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Building beyond the team – the case for unconferences

One of the most fundamental business concerns for a services vendor (or any organisation for that matter) is managing its people, their retention and their engagement. For the manager, a key function is creating an environment for those people to succeed and perform and this inevitably means building successful, jelled teams.

Team building is as much about engagement as it is about goal setting. People who feel more personally invested in or connected to the wider business are likely to feel that they belong and that they have a network of allies who are able to work towards a common goal. Once a team begins to jell, the probability of success goes up dramatically. As a team forms and grows, the individuals might have started out with a diversity of goals but – all things being equal – soon converge on the common vision.

Recently, Intergen held its annual Yellowcamp event: a weekend unconference that brought staff from around all our global offices together to meet, discuss and brainstorm on whatever ideas and issues they felt most passionate about. For the uninitiated, an unconference is a conference where the attendees set the agenda themselves. Post-it notes of suggestions and flip-chart pads are important tools.

Intergen YellowCamp 2014 unconference: Building beyond the team,

Structured, presented formats don’t always allow for the same degree of ideas generation. One is about learning through information absorption (slide decks, presentations and speakers), while collaborative, amorphous agendas offer attendees the opportunity to address topics that senior staff or conference organisers may not have considered.

Being spoken to or lectured at for an entire day of sessions is also considerably harder both in terms of people’s’ energy levels and attention spans. Intergen’s adoption of an unconference style means staff are regularly switching locations, topics of interest and groups. It drives involvement because each session has a different audience, location and appeal. Interest is maintained because people aren’t being confined to the same room or specific topic; people want to be in those sessions because they’ve been presented with a set of options and chosen according to their preference.

You can call a group of people a team from the first day they come together but that doesn’t mean they’ll behave as one. Effective teams need information, feedback and a set of shared goals. A team will really only start to jell once its members have had time to work together, identify each others’ strengths and find a rhythm that works for them. For Intergen’s Yellowcamp, the best way to encourage the self-organising team dynamic was from the very outset when attendees are required to arrange their own transport to the venue from either our Wellington or Auckland offices. That road trip – and the carpooling required to embark on it – leads people to organise themselves into small groups by reaching out to others whom we may never have met in person before. This allows new networks to be created before the actual conference has even started.

Networks were one of the leading benefits cited by attendees at our conference. For a geographically-distributed business like Intergen, making those important connections across offices is important both in terms of productivity and efficiency as well as socially. Also, by removing the “top down” approach to organising the event, staff felt more secure in voicing strong opinions to senior leaders because the playing field was level. The event wasn’t organised or run by senior leadership and they gained the added benefit of actively engaging in detailed conversations around ideas or initiatives without having those discussions filtered through business cases, management ranks and competing time demands.

The other is feeding ideas about the business back into the business by the subject experts themselves: the staff.

But what about costs? Internal team building exercises and conferences aren’t cheap. How does a business strike the right balance if they’re looking at running a similar style event? Let’s say a conference you’re planning will cost $800 per head. Assuming the conference is well-run, covers subjects of direct interest to attendees and those attendees are more empowered to make decisions that positively influence the business as a result, it would be considered pretty successful if most came away feeling more engaged in their company and more willing to contribute positively to it. Attendees are better equipped to bring questions or suggestions to the right people directly and will team up to implement quick wins that are meaningful and easy to complete.

The return on investment here is multi-faceted: reduced recruitment costs through better staff retention, increased productivity and efficiency, process improvement… just to name a few.

Now consider giving those same staff a raise of that same amount. Would an $800 pay rise lead to the level of engagement that our hypothetical conference above yields? Most people wouldn’t really even notice the roughly $20 per week difference. As for the productivity and process gains, they would be unlikely to factor into the equation at all.

Intergen is a technology company. Understanding software is our core business and we do it well, but it’s the people who bring those skills to bear. Without investing in our people we can’t offer the best results in our service delivery. Technology is a fantastic enabler but sometimes there’s simply no substitute for actually being face-to-face with other like-minded people in your business, getting to know them and coming up with great ideas organically.

Posted by: Phil Wheeler, Senior Developer, Application Support | 17 November 2014

Tags: Team Building, YellowCamp

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