Getting your best ROI from a creative company retreat

Spring is just around the corner, and with both the weather and economy looking brighter your company may be thinking about some type of creative outing for its employees in the near future.

Though the past few years saw shrinking budgets for these kinds of company-sponsored events, there remains a long list of organizations that provide outdoor and large-space indoor adventure learning experiences for corporate groups. There are outfitters that specialize in sailing, whitewater rafting, orienteering, innovative games and competitions, and of course, the always-popular ropes courses. There are many benefits associated with these kinds of activities: team building and collaboration, overcoming fear, learning about trust, prudent risk-taking, acquiring new leadership skills, among others. In fact, just getting out of the office and being with co-workers in a new environment can be a real benefit.

There is, however, an all-too-common complaint heard from participants after the experience is over: “It was great while we were out there, but soon as we got back to work we immediately settled into our old routines.” And since these tend to be the very routines which the outing was supposed to shake up a bit, one could argue that despite their having a good time, from an ROI perspective it wasn’t worth the time or money.

What is missing in many of these corporate outings is the additional, critical step of processing, or de-briefing, the experience they just went through. We learn in a variety of ways. The visceral, kinesthetic rush of an outdoor adventure, particularly one that is somewhat beyond our comfort zone (not too far beyond; one cannot learn in a state of panic), is one of the most powerful. But the way to integrate that learning and create strategies for applying it to other aspects of our lives is through verbal communication – by actively listening and talking to each other, and discussing how lessons learned might apply elsewhere. When this processing step is glossed over or omitted entirely, it’s much less likely the gains will show up in any meaningful way back at the workplace. The experience is remembered as something that was fun and exciting, but having little connection to everyday work life.

On the other hand, when the experience is processed while fresh in everyone’s mind (and body), strong and meaningful connections can be made to how people interact at work. Take the notion of teamwork, for example. Often an abstract or overplayed concept, it takes on new meaning if co-workers have just engaged in high performance teamwork to succeed at a physical task. This is the time, while the experience is still felt at a “gut level,” to have them discuss how such collaboration might show up in the workplace and what each individual can do to promote it.

Some might argue, “We just want our folks to have a good time without the classroom sit-down.” But maximizing the learning benefits in no way detracts from the overall experience. In fact, most employees will appreciate it even more if they can connect it to tangible, lasting improvements in the workplace.

Here, then, are 5 suggestions for getting the best possible ROI from your creative corporate outing:

  • Before you choose a program, articulate the desired outcomes. Should the major focus be on teamwork? Creative problem-solving? Leadership skills? Determining this beforehand will help you decide which program to choose, and what should be stressed in the de-brief.
  • Have a skilled, impartial facilitator conduct the de-briefing. An open discussion of fears encountered and lessons learned involves some risk in itself. An experienced facilitator, whether brought in from the outside or employed by the organization putting on the event, will be able to draw out people’s insights to maximize learning. Most important, the facilitator should NOT be someone from within the group, especially the boss. This would inhibit responses and undermine the value of the de-brief.
  • Probe for connections back to the workplace. The facilitator should ask for specific examples of where lessons learned “in the field” can be applied at work. For example, the question “What are some challenges back on the job that might benefit from the kind of risk-taking we saw out here today?” would likely evoke some very worthwhile discussion.
  • Capture all key learning points on flipcharts. Create a permanent record, not only of the experience itself, but the key insights gained from it. Make it available to all who took part. This demonstrates the value placed on people’s comments, and also becomes a tool to assist in follow-up.
  • Follow up after the event is over. Even with a well-managed de-brief, it is too much to expect a “one-shot” event to produce lasting changes. Plan for some follow-up discussions while the outing is still fairly recent, and for an ongoing period afterward. The whole point is to encourage the integration of key insights into everyday behavior.

So go out and have a good time. Just take these extra planning steps to make sure it’s all worth your while.

Taking an e-Holiday

A number of years ago, when the internet and e-mail were still fairly new to most people but quickly catching on, I recall a stand-up comedian on TV telling this joke:

“Imagine e-mail had been around for over 100 years, and it was the telephone that had just been invented. People would be telling their friends, ‘You gotta try this! You can actually talk to the person!'”

I thought about this while reading a story in a recent Business Week about a fledgling movement taking place in some companies led by Scott Dockter, CEO of PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services in Georgia to limit e-mail use by instituting “no e-mail Fridays.” (Perhaps to coincide with dress-down Fridays? Maybe its easier to converse with people when ones neck isnt bound) Dockter reports his decision to eliminate e-mail just one day a week has resulted in better overall teamwork and problem solving among his 275 employees, and even more importantly, more satisfied customers.

The problem, according to the article, isnt so much “the distraction of spam or stuffed inboxes,” but rather “misinterpreted messages and the degree to which e-mail has become a substitute for the nuanced conversations that are critical in the workplace.” Says Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, “Business has undervalued the social dimension of communication.”

Now dont worry, this isnt going to be an indictment of e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. Believe me, I use it all the time and I love it (after all, I didnt deliver this newsletter in person, did I?). I do believe, though, that organizations which value the power of collaboration in the innovation process would do well to examine the quantity and quality of face-to-face meetings among employees, both formal and informal. This is what MIT did in planning its new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, built very purposefully with a multitude of common areas for people to mingle, chat, argue, swap stories, and share information. And this, in one of Americas absolute bastions of electronic media and communications.

The power of face-to-face meetings is in the impact of non-verbals facial expressions, body language, gestures, even silence. In his landmark study of 35 years ago, Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that approximately 93% of ones message during face-to-face communication is conveyed by non-verbals. Theres no reason to believe that would be different today.

Additionally, theres the spontaneity inherent in face-to-face communication. Admittedly, this can work against you at times, such as when a new idea is immediately shot down in almost knee-jerk fashion. But this is more than made up for in the richness of peoples messages to each other when they are fully engaged in direct conversation. An example is when a project team is participating excitedly in open-minded idea generation, feeding off and building upon each others ideas, all the while “listening” to every nuance of whats being communicated, both verbal and non-verbal.

Its the ultimate form of instant messaging.

Is “no e-mail Friday” for your organization? Well, Scott Dockter admits its been tough to get people to drop old (new?) habits, and I suspect a few e-mails do manage to slip through. But at least on one day a week they are talking more to each other, and to their customers, and have something measurable to show for it.