5 Common Mistakes When Planning a Team Retreat

Retreats can be a terrific way to step back from the day-to-day chaos and look at the big picture with your team, plan for the future, and address systemic issues.  However, there are also quite a few ways that a retreat can go wrong.  Here are some common mistakes managers make when planning team retreats.  

Mistake #1: Not planning

I often say that the reason people hate meetings is not because meetings are a bad idea but because people use the schedule to substitute for the work of actually planning what needs to happen, and this is even truer of retreats.  Simply setting a date and then only loosely planning an agenda ensures that a retreat is likely to be both a waste of time and massively frustrating for everyone involved.  Either plan a retreat thoroughly or skip the full-day approach and incorporate the activities into existing team meetings. 

Mistake #2: Trying to do too much

This is in some ways the flip side of not planning.  A full day or even multiple days may seem like a lot of time in the abstract, but in practice, there is only so much you can realistically accomplish.  The discussions around big picture stuff often take longer than planned, and there is also a limit to how much people can process in a given day.  It’s important to not try to use the retreat to do everything you need to do with the team – plan goals, fix processes, build relationships, have fun, etc.  It’s much more effective to hone in on what will be most helpful in the short term and/or what will make the biggest difference in your team’s ability to be successful.

Mistake #3: Treating the retreat as an isolated event.

A retreat is a meeting that is part of a larger process of team planning and action.  The work that happens prior to and after the retreat is often the most substantive aspect, and it is what determines whether the retreat was a pleasant but ineffective use or time or something that vaults the team forward. 

Mistake #4: Doing things that don’t relate to work.

Don’t get me wrong: retreats are a terrific time to foster stronger relationships across the team and have fun together.  However, there are ways to accomplish that make it more likely that it will continue when back in the office, and ways that make people unnecessarily uncomfortable.  Doing things that are not remotely related to work, such as ropes courses, trust falls, paintball, etc., are not a great use of time, and they can actually diminish trust on your team.  Anything physical that is not typical of what the team would do at work should be completely optional so that you don’t put any of your employees in an awkward position, physically or psychologically.  There are plenty of team-building activities that don’t involve potentially embarrassing oneself in front of one’s colleagues, so there is no need to get extravagant with retreat activities.

Mistake #5: Pretending that titles and relationships don’t matter during the retreat.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase, “What’s said here stays here,” followed closely by, “We’re leaving titles at the door –everyone is equal.”  It’s just not true, and it’s also not necessary.  If your team feels safe speaking up generally, they will be candid during the retreat, and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter what reassurances they are given – they’re still going to hold back.  Confidentiality, trust, and equality are all things that are established on a daily basis, not at a one-off event based on a trite statement.  If you want your team to feel safe speaking up, that groundwork needs to be laid well before the retreat.  And why would you want what’s said at the retreat to stay there, anyway - isn’t the point to take it back to the office?!