Using a "retreat" to manage change in a politically charged environment


Jennifer Bultman, PMP

Project Manager, Medical College of Wisconsin

Lynn Oppenheim, PhD

President & Principal, CFAR, Inc.

Projects in a politically charged environment can easily get stuck. Using the case of a medical school needing to substantially revise its curriculum, the authors describe how the first attempt to revise the curriculum led to dissension among the faculty and leadership. They show how you can advance and sustain organizational change through engaging stakeholders in a retreat designed to surface and address conflicts. The paper is explicit about the planning, facilitation, and follow-up techniques necessary for retreat success in any organization, and offers several practical tools for encouraging productive dialogue, surfacing and addressing issues that could slow or stop progress, and ways to build on the achievements of a successful retreat. Project managers can learn to use these tools to help politically charged initiatives stay on track—and when necessary, to help a project get unstuck.


When implementing organizational culture change in the face of conflicting priorities in a politically charged environment, achieving stakeholder engagement can be very consuming for a project manager—as well as a major roadblock to progress.

Larry Hirschhorn, management consultant, states that “the process of change is terribly painful, the logistics are enormously complex, the organization wants deeply not to change—and the success rate is abysmal. Yet most organizations must change, and change profoundly, if they're to stay alive” (Hirschhorn, 2002, p. 99). As a project manager, how do you ensure that your project is successful despite the politics, conflicting priorities, and resistance to change within your organization? One of the most helpful techniques that I have observed, learned, and subsequently implemented is stakeholder retreats. More than any other, this tool has ensured many a project's momentum and moved it forward, even when stakeholder engagement became a distraction.

When I imagine any retreat in general, I visualize a calm and quiet place where I can reflect and share my feelings. It is beneficial to think of a stakeholder retreat in a similar way. It can be the calm amidst the storm—where you provide guided activities for stakeholders in which they contemplate and share in a safe, non-judgmental environment. In much the same manner that a personal retreat can change or influence your personal life in a positive manner, a stakeholder retreat can change or influence your project in a meaningful way.

Since participating in the planning and implementation of my first retreat in 2011, I have done so on five additional retreats to address stakeholder engagement. Retreat planning and facilitation have been an excellent addition to my project management toolbox—and I am confident it will benefit yours as well.

A Medical School Dilemma

What follows is a summary of a problem experienced at our medical school that I feel certain is not unique to medical schools. Rather, it is a universal problem experienced within many organizations. In this case, influential stakeholders – members of a politically charged climate – were working against the implementation of a project that would change our organization's culture.

External Factors

Medical school curricula across the United States had a consistent framework for a hundred years through the early part of the 21st century. During this time, a traditional medical school curriculum consisted of two years of basic science coursework followed by two years of clinical training before students moved on to residency.

In 2007, the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) began plans for a curricular revitalization project moving toward fully integrated or hybrid curricula, which replaced traditional basic science coursework (e.g., human anatomy, physiology, pathology, etc.) with organ-based coursework (e.g., renal, reproduction, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.). A hybrid curriculum combined some traditional basic science courses with some organ-based courses.

The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) is the accreditation body for medical education programs in the United States and Canada, and every medical school in these two countries must meet LCME standards in order to retain accreditation. With an impending accreditation in 2010–2011, MCW was looking to implement a fully integrated curriculum in tandem with a new approach to teaching—a team-based learning (TBL) model instead of traditional lectures.

Both changes (the fully integrated curriculum and TBL instructional method) were thought to align well with LCME standards, and therefore likely to positively influence MCW's accreditation decision. Unfortunately, while this major curricular change would have been good for MCW's accreditation status and create an opportunity for medical school leadership to leave its mark (or perhaps even its legacy), MCW's faculty—our major stakeholders—were not fully on board with either the content or the process of the curriculum changes.

Project Design Flaws

The external factors contributing to the curriculum design changes were valid; some would even say that they were necessary. Our faculty stakeholders agreed that changes to our curriculum were warranted, as our overall student satisfaction with their education had been declining (based on the AAMC graduation questionnaire data). Additionally, our student performance on national exams dipped below the national average (United States and Canada) in 2005 and 2006.

There was general consensus for change but broad disagreement on the plan for change. Many factors contributed to this division, but the most salient ones were as follows:

  • Process violation – Leadership contributed the major design concepts for the fully integrated curriculum, not the faculty who were leading the courses or doing the teaching. This is a typical top-down approach. Use of a top-down approach was particularly problematic in a medical school where faculty, not the dean, have the regulatory responsibility for curriculum.
  • Increasing time demands – The new TBL instructional method was very different and more time-consuming than the traditional lecture. Within an academic medical center such as MCW, where teachers are first and foremost researchers and/or physicians, there is insufficient time to develop new instructional material or lean a new teaching method. This change was viewed as a major cultural shift, and clinical and basic science leaders were firmly opposed to removing additional hours from their faculty members’ research and/or clinical duties.
  • Exclusion of conflicting voices – The implementation and evaluation team consisted almost entirely of the project supporters. This is a standard avoidance technique.

Stakeholder Revolt

The stakeholder frustration was obvious and widespread across the organization. In fact, any mention of the project spurred bitter and resentful conversation. Distrust between those in support and those against were dividing MCW's faculty and staff. Negativity abounded.

The curriculum project became a major distraction for new executive leadership at MCW. Frequently, one-on-one meetings with leaders were consumed by complaints about the direction the project was taking. It was apparent that the top-down approach to implementing this cultural change was not succeeding; yet, terminating the project was not an option given the implications for external regulation. The new curriculum risked a formal failure to approve by the faculty, a highly unusual but increasingly likely possibility.

After struggling through the first year of a two-year pilot to demonstrate how this new design and instructional method could be successful, MCW's executive leadership made the difficult decision to restructure the project team. External consultants developed a faculty-driven steering committee that included a trained project manager to oversee the project and start anew with the design.

Solution to Our Medical School Problem

After substantial work interviewing faculty across the institution, our consultants recommended that the original design and implementation plan be reconsidered in favor of a faculty-driven (bottom-up) approach. The divisions were too deeply held to ignore. This approach would require a series of stakeholder retreats (or summits) that would include those individuals who had opposed the plan.

This solution did not come without costs. In addition to the expense of consultants, additional time was required to hold the retreats (thus extending the implementation date), and a revised budget required retreat expenses as well as the additional internal cost of faculty and staff time. These additional short-term costs, however significant, were smaller than the risk of no approval for the curriculum and the risk of increasing dissension among the stakeholders.

Successful Retreat Strategies

At MCW, when all seemed lost, with negativity so intense that a new curriculum appeared impossible to attain, a series of well-planned retreats (with no hidden agenda) was exactly what the doctor ordered.

We found that relationships with stakeholders could begin to be repaired through thorough planning, utilizing well-structured activities, sufficient time for difficult—yet honest—conversations, and food/beverages. To that end, a “retreat toolbox” should include major preplanning activities such as goals, logistics (attendee list, availability, scheduling, food), detailed agenda development, identification and selection of effective information-gathering techniques, handouts, and resources required to execute the plan. The facilitator(s) and project team should be prepared to invite and listen to stakeholder input and be informed about appropriate next steps. Stakeholder group activities (both small and large), as well as opportunities for stakeholders to be heard, are among the most effective ways to empower individuals and enable them to begin to shift away from negative resistance toward buy-in.

In order to facilitate a successful retreat, there are three major questions to keep in mind:

  1. When could a retreat benefit your project?
  2. What are some successful retreat strategies?
  3. What are the follow-up tasks to keep the retreat momentum going?

When to Use a Retreat

Deciding when a retreat could benefit your project is a key factor to its success. If the project does not warrant a retreat, stakeholders will feel that their valuable time is wasted. If the project or organization does not have the resources to support a retreat, the project's budget could be negatively impacted. It is important, therefore, not to miss this critical decision-making step.

Ideally, stakeholder retreats should be built into the project plan as part of collecting your project requirements and/or planning stakeholder engagement. In reality, there are times when the project manager is engaged after the project charter is complete, and when the strategy and project objectives already have been outlined.

Is Your Project Stuck?

In The Moment You Can't Ignore, Malachi O'Connor and Barry Dornfeld note that “when the stress of change becomes too much for an organization, the situation often erupts into an ‘un-ignorable moment’” (2014, p. 2). They further outline how you know when you're facing an un-ignorable moment, at which time a retreat may be a valuable use of stakeholder time and energy (2014, p. 48). The following list outlines O'Connor and Dornfeld's requirements for identification, and includes MCW's project situation as an example in parentheses:

images “They are public in nature” (involving many stakeholders across different parts of the organization)

images “They are irreversible” (external drivers/regulation requirement)

images “They are systemic” (overall curriculum redesign)

images “They challenge the identity of the organization” (major culture shift regarding how medical school will be taught) (2014, p. 48)

The lesson here is that once you have determined you have an un-ignorable moment, consider your project and organizational resources.

Can You Afford It?

Determine if you can afford the actual out-of-pocket expenses. In “Tools for Effective Transitions Using Large Group Processes,” Thomas N. Gilmore and Deborah Bing state that “large events are costly in out-of-pocket dollars but even more so in terms of the scarce resources of time and attention” (2006, p. 392). You will need to consider the cost of audio/visual equipment, supplies, printing, and food and beverages. One of the key drivers of costs is the number of individuals and the number of half- or full-day retreats that are needed, as well as whether you need to budget for an external venue. Perhaps more important are the “soft costs” related to your stakeholders’ time to prepare for the retreat and attend it, as well as for any follow-up activities that may be required. When you add up the costs, you will want to compare them with the risks of not doing a retreat: What will be the costs to your organization if politics slow or stop the work of the project?

What Is the Impact on the Project Schedule?

Another major factor for determining whether or not to hold a retreat is the impact on your project schedule. If it has limited scheduling flexibility, making time for the retreat could be challenging. A change request may be warranted in order to add the needed time; this could potentially impact the project end date, so the earlier in the schedule/process you can get your stakeholders aligned, the better. “It can be tempting to try to ignore the opposition, work around it, or ‘take it on’ in an assertive or aggressive way. These approaches rarely work in the long run” (O'Connor & Dornfeld, 2014, p. 161). You can't avoid the issues, and ignoring them never works. “Your task as a leader is to identify the things that motivate people—their interests and passions—and connect them to the change you're trying to create” (O'Connor & Dornfeld, 2014, p. 215). Again, you need to weigh the visible cost in time of a retreat against the invisible slippage if important stakeholders won't move forward.

Ensure You Understand the Real Problem/Issues

Make sure you understand the problem/issues you are trying to resolve. It can be a huge waste of time to plan a retreat around what you think is the problem, only to realize at the beginning of the retreat (or even worse, at the end) that your assumption was incorrect. A very effective technique for helping plan and develop your retreat strategy is to conduct one-on-one interviews with stakeholders.

Consider the following tips when conducting interviews with project stakeholders:

  • Interview a broad and diverse group of stakeholders. Make sure they are from all organizations, departments, and levels involved.

  • Conducting an in-person interview is best, but a phone call or video call works, too. You could undertake an online survey, but a live conversation can lead to further discussion and allow for the interviewer to dig deeper to uncover root causes of problems.
  • Always include your negative stakeholders, those with conflicting opinions and who are resistant to change. Per A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition, “overlooking negative stakeholder interests can result in increased likelihood of failures, delays, or other negative consequences to the project” (Project Management Institute, 2013, p. 32).
  • Consider a third-party interviewer. Stakeholders may be more honest and open to answering questions with an independent third party who has no stake in the outcome.

Once you have a firm understanding of stakeholder concerns and have decided that a retreat would be appropriate for your project, it is time to begin a thorough planning process.

Retreat Strategies


Considerable time, strategy, and planning are necessary to prepare for a retreat. Gilmore and Bing suggest creating a steering committee to plan the event (2006, p. 381). Critical components of the planning include development of the retreat objectives, agenda, slide deck, and overall logistics. Major decisions include the tools and techniques that will be used during the retreat to gather data and engage participants in a meaningful way.

Four to six weeks is a realistic timeframe for thorough planning and preparation.

An important component of the planning stage is to identify any pre-work that will be required to properly prepare participants in advance of the retreat. The goal of the pre-work is to “engage key stakeholders in the substantive issues and the ‘work’ of the event” (Gilmore & Bing, 2006, p. 381). Avoid pre-work that would put individuals at a disadvantage if they have not completed it. The activities and discussion at the retreat should allow them to easily catch up to anyone who has completed the pre-work. “Advance work should be light and encourage inquiry and divergent thinking” (Gilmore & Bing, 2006, p. 382).

Don't underestimate the benefits of good food and a lasting supply of beverages, especially for a full-day retreat. All-day coffee, water, bottled sodas, and juices are essential. Breakfast and/or lunch may be required in addition to a mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon snack. Food will help keep participants present and more engaged at the retreat. Fun, easy snacks such as liquorice, mini candy bars, popcorn, granola bars, and fruit at individual tables are popular.

Our consultants introduced me to their “annotated agenda,” which details each agenda item and includes a description and flow for that segment and any materials required. While retreat participants may receive a standard agenda, the annotated agenda is key tool for members of the steering committee facilitating the retreat. This agenda keeps the retreat organized and on schedule and follows closely with the retreat slide deck (Exhibit 1).


Exhibit 1: Annotated agenda.

Data-Gathering Techniques

In addition to conducting stakeholder interviews to verify your problem and issues, it is important to undertake additional listening and data gathering as a planned part of the retreat.

When presenting information during the retreat, do not use leading statements or make conclusions for the participants. Be transparent. Do not hold a retreat with a planned result in mind; rather, let the retreat happen in an authentic way. O'Connor and Dornfeld tell us to “make simple, neutral statements that lay out the plain facts that everybody agrees on” (2014, p. 78). Allow time for discussion and the opportunity for participants to come to agreement. Provide a safe environment for participants to disagree with information presented or shared. Do not try to convince attendees to agree, since you are collecting data at this point and it is “important to tap into the energy and influence of those who are not aligned with you and may actively oppose your ideas” (O'Connor & Dornfeld, 2014, p. 161).

Invite participants to interview one another. Use this technique to get everyone involved in the discussion. Regardless of how safe an environment you create, some participants will not speak in a public setting. “Having people interview one another with assigned questions can be powerful ways of getting everyone simultaneously active, either in an explicit, sympathetic, probing, listening mode, or in answering” (Gilmore & Bing, 2006, p. 384). Individuals can take their own notes to turn in to the retreat facilitators and/or for a future collaboration exercise.

Individual exercises are another effective method for data gathering. Individuals can reflect and journal their thoughts and/or participate in “dot” voting exercises (see Exhibit 2) where participants get a “dot” sticker to vote on the topics/themes that most resonate with them.


Exhibit 2: Sample “dot” voting.

Engaging Participants

Keeping participants engaged is challenging; busy schedules and today's mobile technology culture (e-mails, text messages, alerts, and pages) can easily interrupt an individual or group of individuals participating in your event. “Processes that engage participants in real thinking about important issues before, during, and after the event can combat the inevitable forces that pull people's attention away” (Gilmore & Bing, 2006, pp. 379–380).

For a retreat to be successful, it is important that key stakeholders attend. One method to encourage participation is to use “existing forums where the members of the participant community already show up” (Gilmore & Bing, 2006, p. 382). Another method is to determine participants’ availability based on a variety of date and time options. Doodle is a free, web-based tool that collects participant availability in a way that makes it easy to determine the date and time that will be best for most of your participants.

Table assignments and room layout also are important considerations in retreat planning. Changing table assignments midway through a retreat is an excellent strategy to move stakeholders from tables of friends and like-thinkers to tables with diverse groups of stakeholders to stimulate divergent conversation. Determining which activities would benefit from having like-thinkers or diverse thinkers should be part of your agenda strategy.

Familiarizing yourself with different large- and small-group techniques is key to achieving results that will benefit the project direction. Some techniques introduced by our consultants include:

  • Interview design. People interview each other at their tables, then come together in “question groups” to summarize what they have heard.
  • Idealized design. Each group is tasked with developing an idealized design by drawing a representative picture and labeling that design.
  • Presentations. Groups present their individual work.
  • Gallery walk debrief. Create “touring groups” composed of one or two people from each table. The touring groups move from one table to the next. When you arrive at the table/flip chart you helped create, you present that material to your touring group.
  • Plenary debrief. Open the floor to discussion about the group work by asking probing questions.
  • Gap analysis. Identify important unresolved points about the work that materially affect the size of the gap, noting those in your thinking.
  • Anticipating and responding to the reactions of others. Small groups take up the perspectives of different audiences. Set the stage: You are asked to take up a particular role and think about how someone within this role might view the work. Within these imagined roles, individuals each answer a series of pre-established questions.

Gilmore and Bing introduce the topic of “charging memoranda” (see Exhibit 3), in which the charging memo guides the tables/small groups through their large- or small-group exercise without the retreat facilitator(s) (2006, p. 388). Charge memos create autonomy and allow for more creativity in the exercise. The retreat facilitator(s) “work” the room by observing the work and listening to conversations at each table. The retreat facilitator(s) also are available to answer individual questions, or can make a global announcement if they find a common question or concern that should be addressed with all groups.


Exhibit 3: Sample charging memo.

Like any good project manager, I would be tempted to cut off a good discussion (and productive work) in order to keep my meeting on schedule. While working with the consultants, I learned that sometimes the discussion and the work are more important than the schedule. You, too, need to be prepared to adapt your retreat schedule. This does not mean letting go of the last activity, which may be the most important. Rather, you can think in advance of how to adapt the schedule if a discussion is both productive and longer than you anticipated. This will allow you to take full advantage of the stakeholder engagement that has resulted due to the safe space you have created for them to work together in a meaningful way.

Following a long retreat day (or days) and many weeks of planning, your retreat comes to an end. But the work of the project does not end with the retreat.

Retreat Follow-Up

Stakeholder actions and ongoing engagement following the retreat need to build on the activities undertaken during the retreat. It is critical to provide clear communications to retreat attendees about action items and next steps or your investment in the retreat could be wasted.

One-Minute Essay

As the very last activity of the retreat, ask your stakeholders to direct your next steps. Gilmore and Bing introduce a one-minute essay where “each participant is asked at the end to take a minute to write about one or two important ideas from the session and jot down any unaddressed issues” (2006, p. 389). Rather than asking attendees to rate your presentation skills, a more engaging question might be, “What are the most important next steps?” or “Do you have any concerns that we haven't addressed?” These questions can help inform the next steps to meet stakeholder needs. This stakeholder feedback is much more meaningful than rating your presentation skills.

I am a technology person. I take my iPhone and/or laptop with me to every meeting. Rarely do I have a writing utensil. When I arrive at a meeting where there is a paper sign-in sheet or paper handouts, I am in trouble. That being said, retreats require a significant amount of paper and not everyone is technologically savvy. Thus, paper is an effective tool at a retreat. The advantage of distributing paper is that you can collect it and learn from the notes, reflections, and discussions penned by each participant. Working together on flip charts can also make the work visible to others, so everyone can see the patterns.

Make clean up easy; use colored paper for handouts that you want to collect, and white paper for informational material that can be recycled after the event.

Action Items and Status Updates

Summarize the action items at the end of the retreat. What are you going to do with the data collected? When will the participants hear back from you?

Within seven to ten days following the retreat, you should send participants a retreat summary. Do not provide meeting minutes of what you did or who said what at the retreat. The important information includes what you learned, the key takeaway points, and next-step action items. The steering committee should meet immediately following the retreat, while the experience is fresh, to help summarize these points. Combine this synopsis with the data collected from the handouts and/or notes taken.

Ongoing status updates should be provided to retreat participants until all of the action items from the retreat have been completed. A formal statement noting that all action items have been addressed is the ideal way to formally wrap-up and close the work of the retreat. Following through on action items and completing the work to which you committed are excellent ways to earn the respect of your stakeholders.

Follow-Up Retreats and Ad Hoc Work Groups

Project teams should not ignore the need for additional time in this process. Action items may include a follow-up retreat or ad hoc work group(s) assigned to address “hot” topics. Planning a second or third retreat would follow the same planning process as the first but would build upon the work completed during the first retreat.

Ideally, the work charged to the work group(s) can be concurrent with other project tasks in order to not delay the project or require another change request. Work groups should be given a “charge” that outlines their scope of work, their estimated time commitment, identification of work group members, and the requested deliverables with associated due dates. Work groups require formal communication when their work is complete and the work group is disbanded.


In conclusion, bringing together broad-ranging stakeholders for a full or half-day may require significant time, money, and thorough planning, but these resources and efforts may turn resistant stakeholders into the project's most vocal supporters. “Once engaged, people can generate endless supplies of energy. With skillful leadership, that energy can be harnessed to sweep people in and spread new practices so they stick” (O'Connor & Dornfeld, 2014, p. 159).

At MCW, feedback from retreat participants has been so positive that I am now proficient in my retreat planning and facilitation skills, as noted in the following comments from our most recent retreat in February 2015:

  • “It was helpful to have such a diverse group of attendees to aid in understanding the concerns and hear directly from the experts.”
  • “The hospitality was wonderful, as well as the food and refreshments. Thank you!!”
  • “Overall, I feel that the retreat was a success.”
  • “Time well spent.”
  • “Nicely organized. Good opportunity to brainstorm.”
  • “Thank you so much for holding this event. The programming was a fantastic combination of pre-work, presentations, demonstrations and small group activities. Well put together, and very impactful. I had great conversation at my table about relevant concerns along with brainstorming solutions. The work is not over by any means and we have a lot to plan for and work towards, but I feel that this event was extremely valuable for me.”
  • “The mini-retreat was very well organized and clear as to what information you were looking for. I was dreading spending five hours on this, but the session was organized and kept me engaged and the time went really fast. Thanks for a job well done.”

In the medical school example outlined in this paper, after three retreats and with several groups working through politically charged issues, our project is in its final year of successful implementation. While we do not have 100% stakeholder support, our project is no longer a distraction to the executive leadership. Rather, it is a very successful project they can ask others to emulate. As a result of ongoing stakeholder engagement and solid communication strategies, stakeholder concerns have transitioned to other organizational culture changes. It is time to plan the next retreat!

About the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). (n.d.). Retrieved from

Gilmore, T. N., & Bing, D. (2006). Tools for effective transitions using large group processes. In B. B. Bunker & B. T. Alban (Eds.), The handbook of large group methods: Creating systemic change in organizations and communities (pp. 379–393). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hirschhorn, L. (2002). Campaigning for change. Harvard Business Review, 80(7), 98–104. Retrieved from

O'Connor, M., & Dornfeld, B. (2014). The moment you can't ignore. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2015, Jennifer Bultman & Lynn Oppenheim
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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