Compelling. Rejuvenating. Energizing. How often do people use those words to describe a daylong meeting focused on updating annual goals? How often do participants come away saying it was their best meeting all their years at the company? How often do they send thank you notes and stop the organizers in the hallway to say how fantastic it was?
Never? Exactly. A snowball’s chance as they say.
This week there was apparently a cold front blowing over the river Styx. Snowmen and downhill skiing in Hades and all that.
The company I work for is very big on goal setting and every June there is a meeting of roughly the top 20% leaders to look at internal and external factors that might require one’s goals to be updated/revised/changed. It’s an important event because it recognizes that the world is changing quickly and we need to adjust as needed. This year, the organizers took a big chance and shook things up.
Rather than talking about goals, goal setting, etc. the event happened like this: After a 30 minute kickoff, 15 teams of five people were given sealed envelopes with instructions for 8-10 out of 12 or so possible activities and turned loose. They got back together five hours later to debrief their insights from the activities and wrap things up. The activities ranged from looking at how competitors were using social media (in an industry that is very shy about such things), checking out internal learning resources available, going to the mall and seeing how a certain retailer is trying to rebrand itself, considering rapidly changing industries such as music and DVDs and how it might relate to our own, etc. They even decorated their own coffee mugs using markers (ala Pinterest) with how they were feeling about the near future. It all sounds campy and probably shouldn’t have worked. Amazingly (and thankfully) it did.
Why? I’m still not sure, but I have a few thoughts:
1. It was different and unexpected. People were planning on a long, dull day so the novelty was energizing and people appreciated the organizers taking chances with the meeting.
2. The teams were very cross functional across department, location, and level so participants got to know people they rarely work with or even speak to. There’s a lot of power and benefit in kicking at the silos.
3. People, even conservative people in conservative companies in conservative industries, want permission to play, explore, think, and discuss. They really don’t get a chance to do that.
4. The day was framed as being all about questions and possibilities. Participants were told up front that there were no answers to be given only exploration and discussion.
5. There was no right or wrong, just open ended questions. There was no looking at what the company needed to do better, no leading questions or judgment, just a lot of thinking about what was going on in a lot of different fields. The company has smart leaders and they were left to draw their own conclusions for moving forward.
6. When things didn’t work like the organizers had planned, they were very up front and shared it as a learning point for all the participants to benefit from.
7. The organizers didn’t apologize, hesitate, or doubt. Their words and attitudes conveyed that it was going to be a different, provocative, and fun day and the participants followed that lead.
In there is my own personal biggest takeaway: people want permission to think and play. Daily work, organizational politics and personalities, self-inflicted expectations, and fear of being different conspire to get in the way. Events that remove those constraints and create a safe zone for playing with ideas enable something pretty special to emerge.