Team discourse leads to action! (Experimenting with Celebration Grids)

- Practices & Exercises

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by Wim Thielemans

Working as a coach, trainer and facilitator since 1996, I get to hear a lot of feedback from employees during training and workshop sessions. Many of these workshops are about getting people to take actions that fit a particular project, such as value definition or customer care projects. We often received comments from disgruntled employees who had submitted many ideas to their organization, never to hear anything afterwards.

For some strange reason people believe that when they offer up ideas, they should be actioned immediately. Perhaps that very night the tooth fairy or Sint-Nicolaas (the original Santa Claus) will show up to make them happen. Of course, when their ideas never saw the light of day, many of them acted like a child who stays up to wait for Santa Claus and finds his parents putting the presents under the tree. Disappointed! Our coaching team had to deal with a lot of disappointment and disillusioned employees.

When management get involved in employee engagement projects, questions are often raised about their commitment to giving employees freedom to experiment; to come up with ideas and be given the time and support to develop them. Often HR are called in to help organize a team-building event to re-motivate employees, or once again try to engage their ideas. This just leads to further disappointment. The employee is not fooled: “This is not what I wanted or expected.”

It’s a problem that many ‘orange’ organizations (defined by Laloux in his excellent book Reinventing Organizations) have to deal with. They are driven by objectives and believe that having a goal is enough to motivate people to move towards it. Unfortunately people are rarely empowered to take action to reach a goal set by senior management.

So how can we do a better job without the need to change the organization’s culture and apathy for employee engagement projects? This is how we did it at Dynamo!

Celebration grids and yay questions

We always start off using an exercise found in Jurgen Appelo’s excellent book #Workout. The exercise is called Yay Questions and Celebration Grids! We set the scene by introducing a Celebration Grid which sets out Mistakes-Experiments-Practices.

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During a project with a Belgian client who had no culture of participation, we found that participants simply could not come up with good examples to map on the grid. We could only use the model as a way to develop the mindset that day-to-day things are also worthwhile celebrating. We showed that it was good to get people to start experimenting, as long as they were willing to accept that with new experiments there was always a good chance of failure; that it was the learning part of the experiment that was most important.

Next steps…

We take teams through a thinking process which helps them design good ideas. The process helps them understand that the ideas they come up will be accepted without any need for senior management approval, if the actions are based on three conditions. We always pre-negotiate these conditions with the management team. If ideas need to go through a process of approval, people would not feel empowered. This way, the team feel empowered to develop their ideas and make them happen.

The three conditions are:

  1. We control the experiments: we do not design actions for other teams to carry out
  2. The actions should not harm anyone i.e. clients, colleagues, shareholders, etc.
  3. The actions do not require a budget: since a budget always needs an approval and decisions may be blocked due to lack of budget

It sounds a very simple task,… but it can lead to frustration. Old cows show up and we have to deal with them.

Example: Many employees are not used to making decisions for themselves, especially if they have worked for years in the pyramid structure of “shut up and do what you are told to do.”

On a flip chart we draw the following:

Experimenting with ideas and employee engagement

The ball represents our ‘work’ within our team. The team are split into subgroups of no more than three people who discuss the following questions and design answers:

What do we need to do that will make our work:

  1. Become worse: the ball of work goes downhill
  2. Remain stable: the purple stopper prevents the ball of work going downhill
  3. Will improve: the ball of work rolls uphill

The first question creates amusing images and feedback, and is a great team icebreaker to start off.  You often see subgroups get really excited and start laughing as soon as they start, conjuring up ways to make ‘bad’ work. However, as they have already been briefed to work within the boundaries of ‘Condition Two – do not harm anyone’, it keeps them on good track.

Sharing and mapping out solutions

After the exercise we get people to share their answers and map them out, so they can be summarized. This gives them a huge sense of achievement, they feel proud that they were able to stop the ball from rolling down. This is a very important part of the process. We cannot expect every group to come up with super ideas that skyrock their performance, but if everyone is clear about what keeps the organization going, then we have learned a lot from the exercise already.

Yay questions and celebration grids

From all the ideas that came out of the ‘improvement’ phase we ask the teams to sort them into three categories, which we call the How-Wow -Now matrix.

The ‘Now’ things are the easy tasks, in fact we could start working on them tomorrow! The ‘Wow’ things we definitely have to do. They are not that difficult and will give us lots of advantages, but might need a little longer to apply. The ‘How’s’ need more time, being more complexed ideas. Perhaps the team will need some external help if they struggle with certain issues and an easy fix is not available.

We finish up the workshop by appointing two people who are tasked with taking the ideas to senior management and a project coordinator who will brief them on what actions are being taken.

Follow up

Four months on and we invited all teams to a celebratory event to present their achievements to the rest of the organization. A committee was set up and were empowered to come up with great ideas on how the event should be organized.

The agreed format was a giant poster session. Everybody agreed that they didn’t want to present their experiments in powerpoint format, so they created giant posters, which visually displayed how ideas were formed and experiments developed. Then we awarded some prizes, for best poster, best action; we even had a superman award for the most ‘super’ team!

Management 3.0 exercises for employee engagement

Header Photo: Jason Leung (Unsplash)

2 thoughts on "Team discourse leads to action! (Experimenting with Celebration Grids)"

  • Vanessa says:

    This is really excellent, I love the activity and the story here. Maybe I’ll integrate it into my next workshop. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Wim Thielemans says:

    Dear Vanessa, Great to read you love the activity and story. I’m curious to read what you will use in your next workshop!

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