Planning and facilitating a two-day retreat

The Challenge

A well-established, respected nonprofit organization was facing a number of challenges. First, it had grown rapidly—doubling in size in just a few years and becoming very visible. Second, it was staffed with highly motivated, autonomous professionals working on their own projects, which resulted in an organization that was somewhat balkanized. Third, the senior staff did not agree on how to articulate the organization’s mission. Each person described what the organization did in a different way, depending on his or her individual projects. Fourth, the founder was a powerful, visionary person who believed it was time to relinquish some of his authority. Finally, there were a number of management and infrastructure issues that senior management wanted to address, such as revamping fundraising, redesigning the Web site, and developing an organizational tool to ensure that deadlines were met.

The three senior managers decided to convene a two-day meeting of the 20+ senior staffers to discuss the issues outlined above, to review what the organization had accomplished, and to come to some agreement on where it wanted to go in the future. The senior managers hired me to help them design and facilitate this meeting.

My first challenge was to help the senior managers develop an achievable agenda that would meet their needs. This meant helping them focus on those topics that were most important to them, and postponing others.

Second, I needed to design a meeting that would give everyone the opportunity to provide input, without letting any one person or topic dominate the conversation. Most of the senior staff were big-picture thinkers, which meant that one question usually generated two or three more; and they were very verbal, which meant many people had many things to say. They preferred not to break into small groups, so, for a number of significant issues, I went around the room and asked each person for input, essentially interviewing him or her in front of the others. This ensured that everyone got a chance to speak without being interrupted.

The third factor in the design of the retreat was that the senior staff were very sophisticated professionals, so I needed to earn their trust and confidence rapidly and design a program that helped them work together without feeling too “touchy-feely.” We opted to keep the program very task oriented, including a working lunch. As with any facilitation, I studied the organization ahead of time and became familiar with its mission, vision, work, and industry, so that no one had to backtrack for my benefit.

The Result

The group covered the majority of the topics fully. In addition, during the course of the two days, it became clear that the organization was skilled in generating ideas, but frequently bogged down in implementation, to the extreme frustration of many of the staff members. To address this, I adjusted the agenda so that the group spent the last half of the second day fleshing out the tasks that needed to be done to accomplish some of the decisions they had reached, and assigning individuals and deadlines to each task. This was very satisfying to much of the staff.