How to Run a Board Retreat (or any long & important group meeting!)

I just finished a 8 hour board retreat for Gumball Capital, the nonprofit I cofounded at Stanford [1]. Our goal was to discuss information that board members had researched prior to the meeting, perform a SWOT analysis and get everyone on the same page as to where we stood as an organization, brainstorm ways to power continued growth and end with action items assigned to specific people.

Incredibly, we were able accomplish ALL of our ambitious agenda.

We got a lot done at the meeting and now have a lot of momentum going forward – plus we had some fun too. Having gone through a few looong/not-so-awesome board retreats for various organizations, I wanted to share some of what I thought caused this retreat to go so well. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on these in the comments.
gumball board retreat

Note: Our retreat was masterfully facilitated by Tara Schubert and Duane Berger who coauthored The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making and works at Community at Work. Definitely check them out if you’re doing something in the Bay Area.

PRE-RETREAT

  • Have clear goals set together ahead of time
    We made sure that before we started planning the retreat, the board and executive team were in agreement about WHAT we were going to do at the retreat and WHY. Related point to this is:
  • Know the difference between a outcome goal and a meeting goal. An outcome goal is what you want people to get out of a certain part of the meeting. For example, we wanted to get a better sense of what was going on in the microfinance industry and youth engagement with social causes. Our meeting goal was to 1) have people read a report 2) Have one board member highlight report findings and 3) Discuss for 25 minutes the findings
  • Build a great agenda; plan for both time & energy management
    You’ve got to spend some quality time in planning – at least one planning manhour for every seven meeting manhours [2]. Also, two things you learn is – 1) everything takes longer than you think so build in a lot of slack time and 2) people’s energy levels can be up (at the beginning, after a break) and down (right after lunch) so consider how tired people will be at various stages of the day and plan accordingly.
  • Make sure any pre-work is done beforehand
    In our case, each board member was assigned to present the group with specific findings. We did a good job of doing comprehensive research on topic (the state of microfinance & poverty alleviation, ways through which other student-run nonprofits have scaled, etc), synthesized it, and prepared it for the group. And everyone actually read the reports before the meeting.
  • A really good location & space
    These meetings are  typically all day so make sure you find an open space with couches (and preferably natural light). Often the location is removed from where the group typically meets – to better foster innovative thinking. Also you’ll probably want wall space for white boarding, charts or powerpoint (hopefully not!)
  • Complex meetings should be facilitated
    Every meeting needs to have some kind of facilitator to guide the discussion and keep people on track and on time – often this role is fulfilled by the person who called the meeting,or the team manager. In a board retreat, you’ll want to find yourself a talented external facilitator. We were lucky to get Duane.

DURING RETREAT

  • Capture & display everything
    In addition to a facilitator, in a retreat such as this – you want to find a way to capture people’s ideas in a visible manner so they don’t go away. Often this is done a member of the team (switching off so no one is stuck with it) on either a whiteboard or a paper chart. We had another person dedicated to this role and she used paper charts, sticking them on various places around the room. I highly recommend employing both if you can.
  • Lots of snacks, drinks and breaks
    Willpower is a muscle [3] so when you have a bunch of people working through a difficult issue in a retreat, they can get depleted. Fill ‘em up with cookies, chips, soda and other snacks. Plus breaks for bathroom, email and mental breathers. Continue reading…

Education is the Silver Bullet. (quote)

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”

– Sam Seaborn – The West Wing

I’ve been having some debates with my coworkers about the role of government in, among other things, ensuring that people have more equal access to a good education. I think ultimately the dispute is whether, like infrastructure, scientific research and national defense, education is something that, while not a profitable endeavor on its own, bring a great deal of value to everyone. Put another way, does society as a whole benefit from a more educated populace>

I think the answer is yes.

The Beat of New York (video)

I’ve visited New York City a number of times (mostly recently documented here and here) and I think this video does a fantastic job of capturing the energy, sound, people and grit that is the Big Apple. The fact that it was shot by a couple of German film makers in between their actual work (doing a commercial) only makes it that much cooler. Check it out:

THE BEAT OF NEW YORK from tim hahne on Vimeo.

THE BEAT OF NEW YORK – A STEREOSCREEN PRODUCTION
Thomas Noesner, our DoP, was in New York for a shoot of the new Mercedes R-Class. Right after the job, he took his camera and strolled through the busting streets of “The City“. While screening the pictures of a drummer in the tube station, I had the idea of creating a “remix“ of the recorded drum sequence to use it as a soundtrack for the film. That´s when our sound designer Toussaint came into play… We composed a track around the drum beat of this guy. Watch and listen to the beat of New York!

A simple rule for making life choices

People approach life in different ways. Some see life as a game – something to play in, have fun with and compete in. Some see life as an optimization process, constantly working to strive towards some better/higher outcome. Some see it as a wild ride, chaotic and unpredictable, one just tries to stay alive and involved.

No matter how you approach life, there will be times when you are unsure of what to do next. I’m not saying where to go for lunch or what vendor to go with or what pair of shoes to buy. I’m talking about big decisions like deciding to move to another city, ask for a promotion, or quit smoking. Some times you are genuinely unsure of how to proceed.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself – they’ll help you understand what is the right thing to do next:

1) What are you most afraid of?

Often what you fear is secretly what you want most, but you’re just not ready to admit it. Take your fears seriously.

2) What is more difficult?

Getting ahead in life is hard. Something I’ve learned is that doing the harder thing will ultimately lead to the greatest returns. Completing easy things begets weak gains.

3) What will get moving forward faster?

Sometimes you get stuck. The best thing to do in those situations is find easy wins to give you momentum and energy to move forward.

Next time you are at a loss for what to do – ask yourself these questions. They’ll bring some clarity and a new perspective to your thinking.

Great Reads on Writing, Publishing and the New Media Landscape – (tweets)

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and this is my way of trying to capture what some of the best things I’ve tweeted recently.

In this round of top tweets, I have a bunch of links on the changing media landscape – from how book publishing hasn’t really changed for most authors, to great advice for people who want to build a widely-read blog by someone who’s done it. Enjoy!

RT @Techcrunch: A Modest Proposal For Authors Who Abandon Their Publishers: Give Me A Break – http://tcrn.ch/bGbSIR by @paulcarr |  Sun Aug 29 2010

Audience = Power and other great words of wisdom –> This year’s advice for journalism students http://jshen.me/blbGfm |  Mon Aug 30 2010

Great interview with the guy who started @shitmydadsays: Gelf Magazine Shit Justin Halpern Says http://jshen.me/bQ3Oy7 |  Tue Aug 31 2010

How will you get your product in people’s hands? RT @JasonLBaptiste: Distribution. Distribution. Distribution.http://bit.ly/auHDtz |  Fri Sep 03 2010

Really great piece on getting started with a blog and writing every day. “Remember that every visitor is a guest.”http://j.mp/azKOOL |  Sat Sep 04 2010

If you liked these tweets, you should follow me on Twitter: @jasonshen