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« High margins, Groupon and the magic basket for price differentiators | Main | Lady Gaga and me »

How to organize a retreat

(actually, to steal a phrase from Alan and Bill, an advance. Retreat is too negative).

There's a tremendous opportunity to create events where people connect. Unfortunately, it's also easy to turn these events into school-like conferences, not the emotional connections that are desired.

You can create an advance with a team that knows one another from work, or even more profoundly, with a bunch of independent thinkers who come together to energize, inspire and connect.

I've been to a bunch and here's what I've learned, in no particular order:

  • Must be off site, with no access to electronic interruption
  • Should be intense. Save the rest and relaxation for afterwards
  • Create a dossier on each attendee in advance, with a photo and a non-humble CV of who they are and what they do and what their goals are
  • Never (never) have people go around a circle and say their name and what they do and their favorite kind of vegetable or whatever. The problem? People spend the whole time trying to think of what to say, not listening to those in front of them (I once had to witness 600 people do this!!)
  • Instead, a week ahead of time, give each person an assignment for a presentation at the event. It might be the answer to a question like, "what are you working on," or "what's bothering you," or "what can you teach us." Each person gets 300 seconds, that's it.
  • Have 11 people present their five minutes in an hour. Never do more than an hour in a row. The attendees now have a hook, something to talk to each presenter about in the hallway or the men's room. "I disagree with what you said this morning..."
  • Organize roundtable conversations, with no more than 20 people at a time (so if you have more attendees than this, break into groups.) Launch a firestarter, a five minute statement, then have at it. Everyone speaks up, conversations scale and ebb and flow.
  • Solve problems. Get into small groups and have the groups build something, analyze something, create something totally irrelevant to what the organization does. The purpose is to put people in close proximity with just enough pressure to allow them to drop their shields.
  • Do skits.
  • Have a moderator who is brave enough and smart enough to call on people, cut people off, connect people and provoke them in a positive way.
  • Invite a poker instructor or a horseshoe expert in to give a lesson and then follow it with a competition.
  • Challenge attendees to describe a favorite film scene to you before the event. Pick a few and show them, then discuss.
  • Don't serve boring food.
  • Use nametags at all times. Write the person's first name REALLY big.
  • Use placecards at each meal, rotating where people sit. Crowd the tables really tightly (12 at a table for 10) and serve buffet style to avoid lots of staffers in the room. Make it easy for people to leave boring tables and organically sit together at empty ones.
  • Do something really interesting after 10 pm.
  • Serve delicious food, weird food, vegan food, funky food. Just because you can.
  • Don't worry about being productive. Worry about being busy.
  • Consider a tug of war or checkers tournament.
  • Create an online site so attendees can check in after the event, swap email addresses or post promised links.
  • Take a ton of pictures. Post them as the advance progresses.

Here's the goal: new friends. Here's the output: a new and better to-do list.

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