How to throw an awesome work retreat

We took our leadership team to Asilomar State Beach and Conference Center for a 2 night retreat recently. Our overarching goal was to develop a shared understand of how we define ourselves as an organization; especially in the context of the changing landscape of higher education. The retreat was quite simply awesome. We have already gotten tons of feedback (solicited and unsolicited) indicating that the retreat was inspiring, fun, and “the best retreat ever!”. My own impression is that it was all of that … and productive to boot!

So how did we pull it off? What are the key ingredients? I suspect that the 2 most important ingredients are a good location and awesome staff. I’m convinced that a location that incorporates natural beauty in a casual setting is most effective. I just think we are more creative, more open-minded, and more collegial when we’re wearing jeans and walking on the beach together (or watching the Giants win 2 games on their way to a World Series championship in the small coffee shop that is home to the only TV). And I simply can’t say enough good things about our staff — we have really smart people who care deeply about the future of libraries and of higher education. To a person, they were fully engaged in this retreat — taking the exercises seriously, and making a point of connecting with colleagues they don’t usually interact with.

Looking at our agenda and how we organized things, a few things stand out:

  1. For the formal parts of the retreat, we had people sitting at tables of 7-8. We were very careful in setting up the table groups to make sure that the groups represented a good mix of units, but also that no one was at a table with their boss.
  2. We limited the amount of time spent passively listening to presentations and maximized active participation and discussion.
  3. The group activities that we used were fun, were open-ended, and were meaningful and realistic (at least for us).
  4. Even the first night ice-breaker question (“What is your best Halloween memory?”) worked well, as we all learned about a colleague’s clown pajama costume and another colleague’s “underwear on the outside” party.

My favorite group activities were:

  1. “The library just received a $5 million increase in our budget. What would you do with the new funding? Put together a proposal.”
  2. “Come up with a marketing and outreach campaign for the library, complete with slogans,logos, etc.”

Both these exercises capitalized on the amazing creativity of our staff, and helped us clarify our vision as an organization.

Notes from brainstorming

Brainstorming at Table X

Our challenge now is to keep the excitement, the relationships, and the ideas that were generated at the retreat alive and to spread them to the rest of the organization.

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