If you are planning a company get together or an away day, whether it’s to reconnect people or to launch your new business plan you might, like many people, be keen to avoid what is known as “Conference 101” – the standard fare of coffee-welcome address-presentation-presentation-lunch-presentation-presentation-wrap up-finish that far too many people envisage when they talk about such events.
The problem is, with Conference 101 you know what you are getting. It might be desperately dull, but it’s safe… which brings us to the next topic in our run-through of event planning: permission.
Years of experience have taught us to recognise the hunted expression in the eyes of someone who has been tasked with planning an event. There are a million-and-one things to do - from invitations, to venue sourcing, to catering, to agenda creation, to supervision of content from your speakers – and that leaves precious little time to think about that most difficult of subjects: how can I make this event special?
Let’s not ignore the fact that putting on an event requires some serious financial outlay. Venues, food and accommodation are not cheap, and if you are taking your workforce off the day job for an extended period of time there is an attendant pressure to produce something that represents a good Return on Investment. Perhaps there is something to be said for “safe, but dull” after all…
We don’t think so. As we say on the front page of our website, “we’re sick of boring conferences, and we think you should be too.” Your people deserve something better than the expected, the standard, the run-of-the-mill don’t they? But how can you do that on top of everything else?
What you need is permission. That doesn’t immediately mean the green light from your superiors to spend a fortune on lavish effects and dramatic venues – although we’ve seen plenty of them being used in lieu of actual human engagement – but rather permission to dream.
Some time ago, the Disney Corporation had a rule whereby the people who created the stories and imagined the films were insulated from the accountants and the practical people by a special buffer group that acted as a go-between. The reason for this is that if you have a fantastic idea that has cold water poured upon it by people who can’t see your vision you will never be able to give full expression to your idea. We see the same in some organisations and our role is to help you find a way to make your idea work somehow.
That’s not to say we can work miracles or arrange for Take That to reform and perform in the breaks at your conference, but we can take the essence of an idea, develop it with you, and find a way to make it work. It comes from our commitment to the principles of improvisation: to build something you have to find a way to add to what is offered… to say “yes, and…” In other words, to give you permission to imagine something different.
We can’t convince a sceptical holder of the purse-strings that your idea is a good one or the right one, but what we can do is take the kernel of your idea and help you shape it into a form that is more likely to gain approval, and then help you execute it so no one has to put up with another boring conference.
"There is no control, only relationships."
As people start to imagine how the workplace will be as they come back from the enforced hiatus of the past year it might be time to consider how you relate to your colleagues. Often, when we are asked to work with a team to help them collaborate and communicate in better ways, it is obvious that the problems lie in the strange dance that we all do around the individuals with whom we sometimes spend more time with than members of our family.
Here are three thoughts that might help you to get the most out of your co-workers and minimise the stresses and tensions of the workplace.
1) See the good things, instead of the bad.
Nobody’s perfect. We are all annoying in our own way, but we find ways to forgive ourselves. Extend that courtesy to your co-workers. Instead of focusing on the irritating things that they do, focus on their positive qualities – what you appreciate about them.
There is a Taoist story of the man who complains to a philosopher about a cherry tree in his town: “It is so old that it no longer bears fruit, and it is so bent that if I chopped it down I would be unable to make anything from the wood. What use is it?”
The philosopher replies, “It’s uselessness is why it is useful. No one will ever cut it down to use the wood, it’s foliage will never be shredded as people try to harvest its fruit, so people will always be able to rest in its shade on a hot day.”
Everyone has good qualities if you look for them and everyone sees the world in their own unique way. Embrace different viewpoints to gain a more nuanced picture of the world. The introvert who sits and listens quietly in a room full of extroverts might see things that the majority cannot. Make space for them, accommodate their difference and embrace their divergent view of the situation.
2) Listen without feeling the need to judge or advise.
Sometimes people just need to vent. On a basic, profane level, it has been proved that swearing when you hurt yourself, such as accidently bumping your head or hitting your thumb with a hammer, actually helps you cope with the pain better than if you keep quiet. This need to let things out extends to emotional pain too.
There’s a strong causal link between Powerlessness, Fear and Anger. If you feel you have no power in a situation, things are done to you – you have no agency to affect them. If you are powerless it is very easy to be afraid. People who are afraid often become angry.
If someone needs to let off steam, let them do just that. Don’t openly agree with them as that might offer justification to their emotional state, but by the same token, don’t judge what they are saying or offer advice. Your judgement or counselling is not going to help their feelings of being “done to”.
If the person is a customer, complaining about something you have, or have not done, there is one guaranteed way to make things worse with just six little words:
“Can I just stop you there?”
That phrase, delivered mid-rant, is a cast iron way to give the complainant more energy to carry on. Instead, see them and their complaint like a balloon that is deflating. However angry you might be, in the absence of somebody arguing, justifying, excusing or explaining a position, it is almost impossible to maintain a sustained, high level of righteous indignation. Listen to – don’t just “hear” – their grievance (and to understand the difference check out this link), and then find a way to address their concerns.
3) Lower your expectations.
It’s better to not expect too much and be presently surprised, rather than set your standards so high that you are setting the stage for disappointment and resentment. We’re all fighting our own battles every day. No one knows what is happening in someone else’s life, and no one can say, definitively, that a task is “easy” or “hard”. What one person can accomplish easily might be incredibly difficult for another… but we all have our own personal skills that we bring to the table.
Above all, refrain from the toxic business obsession with developing people into “complete, whole, fully-rounded, multi-skilled individuals.” If you will forgive me a sporting analogy, Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer in the world is predominantly left-footed. For every touch he makes with his right foot he will make ten with his left, yet no coach takes him on one side and makes him do a course in being right-footed.
The grim reality is that if Mr Messi worked in many organisations, not only would his annual appraisal highlight his underuse of his right foot, but he would be pushed in the direction of e-learning modules and workplace training initiatives to improve his skills as a goalkeeper or make him a better defender. Instead, all his teammates and the coaches and managers he plays for know that he has two roles: to make goals and to score goals. If he can do that with a ten-to-one preference for his left foot, so be it.
If you would like some help to get your return to the workplace off to a great start, get in touch. It might be a perfect opportunity to set in place new, long-lasting protocols that will improve everyone’s experience.
Creativity isn’t always welcomed in the world of business. Oh, there’s plenty of lip-service paid about “fostering a creative environment” or “looking for creative solutions”, but most if the time creativity itself must stay within tightly defined boundaries.
Who designed these boundaries no one can say. At some point, probably during the Industrial Revolution, there was a pressure to produce workers who knew how to operate their machinery, or fit in to their workplace hierarchy, and the education system complied with this requirement by teaching the value of regimentation, rules and ordered thought. In this way the schism between the serious business of “work” and the frivolous pursuit of “art” developed. I am sure many people who are reading this were pressured by family, school or society to abandon dreams of a career in the arts to “get a proper job” or a “good career”.
But… what if business truly welcomed back the deviant world of the arts? What could it learn? Here are a few thoughts...
1. Put your show on the road.
Let’s start with another kind of “business”. Show business. Many organisations could learn how to cope with a deadline from the performing arts. To put on a production multiple departments – props, lighting, stage management, front of house, and of course the performers – have to deliver on their commitments so that the curtain can go up on time on the opening night. There is no option, unlike in many businesses, to “push the deadline to the right”, citing “unforeseen circumstances” or “rollout delays”. The show must go on… and that means the show must go on, on opening night, on time, and in a way that can be shared with a paying audience. No excuses. No reimagined deadlines.
On top of the logistical challenges of putting on a production there are the soft skills that any successful theatrical practitioner has to acquire and develop. In a world where considerations of ego are never far under the surface, you have to develop coping strategies to get along with people that you may not like on a personal or professional basis. In a touring production you might be in close proximity, far from home, with individuals who rub you up the wrong way. Everyone has, at some point, faced this challenge at work, but in the performance world “just getting by” isn’t enough. Even if you don’t like a fellow actor, you have to be able to rely on them, and they on you, for the sake of the show. If you try to one-up someone else, score a political point or throw someone under the bus – behaviours seen many times in business – the whole show will suffer.
2. Don’t be your own critic.
Outside of performance and returning to the strictures placed upon us by convention, consider drawing as a skill. No one ever tells a small child that their scribble isn’t art. Fridges all over the world are festooned with children’s drawings that escape the criticism that constrains adult art… and that criticism isn’t always from outsiders. At some point, when you are still very young, the childlike joy of making marks on a paper is replaced by the self-censorship that comes from questioning whether what you have done is “good enough”. If an amateur artist shows someone their work, how often is it done with a self-deprecating “it’s not very good…” or “it’s just a doodle…”?
It would appear that the work-focused regimentation of education rapidly teaches that there is always a right and a wrong answer and that everything has a standard that must be achieved to make it worthwhile. While I accept that standards are important if you are building bridges or aeroplane engines, the leaching of these standards into areas of business that require creative thought is nothing less than toxic.
3. Don’t chase the money.
Standards also equate to value. “Good” art is worth money. But few, if any artists sit down to create something thinking of anything as prosaic and limiting as a Return on Investment. Most artistic creation isn’t so cynical, relegating the art of creation to a cold assessment of the saleability of the finished product. Art has soul. Few businesses can say the same of their output. Even fewer genuinely consider how interactions with them make other people feel, preferring to limit their consideration to the bottom line and to customer retention statistics… And that is outside of what has been termed the “Engagement Theatre” of employee engagement scores, where human emotions and sensibilities are converted into into the kind of cold, percentage-based metrics that business loves.
The limitation that this places upon business is that there is no space for experimentation. While “build it, and they will come” is not necessarily a suitable planning strategy for organisations, not building it because the plan doesn’t analyse well absolutely guarantees that taking a creative leap in what your company offers will never occur.
4. Don’t think of the finished product, because it doesn’t exist.
Perfection doesn’t exist. If you wait for perfection, you will miss the opportunity. Trying to produce the ultimate product is doomed - as soon as it is released it is obsolete. Furthermore, it could be that the product you have created, even if it is not “finished”, will be adopted, adapted and improved by the end users once it is released into the wild. However talented your developers are, in an age of Disruptive Innovation, it could be that the public will find a purpose in your “unfinished” product that is beyond what was initially planned. In art, nothing is ever “finished”. People just stop adding to it.
There is also a beauty and a creativity in seeing things not as a whole, but as individual elements. It is not possible to get through a day of listening to music on the radio without hearing parts of other artist’s compositions – that they deemed “finished” (for them at least) – sampled and reincorporated to make something new.
5. See the world in a different way.
Art allows people to “see” things in different ways. It evolves and challenges in ways that businesses are reluctant to do. What is “art” is constantly changing, whether it is a way of applying paint, a pile of bricks, an unmade bed, or, in the case of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917, a urinal purchased from a builders’ merchant, turned on its back and signed. Which brings us to another important lesson we can learn from art…
It provokes powerful emotions. Anyone seeing a urinal or a pile of bricks or an unmade bed that has been placed on display might be tempted to say “that’s not art!” or “I could have done that!”. Good! Even if you hate it, least it has generated a passionate response. It makes people talk. And, to the point of “I could have done that”, yes, you could. But you didn’t - either because you didn’t think of it, or the creative standards and frameworks that you have created for yourself limited your horizons and self-censorship took over.
Give in to the power of emotions.
Art is the realm of emotions. So is the business world, even though it attempts to deny it fervently. The fact is that every action you take in the day is driven by emotion, and the feeling that taking that action will give you. You don’t want a thing (a Ferrari, a nice cup of tea, a holiday); you want the feeling that you think you will have when you have that thing. Art lifts the transactional interchange of “things” to a higher plane, where multi-faceted elements combine to create a whole experience that transcends the object itself.
Art connects us to the world and understanding the importance of that connectivity is another vital lesson for business. Art can be a representation of hopes, fears and aspirations. The earliest human art, whether a cave painting or a primitive sculpture, linked the creator and those who viewed the creation on a profound level, but human creativity rapidly went beyond this.
Very early in our history people started making tools that were not just functional, but that were also beautiful. From the first people who carved ornamentation into their knife handles and stone implements, all the way to William Morris’ 19th century evocation to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, people have wanted a combination of utility and spiritual satisfaction. Human life seems to need this; business needs to recognise it too.
“Stories are just data with a soul”.
Above everything else, art is stories. In the written word this is obvious, and everyone knows the difference between a well-crafted story and one that doesn’t inspire and engage. But the stories, the connections and the inspiration in all fields of artistic endeavour are varied and infinite, and they lie in the way others relate to the piece that has been created.
What feelings and connections does your business inspire? What stories does it allow people to tell? If it was placed on a stage, hung on a wall, exhibited in a gallery or projected on a screen what responses would it elicit?
Put the art back into your business and see what happens.
When you plan your next face-to-face event – and we suggest starting now because as the restrictions lift, demand will be high – you will probably want to think about how people reconnect with work colleagues they have only seen remotely over the past few months.
The temptation might be to put a large sum of money behind the bar, but if you want something more imaginative and useful to your business you might want to consider some of these suggestions:
Helping people to be comfortable with the unexpected.
We have developed our long experience of improvisation into an easy series of confidence-building exercises that help people address issues around collaboration, conflict and fear of failure. Whether you want to bond people together in a spirit of fun and laughter, or if you would like to use our Applied Improvisation sessions to create innovative solutions to difficult problems, we have what you need.
Talk is cheap, but it offers great value.
The endless Zoom calls of the lockdown have been interaction, but they haven’t been talking. Talking is a whole body experience – the countless gestures, postures, moves and glances that happen in real life can’t be replicated virtually. Make the most of people being in the same place, at the same time and allow them to talk. We can help you run an Open Space or run other activities that encourage the sharing of ideas.
One of our recent clients summed up what we do nicely: “we use storytelling techniques to create an environment of trust that allows people to make better decisions”. If you would like us to do that, get in touch, but whatever you do, it pays to use a professional facilitator. Someone from outside your business doesn’t have any agenda, can react honestly to tensions to which others have grown accustomed and can ensure that everyone is heard, not just those with the loudest voices.
Make the most of the time apart.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also lets people reassess what they value from their work environment and relationships. This has been a long time apart and if habits can be made or broken in 21 days, there has been more than enough time for things to change in how your team interacts and collaborates.
People will have views on what they want for the future. Let them share their ideas and you will be able to forge a better working relationship by acting on the thoughts that come out.
This is our area of expertise. If you need any help, get in touch.