The Antidote to Corporate Retreats

It's time to blow up the corporate retreat. Usually, too much time and money are wasted on the annual tradition with far too little to show for the effort. What's more, my own firm's recent survey of managers from companies with sales of $9 million to $1 billion suggests that if you hooked the troops up to a lie detector and asked them what they think of the corporate retreat, they'd put it just slightly ahead of thumb screws.

The problem lies not with the idea of an off-site meeting per se but rather with how most are conducted. Too many corporate retreats are intentionally bland affairs that skirt the important issues and are designed merely to reinforce the company line.

So I propose we replace the corporate retreat with the "corporate charge" -- an antidote to the platitude-laden sucking-up sessions that everyone ridicules behind the boss's back. Want to put together a retreat that really has an impact on your company? Here are some guidelines:
Get clear on what you want to accomplish. Unless you have a compelling reason to have a corporate retreat, save your time and money. Believe me, your team will be jubilant. Most folks today work hard, putting in far more than the customary weekly 40 hours. So asking them to leave their families for two or three days for a corporate powwow requires real sacrifice -- one you shouldn't ask them to make unless you have a good reason.

Convinced that folks need an overnight experience together every once in a while to "bond?" Don't kid yourself. Nothing builds team cohesion more than working for a good company with a good strategy and true accountability. If your company lacks these, knocking back a few beers or singing Kumbaya around the campfire isn't going to fix it.

Tackle the tough stuff. Too many corporate retreats supposedly aim for consensus but avoid conflict and controversy. If touchy subjects do come up, they're often shunted to a "parking lot" for discussion by a smaller group after the retreat. Meaningful consensus isn't built that way. On the contrary, real agreement is built when different points of view collide in constructive conflict. Consensus isn't so much built as it's hammered out.

Not sure how to make constructive conflict the center of your next confab? Thirty days before the retreat, ask participants to provide you with a confidential list of what they think are the most important and difficult questions facing the company. Encourage them to include items from subjects as diverse as target markets, products, customers, internal issues, competitors, etc. Focus your agenda on the things that your people cite most frequently.

Most important, plan the agenda -- but not the outcomes. Use the time together to genuinely look hard at the company's situation and stay open to the idea that the session might lead you in completely new directions.

Invite a crowd. In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki demonstrates that the more minds you involve in solving a problem, the better result you will get -- if the process is sound. Surowiecki says the keys are:

1) put together a group which has a true diversity of opinion

2) create an environment where people are willing to take a full swing at the issues (and not afraid to say what they really think)

3) make sure the information they bring comes from a lot of different areas (involve people from all functional areas, departments, and regions)

4) have a way of aggregating all of their input into a decision-making process.

I'm constantly amazed how many company retreats are held for the CEO and a handful of top managers -- people who already work closely together and share the same data pipe -- and often the same assumptions about the business. Your chances of accomplishing breakthrough thinking in this kind of setting are about as good as Jay Leno winning the Republican Presidential nomination.

Instead, try adding to this group a bunch of impatient middle managers, some of your most aggressive salespeople, a couple of board members, and your resident cynics. If you design the process correctly, you'll deliver outcomes in the "corporate charge" that far exceed any you have seen from corporate retreats.

Get outside help. If want to really get your folks thinking outside of the box, you're going to need the help of a skilled facilitator. He'll help you figure out what the key issues are to create a forum where everyone gets heard but also where ideas are discussed crisply and decisions are reached. Someone who's skilled at conducting such meetings can see that sensitive or controversial issues will be addressed without people becoming "locked in" to their own points of view or worrying about protecting their own turf.