Before your imagination takes to you Cabo San Lucas or Jackson Hole, reel it in. I am not recommending a working retreat cloaked in the luxury of a vacation destination. Rather, I am suggesting that you consider holding a project planning retreat to facilitate getting your project off the ground. This is a retreat because I find that holding this type meeting off-site helps to focus participants on the topic at hand in a way that is difficult to do when next door or down the hall are distractions and opportunities to do just a bit of regular work.
Change the environment to change the behavior.
Find a location that is conveniently located with plenty of parking — no point in getting everyone stressed by traffic or getting lost before you even begin the meeting. Check out the site personally. Make sure the room you plan to use has space for white boards, screens and enough electrical outlets. Because this will be a working meeting, make sure you have a large table and comfortable chairs.
Work with the site staff to ensure that there will be food and drinks throughout the day. Don’t forget about those individuals on your team with food restrictions and accommodate their preferences. Here is a little secret I learned the hard way … check on bookings for large groups on the day you want to schedule your retreat … you see there was this cheerleader conference at a hotel where I attended a planning retreat … well, you can imagine.
Work with the staff at the meeting site to have the equipment you need available and setup. Keep the room for the entire day, even if you think you will be finished by 3:00 in the afternoon.
As project manager, you are in charge of the meeting. You want to reflect on your desired outcome and consider the most effective way to get there. Figure out who needs to attend the meeting in addition to project staff. Do you need someone to take notes? Should someone from the PMO or senior management come as an observer? Are you planning to invite customers or users?
Give all invitees ample warning to hold the date sacred on their calendars. Send reminders a few days before the meeting. If there is preparation that the attendees need to do, give them the time and materials at least one week before the meeting.
Create an agenda. Try to mix activities from listening to presenters to working in small problem-solving groups. Allow time for socializing if the team does not work in the same location or rarely has the chance to mingle. Arrive at least 30 minutes before the meeting to check everything and solve any problems.
Tell everyone to turn off cell phones and log out of email!! These are two of the biggest issues with any meeting- but particularly when you are trying to focus on planning.
Keep the meeting focused and outcome oriented
Review the project objectives and schedule. Use a scenario or concept of operations to ensure that everyone works toward the same vision. For a large team, introduce the leads and support personnel. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, you may ask the leads to provide a more detailed overview of the tasks and schedule emphasizing the dependencies within and between tasks.
Once everyone is nodding and seems to have a common grasp of where the project is headed, the stage is set to work together on execution plans. This is a good time to break up into smaller, task-focused groups to take advantage of the knowledge and creativity of the team members. As project manager, you may know where you want and need to focus the small group’s attention. However, here are a few topics I have found that benefit from sharing and discussion in a project planning meeting:
- Operationalize vague requirements
- Risk identification and triggers – you may not have thought of everything that could go wrong
- Demonstrations – concept, possibilities, assets required, audience
- Training needs – tools and processes
- Drill down to detail planning for challenging problems
- Resource constraints and conflicts
- Experimental testing ideas for alternate technologies or approaches to reduce specific risks or tackle tough technical challenges
- Barriers to success – leads to some ideas of how you can help smooth the way
- Productivity enhancement tools
- Knowledge management and information sharing techniques
Limit breakout sessions to about an hour. Then have each subgroup present results and suggestions to the entire group. If questions arise that you cannot answer, make a note and find the information later then share answers with the team. Wrap up the meeting with a list of action items.
If you have suggestions of topics for a project planning off-site meeting, please share.