The Departmental Retreat: 5 Ideas

It's retreat season once again. Does your department, team, division, or group have any plans for an offsite retreat? Where are you going? Can you offer any advice about retreat best practices.

June 18, 2012

It's retreat season once again. Does your department, team, division, or group have any plans for an offsite retreat? Where are you going? Can you offer any advice about retreat best practices.

I just came back from a particularly wonderful retreat with my colleagues at my institution's Center for the Advancement of Learning. This is a campus organization in which I am not a staff member, but rather serve on the executive team.  

Perhaps retreats with colleagues with whom you have a close professional alignment and shared orientation, but that you do not work with on a daily basis, are particularly productive and enjoyable.  This may be  because the conversations are fresh, and the participants in the retreat hail from different areas of the institution. Bringing together educators, both faculty and staff, from across the institution for an offsite discussion around strategic goals may be one useful model to build on.   

A good retreat, either within your own working group or with people drawn from various areas with the organization, probably contains some essential elements.  

I'd like to suggest a few best retreat practices (and please add your own):

1. Go Offsite: It is very tempting in our age of tight budgets and tighter time to save on both by having retreats on campus. An effective retreat requires the participants to set aside (for a time) the demands and tasks that we spend our days juggling.   An offsite location, even one close to campus (say at a one of the participants homes, or a park), allows everyone to mentally shift gears away from to-do lists, e-mails, operations and projects. Retreats should not be about what is going on that day, or the next week or the next month, but where the unit / department / group is going in the next year. Strategic long-term thinking is aided by a different setting, ideally one that is peaceful and distraction free.

2. Recruit A Facilitator:  A trained and experienced facilitator is critical. Leadership should work with the facilitator to plan the event, build the agenda, and share as much as possible about the operations, values, goals and challenges of the group.  Once the facilitator has all the information that she or he needs then the departmental leaders should assume a roll similar to all the participants. A good facilitator will guide the conversation and ensure that everyone has an equal voice (or at least that nobody feels they are unable to fully participate). The skill of the facilitator makes all the difference in the world for how productive the discussion will be, and the extent that the ideas are captured in a format that is usable and actionable after the retreat is over. Facilitators can be university insiders or outsiders, although if you can find an experienced and trained facilitator that is part of the institution (but does not work on a daily basis with your unit) then scheduling around this persons calendar is usually worth the logistical effort. The reason for this is that the right facilitator, who also work at your institution, will bring more to the discussion than moderation and conversation leading.  Rather, she or he can help direct and focus the group around the strategic issues that align with larger goals of the institution, and can bring in outside information and perspectives that are not apparent to the members of the group.

3. Respect Participant's Time: This means that a) the retreat should be short, b) the offsite location close, and c) breaks should be built in for "checking in".  I recommend a 9:00 am to 3:00 pm timetable, which will give time for everyone to take care of family business and still participate in the entire discussion. A good idea is to set the ground rules ahead of time about technology, for-instance have the group agree that during discussions nobody will be checking e-mail or other communications screens. The breaks should be long enough to take care of any emergent business or critical e-mails, and the discussion times short and intense enough that everyone feels the R.O.T. (return-on-time) is at a high level.   

4. Follow-Through: A retreat should really be the beginning, not the end, of the strategic discussions. Leadership should have clear takeaways from the retreat, and should prioritize following through (and communicating back) the key action items from the discussion. Carving out the time and space to follow-up with the facilitator after the retreat, and then to come up with a plan for actions to be taken after the retreat, should be considered part of the retreat planning process.

5. Continuity:  It is important that the retreat feel like a part of the work of the group or department, and not an island that is only visited yearly. Ideas and action items from the retreat should be discussed, measured, and evaluated throughout the year. Part of the agenda for the retreat should be to review the main goals and ideas from the previous year's offsite, and thought should be given about the best way to ensure some level of continuity when the 2013 retreat rolls around.

Do you have any stories of wonderful (or awful) retreats that you have participated in?  


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