How to Make a Partner’s Retreat More Productive
Partners' retreats do provide a great opportunity for identifying opportunities. Too often, however, lawyers focus on defining problems, and never move on to solutions – "analysis paralysis." To break out of this rut and create an upbeat, productive atmosphere, try to avoid situations that promote analysis and linear thinking – i.e. the traditional discussion group format. Here are some suggestions.
First, consider an off-beat site for the meeting. A local aquarium, theater, museum, or other interactive facility will provide a break and stimulate thinking. Many of these sites have meeting rooms, and you can incorporate the surroundings into the tone of the meeting. One firm met at a natural history museum and arranged a screening of the IMAX film "Everest" to kick off the meeting. The inspirational movie focused on the teamwork necessary to climb Mount Everest. The attendees went into their meetings focused on the importance of teamwork.
Define the importance and priority of issues beforehand. Send a list of topics to partners and have them choose those that they feel are the most important to tackle. Assemble discussion groups by topic based on the interest of the partners. Limit the number of topics. Because retreats happen only once a year the firm's management often tries to cover too much ground. Discussions turn out to be a "mile wide and an inch deep." Partners typically complain, “We talked a lot and then nothing happened!” Marketing as a topic is clearly too comprehensive and too complex to cover in one session. Instead, select the two or three marketing issues mentioned most by firm management and the partners. This strategy will assure that the partners have sufficient time to define the topic, discuss solutions and formulate a plan to implement change.
Propose goals for the discussion groups. Groups should have stated objectives. For example, one group may be asked to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the firm's current website, list potential improvements choose three of those and come up with an action plan. The group should not conclude discussions until a time line and responsibility schedule is completed – who will do what, and when, in order to move the process forward.
Manage the process. Provide the groups with discussion format guidelines, etiquette and time management. If the discussion group will meet for three hours, then scheduling one hour for analysis, one hour for brainstorming new ideas, and one hour for developing a plan will provide structure and discipline. It is also worth reminding lawyers to rein in their critical skills and be open-minded about others' ideas. Brainstorming etiquette encourages all ideas - rejecting none and then selecting the best. Suggest that group leaders write the topic in the center of a flip chart and begin writing suggestions and ideas about this topic all around the central word. Related ideas can then be grouped together on new sheets with opposite ideas on other pages. Threads of logic will begin to put the ideas in some sort of order around the central issue. The point is not to evaluate the ideas, just to get the ideas on paper and see how they flow together.
Encourage action. From the best ideas generated, get the group to consider what possible actions would be appropriate. For example, if the group thinks that the various articles written by firm members should be showcased on the, what action items need to occur to make that happen. Responsibility for action items should be assigned to those present, not to others who are "back in the office." After choosing priority ideas and action items the group should revisit all of the ideas generated and assign partners to develop and investigate these ideas further. If no one is enthusiastic or particularly willing to tackle a particular issue, then it should be dropped. After all, if an idea doesn't appeal in this environment will it really gain much footing back at the office?
After the meeting is over, be sure to follow up. Circulate the action plan from each discussion group. At the next partners' meeting, make sure the agenda includes a brief update.
One last idea: if your firm can handle a bit of shaking-up, why not take a cue from some of the high-tech companies' off-site meetings? From boot-camps to Outward Bound to river rafting, these companies choose physically and mentally challenging experiences for their off-site retreats. If you can get consensus for a retreat like this, do an on-line search to discover unique locales. Also, ask the firm's travel agent or meeting planner for adventure-based team-building suggestions.
Whether your partners are sitting in a boardroom or on a raft, you can assure they will rate the retreat a success if you help them define the issues, challenge them to think creatively and plan for implementation when everyone is back in the real world.