When retreats are the fashion and results outmoded.

This is the season of retreats. Government officials as well as those from other organisations retreat from their usual work stations and head for some far away place, usually a lakeside resort hotel in order to grapple with the challenges of their organisations.

This is the season of retreats. Government officials as well as those from other organisations retreat from their usual work stations and head for some far away place, usually a lakeside resort hotel in order to grapple with the challenges of their organisations.

Once there, they shut themselves from any contact except that of the hotel staff who are obviously essential for the physical and mental exertion expected from the temporary hermits.

They shut themselves from any noise except the gentle lapping of waves on the shore.

The stated reason for the officials shutting themselves away in such a manner is to permit an uninterrupted review of work done, or more likely not done, in the preceeding year and to plan for the next, and to enable candid and honest soul-searching.

Information from such retreats reveals that the stated aim is often achieved. What is never achieved is implementation of the many resolutions and plans.

The biggest and choicest of the retreats during this season is the one in which the entire cabinet and senior government officials go off for a week to do their own soul-searching. From past experience this year’s retreat is due any time soon.

We never get to know what goes on at these annual government retreats. But some things we see and they tell a lot.

The first indication that the journey to Lake Kivu or The Akagera game park is not a pleasure trip is given by the mode of transport.

Ministers and their permanent secretaries and a few others down the ladder board buses and leave their posh cars behind.

This is a symbolic levelling of people often jealously protective of their status and points to the nature of the discussions during the retreat. But there is another reason for this.

Our important people leave behind their drivers and body guards. As everyone knows, these are not only status symbols, but also very important outlets for leaks.

Their absence deprives the rest of us of some juicy bits about the mortality of government bigwigs. For the drivers and bodyguards, their exclusion is a welcome holiday.

We get to know about some happenings at the retreats from snippets of information which somehow seep through the wall despite attempts to seal all leaks. 

For instance, we know that there is a great deal of frank and blunt talking, although this is often one way. We learn that there is much soul-searching (whether it is honest is another matter), that confessions are made (willingly or extracted, it doesn’t really matter) and even absolutions given.

How I wish I was a fly on the wall in that room and hear such ego-shattering revelations! I fear, though, I might be tempted to laugh(buzz in shock and delight) and then get swatted. What would be the point?

When they return from the retreat, we notice that their usual bombast and swagger are markedly absent. Instead they appear unusually subdued and mortified.

And from snatches of speech, we gather that they are determined to put right what was obviously roundly criticised during the retreat so as not to earn the displeasure and wrath of the chief executive the next time.

Well, until the next retreat.

Before this star-studded retreat takes place, others will have been held. Such a one was held by local authority officials just over a week ago on the shores of Lake Kivu.

We learnt something about this from President Paul Kagame. He was clearly not impressed. Actually he looked and sounded exasperated by the lack of results from similar retreats and meetings in the past.

He remarked that issues that should have been resolved at previous retreats have a habit of reappearing with annoying regularity at subsequent ones.

And it is not because they have undergone any form of mutation or metamorphosis as a result of attempts to solve them.  No. They are still the same shape and size and substance.

The president is right to be angry. But really he should not. This is why.

The retreat is the latest fad in management, and like all fads, it is copied without understanding its purpose. It is done because everyone else does it.

The president might be getting results from the government retreat, but that does not mean that all other copy cats will get the same.

They are probably doing it because he is doing it, and if he is they must be seen to follow his example in order to be taken seriously or to show their loyalty.

The retreat as a management tool has come after meetings, seminars and workshops, first populasied by NGOs.

In some quarters, a person’s self-worth is measured by how many meetings he has attended. How often have you heard a person sighing with feigned fatigue but undisguised pride that he has attended five meetings that day and he is going to the sixth?

Seminars and workshops, and now retreats are going through the same unimaginative spell as we see in the business world.

Unimaginative business people, seeing the success of other people in a certain line of business, simply rush into the same line without knowing the reasons that have led to the success of the other person. And very often they are not as successful.

There have been cases where seminars or retreats have been seen as business opportunities for some people. Some executives take seminars to hotels or other business establishments of their business associates or where they have been promised a cut from the proceeds.

And so they hold as many seminars as will fit into the calendar without raising too many eyebrows, even when such seminars are utterly unnecessary.

You cannot expect results from such seminars or retreats or whatever they are called.

Then there is the concept of leadership. The vocabulary may have changed but not the concept. We now talk of leadership (ubuyobozi) and to lead (kuyobora) but  the necessary intellectual, attitudinal and conceptual shift has not happened in those holding leadership positions.

Many still go into leadership with the concepts of ruling (gutegeka) and all the perks that go with it. They see it as a form of entitlement.

Responsibility, accountablity and seeking solutions are obviously not part of the entitlement, but the resort package is.

In the current season of retreats, President Kagame will find his patience tried by people with a mindset they are unwilling or too lazy to change. 

They will continue to go on retreats and return unchanged. That does not mean that retreats do not work. They do. But for them to be more effective, they must be internalised as methods of work, not copied because they are in vogue.

Ends

Have Your SayLeave a comment