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Working as a manager at Zappos, I created this hack when my own team was ready to lynch me! We really needed to get our team aligned, fast. I further developed it and used it when we consulted for Google Europe who wanted to innovate their new customer service program. They loved this exercise, and I hope you give it a shot.
You have a challenge. Everyone has a different point of view. It might even be getting nasty. You need everyone on board, aligned and you need their best ideas. And beyond that, once you have those ideas, you need people to commit and follow through.
1. Create a safe environment
Safety is highly underestimated in the workplace. Usually, we only think about safety when it comes to mechanical processes, or perhaps harassment. But safety is constantly an issue without anyone ever realizing it. When managers get frustrated because they empower their people and those people don’t take risks, it is because the employee does not believe s/he is safe to do so. Therefore, safety must be both stated, and demonstrated if it is to be believed.
Whoever is the authority in the room (authority being described as a person who has hiring / firing decision-making power) should say these words...
“During all of this, I want you say everything, even the things you think I don’t want to hear.” (Repeat so they know you’re serious. And if it’s not you, tell your boss to say this).
Optional: Ask the question, “What does open and honest conversation look like?” At this point you’re asking everyone to define the rules of engagement. It may seem obvious but you’ll be addressing ground rule questions such as: How will we make sure everyone has a voice? Is it okay to yell? What does respect look like? How will we know we’re getting to the real stuff?”
Optional: Clear the energy of the room by asking people to take a few deep breaths, or a few minutes in silent reflection.
2. Where are we out of alignment?
The question can be asked in several ways. Use any or all:
- What is frustrating you right now?
- Where are we saying one thing, but doing something else?
- Who are we disappointing and how?
- Where are we failing our own expectations?
Before they answer, let them know that you will be talking about solutions later, but at this point, you don’t want them to bring up solutions or alternatives. This session is the equivalent of throwing up when you’re sick or drunk. Yes, it feels awful, but you’ll feel fantastic when it’s over.
If it’s done in a group, make sure to write the answers (as a blurb line) on a white board or wall sheet paper. The purpose of this goes beyond tracking. It also serves as a visual reminder for what has been discussed. Without this reminder, people will often make the same points over and over again, ad nauseum. But with the board everyone realizes that it’s covered.
Sometimes a group will be shy and will either not speak up, or use very sparse and safe language. This usually means you’re not getting the real deal (or signs of a deeper problem that you do not have a very passionate and invested group). It’s best in this case to encourage them with words such as, “Come on, what else? Get more negative. Really tell it like it is.”
While managers are tempted to rush through this for fear of a negative mob arising, at the end they are quite grateful because it reveals what they never knew before. The information is priceless because however hard it is to hear, it’s real and it’s going on every day beneath the surface.
After this, have everyone stand up and shake it off. This energetically shifts the energy of the room out of the pent up frustration.
3. Group Share
If the group was in triads, bring them back together. Have everyone share what they realized through the exercise. The point is not to regurgitate information. The point is to have them reflect on the process itself. How did it feel? Was there new information? Then ask what trends do we see? And write down those trends. This will help to bottom-line what the main issues are within the group.
4. What’s working?
Rather than going straight from problem to solution, this is a key in-between step. Next we are going to focus on what is actually working well. In business we are so focused on the horizon of the ocean (which by definition, we can never achieve). And it’s very easy (for even the best companies in the world) to forget about how far they have come. Now is the time to acknowledge it (and make sure to use the paper or whiteboard again).
- What’s going well?
- Where are we kicking ass?
- What do we have to be grateful for?
- When have we run into problems before and shined through? (If the group has done this before, make ask that they add about something new.)
What you are doing works on many levels. For one, it changes the whole vibe to that of pride. Second, the list you are writing becomes a list of assets that you now have to approach any new challenge (that will come out of the next section). It’s best to continually shake up the room physically after these exercises, ideally in a way that gets them in connection with each other, while also expanding their comfort zones. You can experiment with having people give each other a quick back rub, a high five, dance to music, or any combination of these.
5. OPTIONAL: Individual appreciation
Through the “What’s working?” exercise you’ve established a strong baseline for the group as a whole. But the individuals may still be in doubt. It’s impossible for people to create a stabilized Stage 4 “We” culture if they are doubting their own individual contribution. At that point, the culture can be undermined by individual insecurities. These can be eliminated in this phase so that people put those worries aside.
Start by having one person in front of all the others. Set a timer for a few minutes and then open it up to everyone to say what he or she admires and respects about the person in the middle (don’t call on people, let them just speak out). What do you love about this person? What is their unique contribution? What would be missing if he or she left?
If you’ve created a safe space, and you’re leading by example, this can be a very emotional exercise in which people see their value and their talents in new ways. They feel appreciated and recognized (two of the most overlooked needs of any employee).
6. What is Possible?
Now the culture in the room is at an all-time healthy level. We’ve cleared out all the negative underlying emotions (remember the analogy to throwing up). We’ve recognized what we’re doing well as a group, and we’ve appreciated each person for their individual contributions. Now is the time to ask that killer question.
- What’s next?
- Where can we go from here?
- What’s possible?
- What do we want to create?
If you really want to shift the energy, have people stand up as they talk to each other. It puts them in an active state of mind.
Gather all the ideas, write them up and again go through and see what themes the group finds... What are the big realizations? What are the insights? Are there gaping holes we missed?
7. Leverage into Action
Everyone is feeling great at this point. Everyone is on a high. But the danger is it stops here. They go back to their desks, they get lost in the world of email and their routine to-do list, and think about that one day they had a lot of fun, and we should really do that again some time. Maybe in 6 months when we’re all pissed off again?
No. We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is the part where we lock in all that learning and put it into action:
Look at the list of possibilities on the wall and ask the group to determine how specific they are. If they are already specific, then great! If not, then ask questions like “What would this look like in action?” or “How can we actually do this?” Also, ask what new habits or rituals would help to create it. And make sure to note (and ask for) the low-hanging fruit. What could we do immediately that would be a big improvement?
As a facilitator, notice who has energy for what. Energy and passion are what you are going to leverage. As you go down each idea, ask who has passion for it. Ask who would be excited to work on it. And notice if a person with passion does not raise their hand. You may actually want to put them on the spot and ask if there is a reason. They might say, “I have too much on my plate,” or “I don’t think I have the skills to do it.” It will be interesting for you to hear the limitations (and address them one-on-one after the meeting if you would like to still encourage that person).
For each project, ask the passionate people what actions would need to be taken to get it off the ground. (Note: You may want to read the section on the Beta Blueprint before you do this, because if actions are too broad or too big, there’s a lot at risk).
Then ask if they will commit to these actions and by when. Note that they are doing this in front of their peers. It’s easy to slip on a task that no one knows about, but when our reputations are on the line with our peers it’s another story.
Make sure to set the next meeting on the calendar for when you will reconvene and reflect on your progress
An aligned, energized team, with fantastic ideas and the commitment to execute.
1. Schedule a block of 3 hours to do it
2. Invite everyone
3. Get the supplies (large form pedestal sticky notes and markers)
4. Follow the solution instructions, precisely
5. Don't take yourself to seriously and have fun with it!
Created by Robert Richman. Part of a yet to be published work called "The Culture Blueprint." This is the first time it has been published.