When my client said he wanted to work on the issue of balance in his department, my mind flooded with ideas of how we could have the team experience and explore the topic during the retreat. Literally balancing on stilts. Figuratively balancing conflicting ideas in their minds. Catering that focuses on a balance of macronutrients. Imagery, metaphors, postures, individual and group exercises. This is how my mind works when I am designing a custom retreat for an organizational team.

What does an organizational development consultant do when they are designing a retreat for your organization?

If they are like me, they first find out your key purpose. It is up to the leader or leadership team that has hired me to determine what their goals are in hosting a retreat. What do you want to be different at the end of the retreat? Are there any areas in which you feel stuck? Retreats are a good way to finally get to a persistent issue or unexplored opportunity.

Once I know the overall purpose, I can begin designing the agenda with activities that will allow the group to accomplish their goals. Each activity in a retreat should have a purpose. Even a “get to know each other” icebreaker should be selected thoughtfully to align with the objectives of your retreat and then be designed and facilitated in a way that aligns with your values and where staff are mentally on the day of the event.

One trend in facilitation is to do activities that encourage staff to be personally vulnerable with the intent of increasing trust by putting everyone in a more open and vulnerable state. However, not all groups have the existing trust and support to benefit from such an activity. I have seen this backfire. I always bring my design back to the questions, “What is the purpose?” and “What can I do as an experienced facilitator to ensure that purpose is achieved?”

Some exercises will play out differently in some cultures or in a group that is all female versus all male or mixed. The makeup of the group is important to know which exercises make the most sense and what type of explanation and guidance may be needed in order to ensure the exercise meets its intended objectives. For many activities, the activity itself can be used to explore different themes. An experienced facilitator can ensure that the activity is introduced, led, and debriefed in such a way that it moves the purpose forward for the group. For example, I sometimes use a toolkit with different shaped blocks. These blocks can be used to explore collaborative communication or they can be used to examine how work is structured on a team to be most efficient.

Individuals are most likely to participate in an activity when they can see the relevance for them. Every activity should allow plenty of time for debrief. For each part of an agenda I prepare, I think ahead about the intended outcome, the logistics, and the time allotted. I always build in contingency plans for what to cut or what to add if the group takes more or less time. It always comes back to the purpose. If an activity is helping the group reach new breakthroughs on the exact issue they have been struggling with, I am not going to cut them off because I had a really fun idea for a different activity. Instead, I will read the room and adjust the agenda as necessary to follow the energy and needs of the group. Group facilitation is part planning and part improvisation.

If your group is thinking about hosting a retreat, do these three things before you contact a consultant or facilitator:

  1. Discuss and decide on one key purpose of the retreat.
    1. Helpful questions to get to the purpose are: What do we want to be different after the retreat? What conversation do we avoid having, which could make a big difference for our team? Are there any areas where we feel stuck?
  2. Discuss when the best time would be to host the retreat. A few considerations:
    1. Best when you have key roles occupied. So if your team’s leader has just announced retirement, you may want to plan ahead to host the retreat soon after the new leader has been hired.
    2. Retreats do cost money, so you need to have a budget set aside. Retreats I design cost between $3,000-$12,000 depending on the size of the group, number of days, location, and the complexity of the event. That does not include the cost for the location and catering. For groups who need to pay for team members to come in from other areas the cost can really add up.
    3. Custom retreats take at least a couple of months to plan. It is best to contact a facilitator at least three months before you are hoping to host your retreat. I work with teams between three and twelve months before their event. My busiest months are April, September, October, and November, so events in those months will usually require advanced booking.
  3. Discuss what type of facilitation and/or other professional support you might need.
    1. For a custom retreat for a group of 10 people or more it is really important to hire an experienced facilitator. This allows you to have your full team participate in the event and allows for a professional in organizational development to design activities that will meet your objectives. Ask facilitators for examples of past clients they have worked with and/or references before you select one for your event. Facilitators with a background in organizational development are usually trained to identify and assist with issues such as change management, leadership transitions, group dynamics, organizational structure, and employee engagement.
    2. If you do not have anyone on your team who has the time or resources to arrange for the meeting logistics, or if you have a very large team, you may also want to hire a meeting planner. Most facilitators can recommend meeting planners and may even be able to handle the coordination with a meeting planner under their contract.

For other services like graphic recording, videography, inspirational or content speakers, or other specialized professionals, a facilitator or meeting planner will usually handle hiring these services as subcontractors at your request or as part of their design.

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