capabilities? Do instructional styles match learning styles? Are they fully engaged in ways that are personally meaningful to them? These are just a few of the “causal” data sets too often missing in our deliberations.    9. Provide objective facilitation.  To avoid unnecessary conflict and to keep everyone on track, your retreat facilitator should be someone who is objective and perceived by all as impartial. For this reason, most successful retreats are not conducted by executives or board presidents, or even by internal staff developers, but rather by an experienced, respected outside facilitator who is a specialist in guiding participants through the often-tricky terrain of inter-personal relationships and personal agendas. Also, an outside facilitator can afford to say things that insiders may not be able to say, leading to more positive, lasting results.  10. Food, fun and fellowship. Your retreat should provide good nutrition, especially in the morning. “Feed them, and they will come!” is an oft-heard truth from retreat planners. The usual fare of donuts, bagels, and coffee, extremely high in sugars and caffeine, often results in caffeine crashes and sugar slumps by mid-morning and a “dead zone” after lunch, when many people struggle just to stay awake. Instead, consider providing a protein-rich breakfast (egg and cheese croissant, for example) before the first session of the morning, and have protein snacks (cheese sticks, mixed nuts, shelled sunflower seeds) at their tables to munch on throughout the day. You’ll be amazed at the improved energy and mood levels of even your most unenergetic and somber participants! Also, be sure to build in time for everyone to network and enjoy each other’s company away from the business at hand. Take your people away for a sports outing, a cookout, or a concert, so they can get to know each other on a personal level in a relaxed setting. Bonding opportunities such as these offer one of the most valuable, long-lasting benefits of taking your group on a retreat.  Plan your next retreat with these ten tips in mind, and you may be amazed at your positive results!   John Jay Bonstingl is president of Bonstingl Leadership Development and author of the best-selling book Schools of Quality (Corwin Press, 2001). He is a frequent keynote speaker and facilitator for organizational retreats focused on improving relationships for higher performance.   Copyright © 2006, John Jay Bonstingl & Bonstingl Leadership Development. All U.S. and world-wide rights reserved. Contact: Info@Bonstingl.com.


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