Avoiding Unrealistic Retreat Enthusiasm: Two Suggestions

It’s harvest season, which also means retreat season – we at Training for Change get the most requests to facilitate organizational planning retreats between late summer and mid-fall.  It’s also when I see the most Unrealistic Retreat Enthusiasm.

And we know a thing or two about Unrealistic Retreat Enthusiasm at Training for Change, because even we professional retreat facilitators succumb at times. Back in 2008 TFC held a planning retreat, a year after having formally closed down as a staff-led organization. We gathered together the people with the most energy in our network for increasing our ability to train other trainers and resource social justice movements, and ended the weekend with a new (still all-volunteer) structure, new working groups, and a new six-month plan. I was pumped! We all were. And within three months, we had accomplished very little of it.

That probably happened for a number of reasons. The core people in TFC are hundreds of miles away from each other, which presented a challenge to sustaining our work. And the structure we developed was unwieldy given the energy that actually emerged – distinct from what we had predicted, which left our plan wanting. Our collective wish to make it work did not quite add up to the ability to step up our time commitments (each individually, and as a group) in a way that would allow us to achieve our new goals using our new structure, and we didn’t do enough checking-in about plan implementation in the months following the retreat.

(That gathering also yielded many other unseen positive outcomes unrelated to our plan, and by the time of a subsequent retreat in 2009 TFC had learned a lot from the previous year, and came up with the structure the organization uses to this day.)

Unrealistic Retreat Enthusiasm is that combination of optimism, ambition and genuine positive feeling between group members (also known as love) that results in an unrealistic plan. It happens when our eyes get bigger than our stomachs, when we bite off more than we can chew as organizations, and as individuals.

It often looks like hopeful, gleaming faces, recharged after a weekend together sharing meals and laughter, and having reflected on organizational triumphs. Let’s do WAY MORE! Soon! We’re going to do even bigger, amazing things! In other words, it looks a lot like any other successful planning retreat. BUT WITHOUT a clear sense of how new tasks will be accomplished.

In other words, it’s a new, more ambitious plan, without the answers to three crucial questions:

1. If this plan requires new energy, where will that come from?
(Are current people stepping up, new people being brought in, or are old projects being phased out?)
2. If current people are committing to step up their involvement, how will they each manage that?
3. If new people are needed to achieve new goals, how will that happen?

Besides answering these questions, there are two other suggestions I usually offer to help groups avoid biting off more than they can chew. My favorite of the two: Have a different kind of retreat!


Suggestion #1: Have a Retreat, But Not to Plan

Grieving/Processing Heavy Emotions. I think a lot of culturally white, middle class organizations in particular have difficulty setting aside time for deep check-ins and taking stock of difficult moments. Often we know something needs to be done, but given that grieving is something we’re only supposed to do when someone dies in US middle class culture, we get together to plan instead.

Resilience Training. We can all learn a thing or two from how firefighters prepare as a group – they anticipate likely stressors and challenges, and practice for how to handle them. You don’t need to be a first-responder to do that. Add planning for how to handle transitions (e.g. group members entering and leaving or scaling back/stepping up), and you’ve got a recipe for a more resilient organization.

Relationship-Building. Because we’re not often together in the same place, Training for Change trainers spend several hours on personal check-ins when we do meet up. For kicking off long-term leadership programs I’ve seen a lot of value of a full weekend spent solely on relationship-building activities and team challenges.

Team Self-Awareness. Have you ever wondered what other people on your team think about your habit of saving notes from all your meetings? Or taken time to consider what individual strengths helped make your big fundraiser last year a success? I find that groups often get through conflict faster and work more confidently when there’s a shared awareness of different layers and styles of leadership.

Interpersonal Feedback. This doesn’t have to be as “woo-woo” as it sounds. Ever spent a few hours writing notes to the people you work with, helping them notice their own gifts, or thanking them for small kindnesses?


Suggestion #2: Create a Post-Retreat Vigilance Plan

Have that planning retreat! And then check-in about the plan, and remind yourselves of what you decided back when you gave yourselves a lot of time away from the week-to-week hustle.

Frequent Check-Ins. At least once or twice a month, ask the question, “Thinking back to the retreat, what was our intention for this moment? How is that going for us?”

Keep the Retreat Planning Committee Going! I recommend the committee continue to meet (“Retreat Planning & Plan Implementation Committee”) for at least three months following the retreat.

Use Auto-Reminders. One organization I know uses email auto-reminders to remind everyone of what they had said they wanted to accomplish by x-time period. Not every group has a person who’s good at keeping track of that stuff.

Schedule a Follow-Up Mini-Retreat. I always feel self-conscious when making this recommendation to retreat clients: “I encourage you to hire me again, and soon!” Whether or not you use an outside facilitator, checking-in on decisions from the retreat makes a lot of sense. Sometimes retreats set in motion big changes: the director of one organization I worked with decided it was time for her to move on a few weeks after the retreat.

5 comments on “Avoiding Unrealistic Retreat Enthusiasm: Two Suggestions

  1. Many thanks for this article Andrew! I will be revisiting it when planning retreats.
    You capture that ‘eyes bigger than our tummies’ experience that can happen when a group gets caught up in the excitement of all being together, thinking really big picture. That’s a great feeling (everything is possible! we’re amazing!) but your questions help ground that so hopefully there’s not too much Post Retreat Deflation And Anticlimax. I would also encourage some time factored in to the program for individuals to look at how the exciting new plans fit into their lives, what they would need to do differently (less of) to make it viable, and then check back in as a group. Building some checks about the personal sustainability of work goals can save a lot of grief down the track.

  2. Years ago I participated in forming a long-term plan for a cooperative warehouse. A person with ties to the food justice movement (as it then existed) facilitated for us. We came out with this magnificent document, complete with time-line and goals. A year later, we regathered, with the same facilitator. Practically nothing in the plan had gone the way (and especially not at the pace!) we anticipated. We were disappointed as we looked at our lack of progress. The facilitator nodded his head and said wisely, “Most groups are too ambitious the first time they do a strategic plan.”

    I felt cheated. He’d known all along, as we wrote this plan with his facilitation, that we couldn’t possibly live up to it! I vowed then and there never to hold back this critical piece of information from any organization I facilitated for in the future: planning retreats generally result in grandiose plans.

    One thing I often do, as facilitator in this situation, is remind people that they already are doing a bunch of stuff. How do their current activities support new directions? If new directions and goals are adopted, what existing functions could get slighted? Does adding to programs or campaigns require new resources, and if so, how long is it likely to take to get those resources lined up? Do you really need to do more, or could you improve what you’re already doing first?

    And thanks, Andrew, for pointing out that other aspects of an organization’s life are as important as planning! I love the idea of a retreat for relationship-building, and processing transition times for an organization, so that planning can proceed in a way that’s more grounded in an organization’s day-to-day reality.

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