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Retreat Facilitator

Dear Dave
I am the owner of a 25-person consulting engineering and surveying firm. I’m early in the process of planning our first-ever strategic planning retreat to be held a couple of months from now. Since I have no previous experience with such an event, I am strongly considering hiring a facilitator for the retreat. I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on retreats in general, and on how to go about finding a facilitator and what to look for in any person I select.

Dear EM
Facilitators are fundamentally organizers and communicators, with particular expertise in group dynamics. Their primary job is to create an environment of forthright, two-way communication by all members of the group. An accomplished facilitator has the touch and tact to know when and how to pursue a question or an issue and, just as important, when not to push and back off. All facilitators should have the basic skills to organize, handle details and bring issues and events to closure.

The ideal method for finding a facilitator is by referral. Hopefully, you or someone else at your firm may know of other firms who have had previous experience using facilitators and can get in touch with those firms for a recommendation. If that does not pan out, contact your local chamber of commerce or other community business group to see if they can provide a few names. Also, the executive staff of state and national engineering and surveying societies to which you may belong may know of someone to point you to. Finally, management consulting firms typically offer planning and retreat facilitation as part of their standard package of services.

Should your facilitator have specialized knowledge of the engineering and survey profession? There are two schools of thought on this. Each firm needs to weigh the pros and cons of this important question and make a determination for themselves.

Because of the facilitator’s role, this individual is automatically in a position to bias the process either intentionally or unintentionally. The fundamental task of the facilitator is to manage the structure of the retreat and not the content. The content is the role of the participants. If the facilitator is heavy-handed in applying his or her expertise and views to issues of content, there is a real risk that retreat participants may be intimidated and limit or withhold input altogether.

On the other hand, a skilled facilitator, with industry expertise, is in a position to “keep it real” by asking subtle questions and raising issues designed to allow the group to discover for itself that it may have wondered off into outer space and help guide it back on course without being overbearing and damaging the process. A facilitator without specific industry professional knowledge is not in a position to do this.

Even though you are still a couple of months away from your retreat, I urge you to find your facilitator and bring him or her into the planning process as soon as possible. In the interest of creating an atmosphere of trust and open communication, it is important for you and your facilitator to have the opportunity to meet and get to know one and other in advance. For the same reason, if at all possible, the facilitator should meet and get to know all other participants prior to the retreat.

The ultimate success or failure of your retreat will be largely determined by the quality of the pre-planning leading up to your event. Have your facilitator help you develop an appropriate scope and define a set of goals and expectations for your retreat. If you think you’re going to go away for a couple of days and return with a “cure for cancer” at the end of the weekend, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Based on what you wish to address, perhaps it will be important to collect data or conduct some kind of research prior to the retreat. You and your facilitator may even elect to make a few pre-retreat “homework” assignments designed to get meeting participants up and running in advance of the event.

As for the retreat itself, set an agenda and block out a timetable for how you will use your time. Your facilitator is responsible to see that the group stays on track and sticks to schedule. For a first-time event, one to two days’ duration will be plenty. Grueling, fifteen-hour marathon sessions are seldom productive. Schedule a break or other distraction every couple of hours. If you’re inviting spouses along, be sure to plan some interesting diversions for them while your staff is in retreat session as well as a few joint activities for the entire group.

Work hard to minimize all disruptions and distractions during the retreat. Collect all cell phones and pagers and give them back only at pre-arranged break times. Make sure the facility you will be using is comfortably arranged and will be stocked with flip charts, pens and other tools you may need. See to it that all sleeping room, snack and meal arrangements are made in advance.

Think of your retreat as a living, on-going process. You will no doubt leave your retreat with a list of follow-on initiatives to be pursued. Be sure it is clear exactly who (a person or group) is responsible for each item. Make sure sufficient authority and appropriate resources are assigned to each initiative and establish an expected date for completion. Breakdown complicated or long-term initiatives into a series of steps and milestones so incremental progress can be measured. Review all open initiatives on a regular basis to ensure progress is being made and make adjustments as necessary.

There is an old adage that those who fail to plan, should plan to fail. Properly organized and well-run retreats can breathe new life into an organization, provide needed focus and work to align your firm’s energy and talents. Getting the right facilitator to assist will insure an excellent return for your investment.

Wahby and Associates