Everyone, no matter what their role within an organisation, can be creative and can come up with good, useful and innovative ideas for new products or processes – or ways to make more money out of old ones.
But getting employees to actually express their ideas is one of the greatest challenges facing modern managers. In the office environment, most employees never tell anyone else their ideas. This could be because of shyness, fear of being seen as different or difficult, the belief that their education or position means their ideas must be worthless, fear of failure or perhaps because the culture they are operating in actively discourages anyone, except a select few who have already been labelled “creative”, from daring to have ideas.
One way to break down these barriers and get the ideas to flow is to take employees out of their usual work environment for a meeting or event. Getting people out of their “comfort zone” stimulates learning, discussion and problem solving, as does mixing up people from different departments.
Andrew Ely, account director at event company SPS observes: “Creativity demands that we need to think out of the ‘boxes’ that we live in. This is not helped when the work environment is one of rules, systems and procedures that stop people thinking with a fresh approach. Einstein came up with his greatest theories while sailing. Taking people outside their normal working environment can reap huge rewards.
“One of the key steps to getting people to work well together is for them to know each other well, their strengths and their flaws,” he adds. “Undoubtedly, taking people outside their normal working environment helps to achieve this. But this rarely happens by chance, which is why there is a healthy industry around organised corporate events.”
Out of the office responses
Obviously, not every problem will require a company-wide, three-day conference in an expensive hotel to solve it/ some may just need a half-day meeting for a small group in a local pub. But, as Simon Hambley, managing director of live events agency Acclaim, observes, “If you stay in the office, the only thing that you get will be distractions. You can do events on company premises but you would have to take people away from their desks.”
Simon Lethbridge, experience director of events company Jack Morton Worldwide, says the solution has to be tailored to the objectives. “Before deciding your conference size, it’s essential to consider what your goals and objectives are, since they will have a direct impact on both size and content. Do you, for example, have broad messages such as new mission statements or a brand identity to relay to the entire company? Or is your goal more focused on re-engagement and motivation of your staff or a sector of your staff?”
Where you have an event can also make a strong statement, he adds. “The conference environment and the venue itself should be considered for the huge impact they can effect on the mood and tone of the event. Furthermore, this mood and tone can say a lot about your company image. Choosing vibrant and exotic cities, for example, can help achieve a very upbeat and exciting tone, whilst a more reflective feel could be achieved through a quieter, less hectic location, such as a country estate. Alternatively, a design-led, cutting-edge hotel, such as the Philippe Starck designed St Martin’s Lane hotel in London, could add an edge of sophistication and a modern outlook to the company image you are presenting to your staff.”
Venues and how they are dressed, however, should be chosen with great care, he stresses, and consideration be given to what is going on in the company as a whole or in the wider world. “For example, if you have just had to make staff cuts it probably would not be appropriate to be seen to be spending a huge budget on an elaborate venue or on the conference generally.”
Is bigger better?
Size is not everything but, Lethbridge points out, “larger events do, of course, have the benefit of bringing a diverse collection of staff together and that has the potential to kick-start new business relationships and ideas.”
Steve Moore, event producer at live events specialist Line Up, poses the rhetorical question: “Is it better to arrange one large event or a series of smaller events? It’s fairly standard to try and combine both types of event in one. Generic plenary sessions leading into more specialised breakout out groups is a widely-favoured event format.”
But whatever the solution, “the optimal process begins with a thorough brief as to the client’s event objectives,” Moore continues.
Others argue that the more important it is to get staff to think creatively, or to be open to new ideas, the bigger and more out-of-the-ordinary the event must be – particularly now that employees are used to “selling” their attention in return for entertainment.
Tim Leighton, head of strategy at events company FitchLive, argues: “Taking people out of their working environments can be an important first step; it says that you want to do something out of the ordinary. But you’ve got to try much harder than that if you want to make a real difference, stimulating creative thinking and action. Audiences – especially internal audiences – are demanding new and more engaging experiences. Think about how they engage with media and information outside their working lives: that’s what you’re up against.”
Traditionally with conferences and events, you’d get the audience into a big room and someone would talk at them,” says Simon Hambley of Acclaim. “There would be no engagement – and without engagement, you don’t get buy-in. The best thing to do is to get them to do some problem solving or experience. It’s what would have once been called ‘team building.'”
FitchLive’s Leighton agrees, arguing that the need to involve the audience is paramount to the success of an event aimed at stimulating creativity and openness to new ideas. He cites an event that Fitch created for General Motors as an example. “Every year they take all their Opel and Vauxhall European dealers out for a two or three day experience, designed to immerse them in the latest car launch. At their most recent event, for the new Corsa, dealers – working in groups – played a specially designed digital game that worked with live action scenarios in order to get them thinking about the target customer, the car and how the two fit together. By using gaming as the paradigm, the very nature of the experience lent itself to the task of bringing the target customer’s world to life.”
Importance of leadership
SPS’s Andrew Ely sounds a note of caution, warning that irregular team building events are no substitute for decent day-to-day management. He says: “Getting groups of people together is an expensive use of time. Before encouraging our clients to commit some of their precious budget on an activity or conference, we encourage them to make sure that they’ve done the groundwork by creating the right work environment for their aims.”
Management cannot just forge teams on away days and then leave them to fend for themselves back in the office, Ely argues: “Teams can be highly productive, but they can also be extremely hard work, and to transform a group of people into a team demands a commitment from everyone involved, not just the team leader. There has to be a collective will. The best teams function on interdependent activity, but this has to exist within the work environment, not just on a day out or at a conference. Work projects need to be managed in a way that brings people together, and they become dependent on each other.”
And Jack Morton’s Lethbridge stresses another important point: that, like any marketing activity, events such as this must deliver against objectives and come in under budget. Furthermore, clients need to make sure they have a real understanding of what their staff think and know before trying to design any event. Lethbridge says: “In order to set clear goals, it is crucial to have a full understanding of where your staff are in terms of connection to and belief in the company. The reality of this can in some cases differ strongly from what is thought to be the case, so it’s a very good idea to carry out some research among your staff before setting your goals.”
In last week’s special report, “Up Against the Chattering Masses”, (page 38 in magazine), the quote from Sarah Escott, head of consultancy at TradeDoubler was actually given by Lucy Allen, ceo at Netrank.