November 9, 2023
How teams gather is becoming ever more important due to the growth of remote work and the increasing number of project-based teams. Additionally, both remote and in-house teams across the board are embracing agile working methods and a collaborative working culture, which equip them to work better in complex environments. In this rapidly changing landscape, team retreats are key for accelerating collective success through better collaboration and alignment.
Each year we design and facilitate a number of retreats for our clients, be it team retreats or full-company get-aways. These gatherings are a considerable investment of time, money and effort, and there are high expectations to make them meaningful and impactful.
When designed well, retreats provide:
We believe that retreats must be intentional, and so the design of the entire retreat revolves around a few specific and ambitious goals set by the team. We don’t think that going on a retreat for “team building” is ambitious or specific enough. We often co-create an overarching invitation with a question that brings out curiosity, excitement and willingness to be part of this offsite collaboration.
We aim at creating spaces for participation and engagement, so that retreats are meaningful. We design and facilitate gatherings where participants tap into their collective intelligence, ensuring that everybody feels valued and part of a shared mission. We try to keep speeches sweet, focused and relevant for the retreat’s goals (we try to keep “frontal” content to less than 20% of the total time). We include as many opportunities for participatory collaboration as possible. We also ensure that each gathering is productive by using a range of participatory formats which allow for meaningful collective conversations, for energising co-creating sessions, or for effective decision making — whichever is needed.
Our goal is that, by the end of the retreat, everybody feels accomplished. Participants leave with the conviction of having co-created something and feel engaged to follow through on the progress achieved, together.
After hosting countless offsites, we at Greaterthan have learned that a retreat is the best opportunity to create a generative “watershed moment”, a positive turning point, a shift of direction in the journey of the organisation, and a very real moment to be physically together.
This can be achieved if one attends to:
So what have we learned about each of these success factors?
The chosen venue has a huge impact on the quality and tone of the gathering. A great venue is one that provides plenty of spaces for work but also for relaxation and spontaneous conversations. A secluded venue that provides privacy from the distractions of daily life can encourage participants to focus on being and working together.
We normally favour places that have good access to nature, and a friendly building with plenty of daylight and natural materials. A location surrounded by nature, such as mountains, beaches, or forests, can provide a calm and inspiring setting, offering opportunities for outdoor activities and calm, spontaneous conversations.
We have been to many different locations to facilitate retreats for our clients. Every time we stay in a great venue, we add it to our database. If you are looking for a venue, here you can find our favourites (so far): RETR.IT. Whatever venue is chosen, it’s important to book it with plenty of time, as the best venues get booked up very quickly, often months in advance.
A good facilitator is essential to host the group throughout the entire gathering. We strongly recommend engaging at least two facilitators who are external to the organisation (ideally a team from Greaterthan). By having a third party design and facilitate the retreat, groups benefit from an external expert perspective, but it also allows everyone in the organisation to be equal and to participate fully.
The time spent at the retreat is extremely valuable and rather expensive too. To maximise return on investment, it is wise to start working early on the design of the gathering. We recommend designating an organising team from within your organisation to co-design the retreat with the facilitators, and equipping them with clear goals and objectives.
At Greaterthan we always design the retreats in detail, carefully balancing the participatory formats and the content throughout the gathering. It is advisable to plan for a good mix of experiences, which could include blocks of time for sense-making, movement, discussion, co-creation, prototyping, deciding and relaxing. Additionally, we recommend looking at the overall arch of the entire retreat and each day, to ensure good energy levels throughout. We recommend adding a good measure of liminal spaces, moments for side conversations, impromptu group discussions or even walks in the forest. It’s during those non-facilitated spaces when the real magic happens.
Creating the conditions for everyone in the group, team or organisation to participate in shaping the content and next steps around their purpose is vital. A diversity in viewpoints and perspectives is essential for groups and organisations to address complex problems as they emerge. Time to rest and to deepen relationships are extremely important and should also be included in the agenda.
A key question we ask at the beginning of our collaboration is: What is the intended outcome? What is it that we wish to take away? We don’t bring this up to question whether or not to meet, but to help design the gathering with the intended outcome in mind from the get-go.
We design and facilitate for the “harvest”, that is what gets taken forward after the retreat, the implementation, the commitment and accountability of the group, with respect for what is actually within capacity for the organisation to do. This is vital or else the retreat may just be another team building exercise.
Greaterthan is a stewardship-owned collective of coaches, facilitators, network weavers and org development consultants, born in 2017 to usher in a new era of organising. We combine our experience of working in entrepreneurial, practice-based communities and global impact networks, with our learnings from supporting scaling organisations as they transform how they organise.
We offer design and retreat facilitation services, some would call it turn-key services, or we can advise you in the process of creating your own experience. You can find out more about our facilitation services here.
Liberating Structures is The Toolkit for participatory formats (the building blocks of any meaningful retreat).
Hyperisland Toolbox is A resource kit you can use to apply creative collaboration and unleash potential in your team or organisation.
Gamestorming is a set of co-creation tools used by innovators around the world.
Sessionlab is The Software to design retreats (or any kind of gathering) and it comes with a handy library of participatory formats.
The Radically Remote Toolkit is meant for every facilitator looking to shape more meaningful interactions in virtual spaces.
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