How the UNDP Maldives Country Office remoulded its strategic planning retreat
Annals of a Democratised Meeting
June 23, 2022
By Ahmed Naaif Mohamed
When Adam Shaheer first saw the agenda for the Strategic Retreat for UNDP Maldives 2022, he almost instantly thought that the first day of the retreat is set to start too early and way too vague. It’s not new to travel early for him, but it just did not sit right. Adam has been working with UNDP Maldives in various capacities for the past 17 years, his most recent stint ensuring access to clean water in the islands. This meant that he has been in a couple of retreats organised by the office, but even for him, this was by every measure, unconventional.
He was slightly unnerved when asked about his experience in the previous retreat. “COVID-19 didn’t help. It was insanely rushed, and I would rather call it a very long exercise. The one before that was a bit better. We had some fun, but the sessions were extremely heavy. We started early in the morning and had sessions through sundown. We were constantly on call too, so we were attending to emails and other work stuff among all this. It was basically us in a very beautiful island but stacked indoors all throughout the day and running into the sea just before it got dark. We got to relax, get to know each other, and got some time to catch up with people beyond their work personas. Maybe it’s me, I like to interact with people and work together to solve a problem. I am so glad we didn’t go for a virtual retreat this time, despite the uncertainty (due to COVID-19) earlier this year.”
The strategic retreat this year easily became a special one for a couple of reasons, similar to Adam’s sentiments. The office has grown thrice its size in personnel in the last two years, and the retreat was where we would all meet in-person for the first time since the pandemic. While the retreat in 2021 helped programming, as Adam recollected, the virtual modality did not achieve the proverbial gold medal on the team-building aspect, and this soon became one of the key goals of the new retreat. A committee was therefore convened to arrange the logistics and assist the consultant(s) who will be facilitating the technical aspect of the retreat.
We first met Stelio Verzera and his team in December 2021 over a grainy video feed on a Zoom call. Stelio and his team over at Cocoon-Pro are professionals who assist organisations make sense out of their context, evolve, and expand their horizons to ambitious, but achievable ones. Our first meeting was a familiar exchange; how is the Maldives reassessing its pandemic control measures and how would it impact logistics? How frequently shall we convene for the heartbeats - a check-in meeting where we share the metaphorical pulse of how everything is coming together and discuss what will be reported on in the next meeting? Once it was decided, we jumped in to discuss the specifics of how the three days would unfold.
Hussain joined the Retreat Committee a little bit later than all of us. He is the Head of Experimentation at the UNDP Maldives Accelerator Lab, travelling around the country and learning about organic solutions developed by the community to tackle complex challenges they face every day. “Jokes aside, when Stelio asked whether we knew what OST was, the voice in my head almost instantly replied ‘Original Soundtrack’. And then it occurred to me that that wouldn’t make sense in a corporate strategic planning setting. I never heard the abbreviated term before and when they said it’s short for Open Space Technology, I surmised that it could be the metaphorical arrangement of how the space was organised for the meeting.”
When I heard of an Open Space Technology, it struck the hesitancy chord in me. Just like my colleague Hussain, in my ignorance and confusion, I equated it to some technological tool that would once again make this retreat somehow a virtual space. While I remain wide-eyed about the marvels and wonders of technology and what it will continue to achieve, after two years of remote work I am a firm believer that the current technology cannot virtualise what makes human interactions so quintessentially human. And with all the patience under the sky, Stelio and his team explained the concept, shared some reading material, and asked us not to share it widely in the office. That ended the first meeting.
By the time we managed to convene for the second meeting, the entire Retreat Committee was onboard with the idea. It was based on foundations that are familiar and ones that have stood the test of time, but not something we would conventionally equip during a sensemaking process.
Hussain eventually learnt why Stelio asked us not to share the reading material or an introduction to the concept with the wider team. “In an office full of curious individuals, it is exceptionally hard to keep a secret about an event on the horizon everyone is looking forward to. Giving away half of the concept also raised eyebrows in doubt and apprehension. I trusted more in the experience in testing the method and insight the Cocoon Pro team got out of these events and wanted them to share it when the time was right.” My colleagues who heard the summary almost instantly questioned whether something so outlandishly familiar and yet so incidentally innate could be used to do what we are setting out to do. I shared the same doubt and hesitancy not too long ago, and to me it seemed like I was confronted by a version of my past. For them to understand it, they needed to know how it works and how it has worked in the past. And for Stelio, that trust and faith in the process should not be built theoretically or using words; it should be forged by their own hands.
And all three of us were humbled when that time came.
The first of the three-day sessions started with icebreaking and getting everyone to know each other. Adam described it as a rollercoaster. “As part of the retreat committee, I was a bit anxious that this open agenda wouldn’t work and people might not engage, or we are woefully unprepared for this. I thought we might need to jump in anytime to troubleshoot and we might be letting our colleagues down. But as we progressed through the first day, I felt a bit of relief because I witnessed it all coming together. During the planning stage I was so hesitant about this entire thing even though I believed in the team, but when push came to shove, I was way too eager to jump in and start the conversation. I wanted to get into the heavy topics, the ones I once loathed.”
Open Space Technology – and by the rule of Occam’s razor – is democratizing a meeting and its agenda. To reduce its long and rich history to one sentence (and therefore doing every injustice to this beautiful, intrinsically human concept), it was put forward by Harrison Owen after observing that conversations during the break times in a conference or a large gathering are far more productive than the conference itself because you get to discuss what you are passionate about. Ema, one of the lead facilitators from Cocoon-Pro, got all of us into a circle and set a table in the middle of the circle with some post-it notes and markers. The once loud and cheery room became almost palpable when he started explaining it, as if everyone held onto every letter that came out of his mouth.
“When Ema opened the circle for everyone to suggest sessions for the next two days, I almost held my breath. It was the moment of truth. All my anxiety culminated at this point. My mind was racing on whether there will be a lingering silence, or that people won’t be interested in suggesting an agenda for the days, or something else.”
This was the part where the committee was most concerned about; before I read about the concept, I was uncertain whether people would come up with discussion topics for the schedule, and even if people did, I questioned whether it would help us achieve the overall objective we set to achieve. Out of panic, I brought the same concern to Ema and the team when we were doing our final preparatory work at the venue. This did not faze Ema and the team. Unlike me, they have seen the concept in action, and were confident that the schedule will be filled up in 20 minutes.
“Ema was right. The first person stood up almost before Ema existed the circle. No awkward silence, no hesitancy. People were interested and engaged. It really was a sight to see how driven everyone was, how detailed the suggestions were, and how it resonated so much with what I had in mind too.” Adam eventually found himself walking towards the centre table to jot down his suggested discussion topic. The agenda board was already filling up with topics on better procedures, fine-tuning SOPs, human resource management, and mainstreaming gender. I remember hearing a collective cheer when the agenda board was full. Some studied the schedule to tweak it better. Some jotted down sessions they do not want to miss. Everyone was excited for the next two days.
It worked. When the discussions happened ideas and solutions were jotted down in length. Conversations dear to our hearts went over the time limit allotted, and to a point where the cocoon-pro facilitators had to remind us of the time. Democratising how we met and what we meet about worked like magic. When the day was over, notes from the sessions were pasted on a wall for everyone to see and read.
“Quite honestly, it was very refreshing to have the acknowledgment and trust we are all adults here who can well decide what we want to talk about in defining our vision for how we want to appear as an organisation in the development space of the country. It just goes to show that the management trusted our lived and professional experiences gained over the years with the office to help it shape better and build back better for the people. Some of us felt like we could’ve stayed all day talking about operational procedures and otherwise mundane and mind-numbing corporate stuff if the facilitators did not intervene. Reflecting back, I realise how dear to our heart all this is. The retreat just opened a venue for us to express it all in a very positive space and we were firing on all cylinders,” Adam reminisced as if it happened yesterday.
We spent the final day in a sensemaking process, where the honest and intimate conversations we had in the past two days were synthesised into jargons and measurable outcomes that can be tracked for their progress over the course of the year. Before we packed our bags and canvasses, our Resident Representative (RR), Enrico Gaveglia reached out to Hussain and called for an out-of-agenda closing circle.
“It took me by surprise at first because the agenda was already packed. I remember my curious self, wondering out loud what the paper could be for as I was bundling a stack of empty A4 papers as Enrico requested. The closing circle perhaps is my fondest memory of the entire retreat. I haven’t been in a strategic retreat before, but it was nice to hear your RR committing to realise our suggestions to reorient the office and its strategic goals to do what we do better. From my previous work experience, this sort of thing is usually top-down and I definitely appreciated it better to have been a part of this bottom-up approach. The activity with the A4 papers facilitated everyone to express honest gratitude to our colleagues we see and collaborate with on a daily basis. For me, I will carry that piece of paper as a memorabilia wherever I go. It was a good closure.”
While establishing the ground rules for teambuilding activities after the official sessions of Day 1, one of the facilitators referenced the first rule of Fight Club to remind everyone to keep what they learn about each other and the banter during the game confidential. By coincidence or by virtue of good memory, the Fight Club’s last rule was cited by our RR as a closure of our office commitment towards centring purpose in all we do, and not giving up to adversities because “if this is your first night, you have to fight.” It was our first night of a new cycle and we are ready for it.
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