Whenever I teach a board seminar I'm always greeted with laughter and applause when I say, "board planning retreats are the devil's spawn." Many participants in the board seminar have attended a two-day board retreat used to create a strategic plan for the organization. They have suffered through endless superficial discussions, board bullies who dominate the process, countless exhortations to "think outside the box," the mantra that "we need to attract a younger audience," and the resulting anodyne plan in which no one really believes. They have been led to believe that planning retreats are "good for them" but they can't really understand why.
Let me be clear: I have nothing against boards taking time to meet together (and ideally with staff) in a remote location to discuss key issues and to allow for socializing. Normal board meetings do not afford the opportunity for substantial amounts of bonding. Establishing an esprit de corps amongst board and staff is very helpful.
But I do not think that a retreat is the appropriate place to write a plan. Why?
Because a good plan requires three key ingredients: data, time and creativity.
None of these three are fully available on a board retreat.
Too often, when data is not readily available, retreaters make assumptions about the correct information. By the end of the retreat, the assumption has become fact, at least in the minds of the participants. On too many occasions, these assumptions are incorrect and reflect conventional wisdom, which is often not very wise. Without proper data, a strong analytical base, a prerequisite for good planning, cannot be established.
Time is also a key planning requirement. One needs time to collect and assimilate data and to develop and test potential strategies. Some seemingly good ideas are eventually discarded after more thought; others are refined and amplified. I have yet to read a good plan whose central strategies were developed and evaluated in just 36 hours. When the entire planning process is shoe-horned into two days, the time required to do a good, competent job is simply not available.
And finally, a good plan requires creativity. How do we overcome a key weakness? How do we take best advantage of a central asset? Solving these challenges is difficult and requires creative thinking that cannot be assigned to a time slot between lunch and cocktails. Plans that are developed without the requisite amount of creative thought always sound like a simple listing of existing strategies, at best. At worst, they sound like a series of wishes: we will raise more money, we will sell more tickets, etc. And when the plan does not seem coherent or believable, everyone who participated in the retreat feels like they wasted their time.
Although many board members might feel they can sit down for two days and create a plan for an arts organization, one must ask them, "Is that how you would do it for your own corporation?"
I can't imagine the answer would be yes.