The Importance of a Sharp Axe and Offsites

I was in a conversation with a colleague the other day who directs a nonprofit academic institution. She was explaining some of the challenges they are facing during a busy season. She was sharing the complexities of balancing multiple programs, stakeholders, fundraising, staff overlap and alignment, typical stuff in the nonprofit world, but stressful and challenging nonetheless.

She asked for my perspective.

Now, I once sat in a chair very much like her’s when I directed an international arts and culture nonprofit. So I asked, “Have you considered taking time for a retreat?” The look on her face made the answer glaringly obvious. “No”, she said. “Not during this busy season. Who’s got time for a retreat or offsite? We need to get our work done."

On the surface that seems like a reasonable answer, and one I’d heard before from other leaders. The idea of a retreat sounds like a nice diversion to take a breath, but ultimately steals away time for productivity. It’s a luxury. And definitely not as important as what’s in front of us.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was Lincoln that said, “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” He realized something most of us forget in the moment. Effort and effectiveness are not the same thing. One person with a sharp axe can do the same thing four people with dull tools can do. The four exert much more effort and sure look like they’re working hard, but that won’t make them more effective. Just tired and less efficient.

The same is true in businesses and nonprofits. Effort, long hours, and busy-ness do not automatically produce effectiveness. What if by taking a day or half day to sharpen your axe, to align your efforts, review your plan, and strategize, you could make the other 29ish days that month much more effective.

When most people think about a retreat, they imagine navigating a ropes course with their boss yelling at them to hurry up so we can beat the other team. And maybe that helps build the team (or likely not), but it won’t help you get more done and be more effective on the collective work of your team in the moment you are in.

Sadly, the term company retreat is one that now has bad connotations of finger painting creativity classes, trust falls, dull presentations, and unfortunate displays of junior staffers overdoing the open the bar and… well, you get the picture.

But real business improvement retreats are a different story.  An effective offsite, be it an afternoon or a weekend will accomplish several things:

1. Get the core issues on the table
2. Generate enthusiasm and camaraderie
3. Allow everyone to be heard
4. Generate new ideas and solutions
5. Bring alignment and clarity
6. Define concrete next steps to move forward

They can be course altering, clarity bringing, alignment inducing, motivating events for your organization. So don’t underestimate them. Sharpening the axe is work to, it’s just work that makes all other efforts that much more effective.

When was the last time your team had a chance to convene, course correct, and codify your goals and plan? Maybe it’s high time you head to the shed, grab the whetstone, and work smarter.