Thursday, July 8, 2004

Letting go through an abandonment retreat

Business Times p.B1
Thursday, July 8, 2004

By Moje Ramos-Aquino
Letting go through an abandonment retreat

“INSANITY,” according to international idol Albert Einstein, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He also said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”

To continue your Journey on Entrepreneurship, let’s focus on the idea of “abandonment retreats” or “validation retreats” if you may, in order for you to encourage fresh thinking, to streamline your processes and to become resource efficient.

Most planning, problem solving/decision making and change management workshops you do are more the validation retreat type with emphasis on what works and what else to do. Participants add new programs or activities to their current ones. In such meetings, nobody dares to question the effectiveness of current programs. If at all, they are just ignored and silence is taken as an affirmation that the status quo can persist. Like sending memos to one and all. As Sunny Vanderbeck, co-founder of Data Return Corp., says, “You already know the answers. You just don’t want to hear them from yourself.” And so the organization does the same things over and over again with great expectations of better results.

Let’s consider how people usually feel, think and react to change: We’ve always done things this way and we’ve been successful. I’ve been in this company since its founding and I know what works and what doesn’t work. We have limited resources. We tried that before. Blah, blah, blah.

In validation retreats, people gear up to protect their comfort zones and come up with all sorts of justification or rationalization. Everybody simply continues to dig in his or her heels and want to hold on to what’s familiar. Just like the trapeze artist whose hardest problem is not grabbing hold of the new trapeze as it swings within reach but letting go of the one she’s already gripping.

Robert Sutton, professor at Stanford Engineering School, reminds us that the only thing that is more important than optimism is the capacity to pull the plug on a bad idea.

In their presentation at ASTD 2004, Retreats that Work authors Sheila Campbell and Merianne Liteman said that you gather together representatives from all key areas of your company to an off-site meeting for an abandonment retreat. There, you “put everything on the table with the ultimate goal of eliminating those aspects of your operations that are holding your company back - even if they worked for you in the past. In an abandonment retreat, which by its nature requires people to relinquish their comfort zones, resistance almost goes without saying.”

They gave these tips for handling resistance.

• The first step is to encourage resistance to emerge throughout the retreat. Invite dissenting views frequently and have the group consider what objections are communicating about the feasibility of some of the proposed changes.

• If you sense that people are reacting to the fear of loss, ask the whole group (not just those resisting change) to identify what’s important to them, what they want to keep. This may help reassure resisters that not everything they care about will disappear.

• If resistance asserts itself just as the discussion is winding down and decisions are near, don’t dismiss it as coming too late. Eleventh-hour resistance may mean the participant is doing you and the others a favor. In this case, it’s better to address it openly than to force participants to deal with it back at the office, where it can derail the effort to implement what they worked so hard throughout the retreat to accomplish.

Next column, we’ll discuss the other “how to’s” of abandonment retreats.

(Moje is the president of Paradigms & Paradoxes Corp. that helps organizational initiatives such as strategic thinking and planning, management of change, learning and innovation, human resource development and teambuilding. Her email address is

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