Environmental Scanning,
Creative Commons License photo credit: Tatiana12

The Fall/Winter 2008 issue of Oregon Humanities arrived in the mail with a series of articles about civil discourse, one featuring comments by David Gutterman, a political science professor at Willamette University (and surprisingly a teacher for our eldest daughter.) Gutterman said (among many other insightful comments) “We’re unnecessarily tuned to be defensive about our ideas. That prevents us from engaging with people unless we’re sure we agree.”

Sounds like the way some parents handle their teenagers: Seeking agreement instead of engagement!

Now how does this apply to the concept of Board retreats? And why do we call them “Board retreats” in the first place?

We don’t need to “retreat” right now. We need to – as the Victorians used to say – re-trench. Maybe they should be called “renewals” or, perhaps, “revivals”! In any case, Board and staff need to track on the same facts and need to know and believe the same story. There’s not enough time and energy to do it any other way these days.

New challenges require new answers. And new answers won’t come from the same-old, same-old full day Board retreat with post-it dots and sticky notes, visioning discussions and strategic planning approaches. To find new answers, to open ourselves to unexpected sources of wisdom, to host real dialogue we need to start with essential questions, good data and level the playing field so we bring the best of everybody to the table.

If there isn’t a critical issue that needs discussing nor a decision that needs making, a retreat can feel like a “retreat” instead of a “revival”. Don’t even bother with the effort!

A Board retreat should provide both staff and Board leadership the opportunity to fully engage with the most important issues (or challenges) confronting the organization. But that engagement only occurs if the meeting starts with an understanding of what issue/challenges will be the heart of the retreat agenda.

Who identifies the critical issue/challenges that need retreat discussion? The best person is the one who knows every complexity the organization faces. The one with the desk where the bucks stop. Sometimes that’s the Executive Director, sometimes a CFO, sometimes a Board President. (The best person is seldom your consultant or retreat facilitator.) Retreat planning begins when a small group of staff and/or Board reaches agreement on a very short list of critical issues/challenges – a discussion that often needs a very good facilitator to achieve most effective results.

This is your pre-planning team:  those who understand the true state-of-the-organization.

Next, a planning team of Board and staff meets to outline 3-5 retreat outcomes – specific and measurable – and gains agreement from attendees that the outcomes will be well worth the time being invested. (This includes pre-loading the meeting with participation of both Board and staff leadership.) During the planning sessions, this “process-planning” team focuses on answering specific questions. In what order will we discuss the most important issues or opportunities? How much do we already know? Do we need to make decisions together in the room or are we considering perspectives and developing wisdom together? If we’re exploring, who gets to synthesize, analyze and decide? And who will have the final authority to review, approve and scenario-test decisions that flow from the retreat discussions?

Here are my “Six Suggestions to Stimulate Value” at a retreat:

  1. Focus on a very limited palette of issues or opportunities. One single essential strategic question is actually best. (i.e. Which of our programs is the least and most effective in pursuit of our mission and what should we do about it?)
  2. Input in leads to input out. A substantive discussion must start from clear and unbiased data and information, displayed in narrative, charts and graphs that are presented, explained, discussed, poked at, questioned and understood. Until the facts are laid on the table, no one should be allowed to expound on their interpretation until this bare-boned analysis is complete. Think about what we all learned listening to the Presidential debates this year. Issues are complex. Discourse becomes sound-bites if the facts aren’t clear.
  3. Pre-retreat research (opinion research from stakeholders, comparative research gathered from similar organizations or from the web, or even surveys and phone interviews collecting feedback from those who will attend the retreat) can open up new avenues… especially on controversial or tricky issues.
  4. Everybody in the room is reminded (before the retreat and at the beginning of the agenda) that their individual and unique perspective is critical to the results of the discussion. It’s essential that this “diversity  is our strength” philosophy is embedded in the retreat design and facilitation. Its the reason to meet!
  5. Head and heart (or right brain and left brain, whichever model you prefer) must be equally – and separately – valued.
  6. No conversation should go for more than 90 minutes without some break.

Peter Senge, who imagined the concepts of the learning organization, tells us that there are three forms of leadership that are needed for an organization to be a success in rapidly changing times: Vision leadership (usually in no short supply). Process leadership (management training has provided us all many models of this.) and Learning leadership (where we make sure that a group is learning together and growing together by analyzing and interpreting the experiences of the past and integrating new lessons before determining the future).

More to learn – more to come.

Or as my father-in-law would say, “For every complex problem there is a simple answer, and its invariably wrong.” The key is to engage, directly, with complexity and come up with a plan that optimizes your engagement.

What are your thoughts? How have you created value in your Board retreats? Please leave a comment or questions in the box below.