Sunday, May 15, 2005

'Completing the Past': One Key to a Successful “Retreat”

Graduation and “moving out” mark the beginning of the “retreat” season at American University. Retreats are a time when groups of AU staffers gather in some secluded spot for a day or so to reflect on the past, plan for the future and communicate with one another in ways that may not be possible in the press of day-to-day business. The CTE Management Group held its summer retreat on Thursday and Friday at a conference center in Virginia’s Faquier County. We also hold a mid-year retreat in my apartment, prior to the spring semester. Each of our retreats has been productive and two, including this most recent one, have produced real breakthroughs in the way we conduct our activities.

A key to this success, I believe, is extensive preparation, including an exercise we call “completing the past”. Three weeks before the retreat, we devote an extended Management Group Meeting to reviewing the past year in general terms. Each group member is asked reflect on and write answers to three questions: (1) What worked ? (What were our successes?) ; (2) What didn’t work (Where did we fail or fall short?) ; (3) What did we learn from our successes and failures?

Two weeks before the retreat, we hold a second meeting focusing on the goals to which Group members agreed to hold themselves accountable. These goals are posted prominently in each members office and monthly progress reports are given at Group meetings. Each member reports on the goals they achieved fully, the goals they achieved partially, the goals they failed to achieve and the lessons learned.

A key to the usefulness of this process is a willingness to identify failures and shortcomings in the presence of other Group members. The ability to do this takes constant practice, reinforcement and the creation of a “safe space” for such communications. The counselor with whom I meet bi-weekly argues that acknowledging and correcting shortcomings is a critically important key to successful management and an area where many managers fail.

By “completing the past” as part of pre-retreat preparations, we are able to begin our discussions with a relatively clean slate, with an exercise we call “envisioning the future” From the visions created in that exercise, we work toward successively more specific levels, concluding with commitments to specific goals, benchmarks and milestones.

For those who want to read further – here is a brief synopsis of topics we covered last week.

Envisioning a Future Center for Teaching Excellence: What should the delivery of teaching/learning/technology support services at American University look like three years from now?

Mission Statement: What mission statement for CTE will most effectively, align empower and mutually reinforce the diverse functions for which we are responsible and our commitments to the multiple constituencies – faculty, students and administrators we serve? What statement will communicate our purposes, capabilities, and culture most powerfully and effectively.

Functions and Activities: (1) How do the functions and activities of our group contribute to the mission of CTE as we are defining it in our retreat?
(2) Are there functions and activities that do not contribute to CTE’s missions and should be curtailed and eliminated?
(3) Are their new functions/activities not now being carried out or being carried out by another group that could be carried out more effectively by our group?
(4) What support do we need from other units of CTE to function more productively and effectively?
(5) What support can we provide to other units in CTE that will help them to function more productively and effectively?

Brainstorming the Organization of CTE: This was a free-wheeling discussion, catalyzed by a number of questions that Group members were asked to review in advance.

Setting goals and Priorities: Group members were asked to respond to the following questions: (1) For what goals and activities will I hold myself accountable during the coming year? ; (2) On what goals and activities do I expect to work as a collaborator on the coming year?

Should a retreat be lead by an outside facilitator? Because I have considerable experience as a workshop facilitator, I decided to combine the roles of facilitator and CTE director. Whether this is appropriate will depend on the individuals and circumstances involved.

In sum, the key to a successful retreat is preparation, preparation and more preparation. Attention to “completing the past,” prior to the retreat, in a safe space that empowers transparency and candid communication is essential.

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