Whole day Retreats Q&A

Many institutions get their retreats wrong; this short Q&A should help clarify what works and what does not.


Q: How long should a retreat be?
A: My experience tells me that anything less than one whole day is ineffective and will not produce a “complete” outcome.


Q: A whole day!!!??
A: Yes, eight and a half hours, including half an hour for lunch (or seven and a half with an hour lunch).


Q: So something like 9:00am to 5:30pm?
A: Yes. One more thing, I had a retreat where people understood 9:00 am as the time when they need to get there, not when the retreat starts. We ended up starting 25 minutes late. Of course, that was during a weekend. Still, I think the invitation should say “plan to be there at least 10 minutes before start, we start promptly at 9:00 am (or whatever the actual start time is). Note, that this might be not so much of an issue when the retreat is on-site.


Q: Doesn’t it get chaotic with a large group? How can you control so many people?
A: Things do not usually get chaotic because structure drives behavior. The structure that the facilitator designs for the retreat guides behavior towards a certain direction. For example, the facilitator can intervene with large groups based on ground rules if someone gets disruptive, or talks too much; the facilitator can ask them to follow the ground rule that says, “be respectful” or “all voices are valid.” Additionally, the format of the meeting dictates some of the structure. For instance, in a World Café, people are moving from table to table every few minutes and interacting with different people.


The other thing is, that you are never really fully in control. The only person you can control is yourself. You are only partially in control through the structure and the design that you provide. Whatever caused you to have a retreat, it must have been important, and you did not have the answers for it. Because you do not already have the answers, you have to let the answer bubble up. This state of unknowing might be uncomfortable. However, it is essential to the success of the retreat.


Q: What if things do not go according to plan?
A: The facilitator works very hard on the design of the retreat. At the same time, he/she is always ready for designing in the moment. A good facilitator has a large number of designs and interventions that they can use in case things do not work out. Moreover, they can check with the group about potential next steps, work with the sponsor, and the planning to plan to team (P2P) on quick changes to the design during a break.


Q: What if a specific activity does not work, do you abandon it or stick with it?
A: It depends on how fundamental it is to the design. For example, abandoning a SWOT analysis in a strategic planning retreat is probably not an option. The goals for the organization have to take the SWOT into consideration and cannot be pulled out of thin air. On the other hand, a visualizing or timeline activity might be less essential and can be abandoned.


Q: What is your recommendation for multi-day retreats?
A: As I mentioned earlier, one day is a minimum. Personally, I prefer longer retreats as people have time to think about and talk over issues overnight. They might get significant ideas for the next day when they are more relaxed, or well-rested. Of course, this is impossible with a one-day retreat. I personally think that a good chunk of change efforts fail because not enough time is allotted for retreats. Especially when there are fundamental issues on the line.


© 2015 Mohammed Raei