How many times have you heard someone say or even said it yourself, “we had the best planning retreat but accomplished very little since then”. There is a constant struggle to maintain momentum and the excitement and energy in that room at that moment. Occurring only once a year or less, an association’s retreat is a time for considering the past and planning the future. The outcomes may be inspiring ideas, commitment to new projects or a long-term plan. Participants leave motivated to improve their organization.
What happens next is the struggle. Back at their offices the volunteer leaders and staff become consumed with routines. Daily demands soon make the retreat a memory. The good ideas that came about at the retreat are like clouds in the sky, plenty of them quick to disappear.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish,” said Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
To be effective, plans should be in writing so they can be communicated and tracked. Without documenting decisions, the ideas, commitments and deadlines fade.
To encourage creativity, most retreats do not rely on rules of order and meeting minutes. Thus, someone should be appointed to serve as a scribe. If a facilitator is present, a written report is often their responsibility.
Before the retreat ends, discuss what’s next and how soon participants can access the final report. Persons who attended will appreciate the summary and those who missed the retreat might like to add input.
Put it in Writing
There is a distinction between the board’s plan and staff’s next steps. The board develops a strategic plan. It will frame the work of volunteers for multiple years.
The staff creates a program of work or management action plan (MAP) based on the board’s strategic plan. It tracks current year assignments, deadlines and performance metrics. Its form is often a horizontal matrix or spreadsheet.
The executive director tracks and reports on progress of the action plan. The board of directors, or an assigned “plan champion,” tracks and reports on plan progress.
To expedite retreat results some organizations appoint an accountability partner. Someone whose sole purpose is to maintain an impartial focus on progress and avoid pitfalls in execution and forward progress. This individual may be an entrepreneur willing to provide assistance, a retired leader in the organization or a consultant who is trusted.
The role of the accountability partner is to check in with the leadership and staff and ask the question, “How are things going after the retreat?” Whomever accepts the role has to be familiar with the decisions of the retreat and have access to the supporting documents such as reports, budget and organizational structure.
He or she is looking for pitfalls, and encouraging advancement of the priorities. It may not even require a visit by this person but rather be a trusted person that the association president or executive director can call with questions.
The accountability partner is not expected to do the work and nor should they be expected. They are there to monitor progress and look for snags. They know what to look for and the right questions to ask. Their role is not judgmental but rather a friend to the organization. They also understand they do not replace the fiduciary role of the Board or the management function of staff. The line is very clear that the accountability partner is just that, a partner in the success of the organization providing non-prescriptive advice that the organization can take action on.
It will be up to the board how long the position remains. For many groups the first three to six months are critical. Eventually patterns take over and programs advance. The position is not intended to be a a long-term volunteer position and should not be treated as one.
Whomever accepts the role has to be familiar with the decisions of the retreat and have access to the supporting documents such as reports, dashboards, budget, and organizational structure.
What to Monitor
Now that you have an accountability partner, what should they monitor? Here’s what might be monitored:
While retreats may be exciting, the struggle to maintain momentum is common. What is uncommon is the follow-up and energy that is generated with that momentum. Accountability should be the platform for achieving results and performance excellence.
Bill Pawlucy, MPA, CAE, IOM, is founder of Association Options, Inc. a company that focuses on practical strategic planning (corporate and nonprofit), management assessments, Baldrige Award process implementation, AMC search and evaluation, facilitation, and governance modeling. He is also the executive director of the International Association of Interviewers and is an appointee to the U.S. Department of Commerce Board of Examiners for the Baldrige Presidential Award.