360 Live Media
360 Live Media is an event strategy and digital marketing agency in Washington, D.C. serving association, professional society, and not-for-profit conferences.

How to Stage an Orderly Retreat and Avoid an All-Out Route

Any General, historian, or mid-level manager can tell you, there are good retreats and there are bad ones.


In 1776, for instance, when George Washington thwarted the British plans for a long siege of his forces in New York by retreating undetected across the East River—it was the perfect example of a brilliant tactical retreat that ultimately led to the defeat of the far superior (in numbers) British forces.


Contrast that with 2010’s all-out route and ultimate downfall of the demoralized troops of the fictitious Bob’s Binders, Faux Furriers, Gizmos and Gadgets Emporium. A “textbook” example of how not to stage a retreat.


You see, when Bob ordered his retreat, he did so with very little planning and forethought. He knew the morale of his troops was low and had read somewhere that a retreat was one of the best ways to fix that. And, while his inclination and intentions were spot on, the way he went about it was all wrong.


First, he staged his retreat in his organization’s conference room—a place his team routinely spent countless hours huddled around a phone bank fielding calls of disgruntled customers as the staff tried to reverse the firm’s flagging sales. Bob would’ve been far more successful had he selected a welcoming offsite venue where employees could stand at ease with none of the negative baggage.


Next, to encourage the free flow of ideas, Bob kept the retreat’s agenda short and to the point, with the topic of discussion limited to “What is wrong and who is to blame?”


The resulting unregulated skirmish led to finger pointing, shouting, hurt feelings, fisticuffs, resignations and the ultimate dissolution of Bob’s Binders, Faux Furriers, Gizmos and Gadgets Emporium, leaving a vacuum in the company’s niche market still unfilled today.


When to sound the retreat?


When done right, as General Washington’s troops could attest, a well-planned retreat can lead to a strategic advantage, bolster morale and a rejuvenated fighting spirit. However, if done wrong, as seen with Bob’s retreat, it can just as easily lead to disunity, demoralization and ultimate defeat. So, the question is, when and why should a retreat be scheduled, and how do you keep it orderly?


Retreats are ideal opportunities to focus company vision on a singular task at hand. It could be improving morale, building a sense of cohesion, setting short-term or long-term goals, getting the company’s ducks in a row for a big push, re-cementing the bond between management and workforce, introducing a new operating plan, defining the corporate culture, girding for an expected British counterattack, the list goes on and on…


A reflection of your organization’s core values and personality. 


Retreats play an important role in establishing your organization’s corporate culture—not just by what is discussed and decided during breakout sessions, but also in the look and feel of the event itself. If your organization is known for its creativity and zeal, the venue and sessions should reflect that as well. If attention to detail is your hallmark, ensure not a detail is overlooked in your planning. Your staff retreat is an opportunity to turn words into actions and demonstrate to all involved just who it is that you are. And nothing crystalizes your understanding of what it is that makes your organization special than trying to reflect it in your planning.


Set clear goals.


Ultimately, everyone retreating should come away feeling their lives and careers were enriched by the experience. They should feel the time away from their routine added value instead of as something to be dreaded as just one more bureaucratic minefield keeping them from pacifying their mounting backlog of unfinished work.


Letting participants know what they’ve signed up for ahead of time, or, better yet, enlisting them to help set the goals and agenda, are good ways to ensure everybody is marching to the same drummer when it comes time to retreat.


An anonymous survey of the issues your team feels most pressing is a good place to start in planning the marching orders for your getaway. Free online survey sites like Survey Monkey make customizing and conducting surveys effortless and even fun.


Goals you might want to consider:


  • Improve communication and collaboration between departments
  • Bolster trust among corporate officers and their subordinates
  • Increase productivity, camaraderie and bonding
  • No-holds barred strategy session on increasing creativity and innovation
  • Introduce organization’s new operating plan for the fiscal year
  • Strategize ways to increase productivity without impacting job fulfillment
  • Explore the common bonds and differences that add spice to team chemistry


A time and place for everything.


Put yourself into General Washington’s powdered wig for a moment and imagine the stink it’d raise if, during the pomp and circumstance of a grand parade celebrating the organization’s successful fording of the near-frozen Delaware river and subsequent victory at Trenton, New Jersey, junior staff didn’t get the memo, and instead, used the occasion to air their dirty laundry.


Luckily, Washington ran a tight ship, and no such event ever happened. But many managers have been much less fortunate and have had their parades rained on by participants who didn’t get the memo or went off script, which illustrates why it’s so important to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Let every participant know there will be a time and place for everything, including gripes, and what their role and expectations will be for each session. You may want to even consider creating helpful iconography as a visual reminder of just what’s expected when.


The fall back.


Key to a successful retreat is ensuring there are no hidden agendas. Needless to say, when it was learned that Benedict Arnold intended to hand over West Point to the British, the revelation hurt the cohesion of General Washington’s forces and undermined the war effort.


Likewise, if a direction for your organization has already been finalized, the corporate retreat shouldn’t be billed as an opportunity for employees to help chart a path for its future, followed by efforts to coax the troops down a path not necessarily of their choosing with the hope they’ll somehow buy into the process as their own. Instead, if such an executive decision has already been made, the retreat should be promoted as an opportunity for the troops to better understand the course change, rather than define it.


Create a safe space for growth and reflection.


Retreats are most successful when everyone is at ease and confident they’re in a judgement-free environment. It’s important that titles be checked at the door and everyone’s opinion carry the same weight when sharing personal reflections. Nothing stifles communication and camaraderie faster than when somebody pulls rank during sharing sessions and gives the impression some opinions carry more weight than others.


Accentuate the positive.


Even during the tough discussions and grievance airing, your number one goal should be to do so through the filter of improving those things that are working well rather than narrowly focusing on areas of dysfunction and magnifying what’s broken.


Ultimately, whether sounding the retreat to regroup and consolidate, to take territory more easily defended, or to lure your competitors into an ambush—as George Washington would’ve most certainly attested—when it comes to rallying the troops toward ultimate victory, an orderly retreat is much preferred to a hasty one.


As you may have guessed, we’re in the midst of prepping for our 2019 360 Live Media retreat. If you have any anecdotes you’d like to share from your own retreats that could help us with ours, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at pat@360livemedia.com.