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.

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