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How do you know when a retreat's successful?

I was finalizing a contract with a new client last summer when I asked, "How will you know this retreat was successful?"

Without hesitation, the executive said, "everyone will feel like it was a good use of their time."

There were other goals we explored like getting joint ownership around shared projects. Improving inter-departmental collaboration. Creating healthy communication practices. Cultivating their leadership skills. And developing a shared understanding of their priorities.

But everyone feeling like it was a good use of their time at the conclusion of the retreat was the primary metric of success. And while others might scoff at such a premise, there's validity to such a focus.

At the end of the day, all humans want to know we matter. We want to feel a sense of connection and belonging. And we want to feel like we are contributing in meaningful ways.

A retreat that's a good use of time builds buy-in and engagement because people know their contributions matter. Participants feel seen and heard. They're aware of the ways their ideas and perspective are making a difference. Because of this, there's a collective openness to new ideas and perspectives, which paves the way for positive lasting change to take place.

Fulfilling the tasks at hand - setting goals, completing team building exercises or learning new communication tools, might be accomplished without making a real difference. This happens when contributions are rote. People are just going through the motions mechanically to say they did the thing without being present or open to thinking in new ways.

For a retreat to be a good use of everyone's time, it has to address a deeper purpose that's been made explicit. A purpose people feel a commitment to fulfilling because it's important to them too.

In Priya Parker's book, The Art of Gathering, she says, “Before you gather, ask yourself: Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings?"

You can easily substitute meeting for gathering and hone in on the same line of inquiry - why are we doing this retreat?

If there isn't shared clarity around why everyone is coming together for a retreat there's a disconnect that leads to other problems. Such as people feeling like it's a waste of their time because nothing ever changed. Or conflicts and misunderstandings that go unresolved and fester.

What's more, having discussion around the purpose, leads to valuable conversations that surface deeper thoughts. People might not always agree with the original ideas stated. Exploring their concerns or needs helps shape the purpose so the retreat indeed is a good use of everyone's time.

When disagreements about the retreat purpose arise, I joyfully lean in. First, I appreciate that people care enough and feel safe enough to speak their minds. And second, I want to do my part to understand their perspective so I can meet them where they are at.

A few years back, I was facilitating a meeting to resolve a conflict between two partnering organizations. When one of the partners saw the draft retreat purpose they flipped out. "I can't fly my people there and have them all take time off work if that's our retreat purpose." He fired back at me.

Rather than argue or fight him, I sought to listen deeply and better understand his why. Afterwards we were able to develop a meeting purpose that both parties agreed to. And the meeting was successful beyond what they thought was possible.

It also helps to acknowledge there's not one right or wrong answer for a retreat purpose. There's a purpose that best resonates for the team being served. If the retreat purpose isn't one they want to get behind, it needs to be adapted and not devolve into an argument.

As a facilitator, when I model curiosity and openness, participants will do the same. So if there's disagreement and I lean in, others will follow suite. As a result, we are paving the way for healthy conflict to occur.

When there's healthy conflict, disagreements and misunderstandings are navigated in a way that leads to mutual understanding and repair. This enables people to work together more effectively throughout the challenges that will inevitably be present when humans are interacting with each other.

I believe a retreat is successful when unspoken things are surfaced constructively so new solutions can be ideated and acted upon. Getting conversations to go deeper in meaningful ways is gratifying because it's where real change starts. Otherwise we're just maintaining the status quo and what's the point in bringing people together for a retreat if we're not initiating and supporting collective growth?

Truly, what makes a retreat successful is in the eyes of the beholder.

When asked what would make their retreat successful, my clients tend to offer answers inline with the one I shared above. They don't say the exact same thing, yet the underlying hope is that it will be valuable for the individual and the collective alike.

That could be the result of the types of leaders I tend to work with. Leaders who value and care about their people. Leaders who want everyone on their team to feel supported and empowered to bring their best self to work. Leaders who recognize that their organization's success is predicated on the contributions of the people that work with them. And leaders who want to foster a collaborative work environment where the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

For leaders with different priorities, they probably have another definition of a successful retreat.

Experience has taught me that the retreat success criteria of the leaders I work with results in positive outcomes like process improvements that save money and enhance morale, award winning innovations brought to market and securing multi-million dollar contracts.

So maybe defining success as everyone thinking it was a good use of their time isn't so out there after all.

Are you ready for your team to take flight and soar collaboratively but don't know how to leverage your next retreat effectively? Schedule a FREE 30 minute call with me and we'll help you articulate a simple purpose that gets people excited.

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