Last week our fully remote team gathered in person at a beautiful spot in Prince Edward County, Ontario, for our second annual company retreat. Our first iteration in 2021 was a resounding success, and we decided to do it again this year. In both cases, we took advantage of the high-bandwidth nature of being together in physical space to hold a variety of big picture conversations about our accomplishments, direction and goals.
As we try to do in all our work, we sought to iterate and improve on last year’s retreat. This post will review some of the key differences we saw at the retreat, as well as highlight some of the organizational changes we noted in the past year.
The first difference that was very noticeable this year is the increased participation across the team. The 2021 retreat was largely facilitated by the organizers who had crafted the agenda. This year we had a completely different group of organizers, and each department circle was consulted for session ideas. We then asked circles to articulate goals for the session, and to appoint a facilitator.
This led to more voices at the front of the room, as well as more interactive participation across the team. We grouped the sessions around the themes of Past, Present, and Future, which resulted in a clear progression from one discussion to the next.
On top of all that, our team has gained a couple new members since last year, so we were able to hear from brand new voices with fresh perspectives as well. We even made space for remote participation in sessions for the few people who were unable to attend everything in person.
Probably the biggest organizational change we made in the last year was to implement and mature our sociocratic governance model and organizational structure. During the 2021 retreat we had just begun to understand sociocracy as a governance model. We spent a lot of time and effort over the last year learning, trying, implementing, and maturing our circle structure, aims and domains, and processes.
Coming out of the 2021 retreat, we had brainstormed a list of core values and used these to craft Vision and Mission statements. In the ensuing months, we refined and reworked the core values into a coherent list, and then set about defining Aims of the organization that aligned with those things.
In tandem, we evolved our circle structure as we noticed gaps or inconsistencies. We added circles and adjusted the relationships between circles to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of running the company. We also developed a better understanding of the key meeting roles (facilitator, secretary, leader, delegate) in the sociocracy framework, as well as operational roles in specific circles like Project Lead in our project Delivery circle.
At this year’s retreat, it became obvious that we had developed some healthy sociocratic habits that organically translated into the sessions. We naturally assigned facilitator, secretary, and timekeeper roles, we spoke in “rounds” for most of our discussions, and sought consent wherever a key decision was needed.
Notes on digital and physical paper
At the first retreat we were very focused on being in-person, and aimed to minimize screens and tech within the sessions. This proved very effective in terms of engaging discussions in the room, but later we realized that the flipchart notes we’d taken were woefully inadequate in terms of capturing the key points of discussion.
This year we hit on a couple of improvements that seemed to strike a nice balance. Each session had a dedicated etherpad, pre-populated with the outline of the session and enough metadata to make it easy to publish as meeting minutes later. At the start of each session we asked for a volunteer to secretary, so that only one person needed to have a laptop for taking notes in the relevant pad.
Meanwhile, we’d produced a well-designed, good quality bound paper workbook containing key items like our values, mission and vision, a description of each session, plus a blank page for taking notes in between. This allowed us to have a physical place to keep track of the agenda and schedule, and take written notes as desired. The workbook had a link to get back to the pads, and we simply asked attendees to transfer any important notes into the pad later to be captured in the minutes.
Going into planning the retreat this year, we were keenly aware that last year’s retreat felt overly full with structured working sessions. We had ambitious plans to get alignment on an array of topics, and felt we needed to fill as much of the available time as possible to get through everything we had in mind.
This year, we consciously aimed to leave much more space in the schedule to allow for social time and unstructured activity together. To accomplish this, we did a few things:
- Built out the time schedule first, with liberal breaks included, and then fit the sessions into the available time, rather than the other way around.
- Asked those proposing sessions to identify one or two clear goals for the session, to help focus discussion and identify when we were done.
- Assigned a dedicated timekeeper to keep us on track. In some cases we used very short 1-2m timers during rounds to help remind us of the passing of time.
The result was that things felt a lot more spacious overall, and we had a lot more fun, social time together. In our wrap-up session where we started gathering feedback, this came up consistently as a positive aspect of the retreat. I came away feeling very good about doubling-down on this aspect. This was further validated when someone posted a link to this great blog post from Doist espousing the 20/30/50 rule for remote team retreats: 20% work, 30% activities, 50% free time. I think this will be a useful guideline for future iterations and improvements on Consensus retreats.
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