Sunday, March 6, 2011

Creating generative retreat space

When many of us hear the phrase "we need to schedule board a retreat," our immediate response ranges from "bleah" to "Nooooo..." Retreats' bad reputation is sometimes deserved, sometimes the result of misunderstandings about what is possible and productive. 

Too often, we set aside retreat time to do the impossible, e.g, "write a strategic plan." As a young consultant, I fielded too many of those requests and attempted too many times to cram too much activity into too few hours. Inevitably, unmet (unrealistic) expectations led to lingering frustration, the feeling that time had been wasted - and yet another example that retreats are never with the trouble.

There are valid reasons for boards to retreat, for example, to:
  • engage in team building and group development
  • facilitate deep discussion and exploration that feed processes like strategic planning
  • create opportunities to learn and reflect together
  • provide fuel and knowledge for action and governance
Recently, I had the chance to facilitate the annual retreat of a board that understands how to schedule time away from routine governance work. It's my favorite consulting assignment of the year, because it always ends up being a productive and energizing event for the board. (I leave a little revved up, too.)

The task to be accomplished in this event varies from year to year. For example, one session I led for them was a visioning process that helped board members decide to proceed with a significant financial and mission commitment. This year’s retreat, like others, focused on deeper learning to increase their capacity to govern the agency as effectively and wisely as possible. Board members immersed themselves in information about specific agency programs and the environmental impacts, local and national, on those programs.

Initially, the goals for this session felt ambitious, even for this board. But its track record of diving in and staying focused and engaged in these retreats suggested that this group would make very good use of our time. 

The rest of this post will discuss some of the factors that made this retreat a generative experience.

It's a regular part of their governance calendar. Board members expect to participate in this annual deep-learning retreat, and they commit to participation. Attendance has been at or near 100 percent at each of the annual retreats I've facilitated for them. That's particularly remarkable, since it takes place on a weekday morning.

The goals set were a realistic stretch for the time scheduled. Primary focus was on knowledge sharing and discussion. There were no "write a..." goals, and their focus was where boards should be focusing.

They focused on the big picture. The topics and resulting discussions centered on the organization's mission and their governance responsibilities. Board members didn't drown themselves in details and day-to-day tasks. They didn't try to turn it into one long board meeting. 

They had readings ahead of time - and actually read them. Board members were prepared when they arrived, ready to engage with fellow retreat participants. Some of what we asked them to read were written program updates from staff. That freed the time they would share with staff to discuss, not sit back passively listening to long presentations. The detail also was available for later reading and reference.

The agenda included appropriate staff involvement. Agency staff members aren't strangers. The board hears from staff regularly during the year; they are trusted resources when the board needs to understand agency programs and the challenges faced. Staff members were available at the retreat to spotlight the key points of what was shared in written form and to respond to board member questions.

Questions made the difference. One of the factors that sets this board apart - and ultimately led to a productive retreat - is its ability to ask well-timed, focused, appropriate questions. Members didn't allow long presentations to happen; they regularly inserted questions along the way. They asked multiple clarifying questions of staff and of each other. Board members asked questions that requested additional detail about the topics under discussion. Members also asked what-if types of questions, extending what they were learning to different scenarios that could occur within the organization.

Usually, I would have designed a more "active" agenda that asked them to step away from an exclusively discussion mode. We did have one such break, but this board's capacity to question virtually ensured that their time together would be active and headed toward fulfilling their stated goals for the session. We kept it simple, and they emerged with that they needed to accomplish. We created a generative, reflective board learning experience.

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