I put on my first staff retreat last Monday. Well, first staff retreat in the new job. This one was a little bit different and, I’ll venture out on a limb here, a little bit better than any other retreat I’ve been to.
A while back I was chatting with Matt Homann on the phone (because he loves talking to people) and after a while we realized that I was in the early stages of planning a staff retreat and he was in the early stages of building a company that did exactly that kind of stuff. Cool cosmic coincidence. Matt said he’d come up and facilliatate our retreat, but I was a little hesitant. He was talking about some funky retreat concept called Open Space, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to gamble on an unknown format and facillitator. After poking around a bit and getting a better sense of the format, I went for it and invited Matt to work with us.
For our retreat I invited the leadership team from my department, all the folks that report directly to me and all the folks that do support work for them. I also invited the top folks from the various departments that my department serves or interfaces with. I sent out two emails: one inviting everyone and the other reminding everyone. After the first email I received some questions about how the retreat was structured. Folks were justifiably concerned about the lack of agenda. People want to know how their time is going to be spent in order to determine whether it’s a worthwhile use. I can appreciate that. I tried to communicate the process as best I could, but I’m sure I fell a little bit short. In essence I said that I wanted my folks to connect with each other, I wanted folks from other departments to have a chance to know us a little better and I wanted to leave with some strategic and tactical agendas for the next 1-3 years.
I picked up Matt at the airport, along with one of my direct reports from a far-flung office. As we drove to the conference/hotel location, we spent about an hour debriefing on what the next day would look like. At Matt’s suggestion I had acquired several easels, easel pads (the Post-It kind), some 5.5"x8.5" Post-It notes and a bunch of colored Sharpie markers. The plan was to put provocative questions on a bunch of the large Post-Its and stick those around the many rooms–we probably ended up with two dozen of these notes. Retreat attendees would add smaller post-it notes with their responses throughout the day. The "guts" of the retreat consisted of getting all attendees to form a large circle of chairs. Matt would do some ramp up banter and then toss the "squishy" to someone. The squishy was just one of those gross gel-like baseball-sized toys. Whoever had the squishy was supposed to articulate a question or concern that was on their mind. After about four of those, the whole group broke into the four discussion groups and worked through those issues. Participants were free to move from group to group as they saw fit. Groups were free to disband when/if it was clear that there was nothing more to discuss. These groups tended to lose steam after about 55 minutes and people began to wander back into the big room. We repeated this excercise a few times. The end of the day was a little tougher, since I wanted to take away some discrete ToDo items. We kinda hemmed and hawed for a while, then I finally asked to seperate my folks from all the non-my-folks. I asked the "nons" to think about and come back with answers to how my folks could better serve them, based upon the things they’d heard and talked about that day. I asked my folks for what was on their mind–what were the most important things we should be working on. I got decent responses from both groups.