Siri Calling

Last year, a few days before Christmas, the Strategic Services Group in the Department of Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade and Energy SA was due to hold a strategic planning workshop. Facilitator, Monica Redden, had designed a session that would help the team review its achievements before setting goals and priorities for the forthcoming year. Monica had worked with the team for a number of years and was cognisant of the challenges each team member had faced. The team of eight, much like organisational teams across the world, had coped with constant change, amalgamations, resource constraints and a heavy workload. They were tired, Monica decided, and the last thing tired brains need a few days out from Christmas is a big, complex cognitive challenge that would probably yield mediocre results. Nevertheless, supporting team members to focus on what they had achieved throughout the year, how well they had worked as a team, and what they could aim for in 2013, was still a critical concern. How could the time be used differently, she wondered.

Facilitation from afar

On the day of the scheduled workshop, within an hour of the due start time, Monica called ‘Siri’ with an idea. “Do what you want, Siri, but help me come up with something that will inspire, stretch people’s imagination, acknowledge the hard work they have put in this year, and make the next 60 minutes an enjoyable way for them to get to know each other in a different context.” In this case, Siri was me, and not the helpful virtual assistant associated with Apple’s iPhone. Monica is based in Adelaide; I am based in Sydney; we had to move quickly. Our idea was to to conduct a facilitation from afar: team members would be told to gather in the foyer of their office building at the appointed time; they would not be given any information about what to expect; I would receive all of their mobile phone numbers in advance and provide text-based instructions for a magical mystery tour that would take them on a reflective wander through their city streets. Even Monica wouldn’t know what was going to happen next, where they would be instructed to go, and what kinds of questions they would be asked to reflect on and discuss. Fortunately, I’ve been a visitor to the city since childhood, so I know it well. Using a Google map of Adelaide’s CBD, I sketched a rough plan based on the Grenfell Street starting point and our agreed resting place in the Botanic Gardens.

Once the team had gathered in the foyer, Monica texted me to send through the first instruction. From there they were guided to Bauhaus, a home-wares and jewellery shop on Rundle Street that vibrates with an exotic intensity; then to the exquisitely named Ebenezer Place, which has a pronounced bend in its design and conjured up all sort of questions for me about crooks in the road and turning points; over to The Hub next, nestled between the University of Adelaide’s Barr-Smith Library and the Hughes Building, and about which I have already written; then a leisurely stroll to the Botanic Gardens and a much-needed refreshment break before the day’s final reflection underneath a tree near the herbarium. See below for a summary of questions asked.

“It was a nice opportunity to stroll though places that we wouldn’t normally visit and knowing that, as a group, it didn’t matter where we were, we could talk about our surroundings and our work with ease and respect.”

“Thanks for the tour. I really liked the different work spaces at The Hub and wish we could incorporate some of these elements in our own workspace.”


Lessons learned

And the results? General Manager Julianne Cirson said later that apart from the whole thing being enjoyable and lively, there were some practical outcomes. Time spent in The Hub was particularly useful, she said, as it got them thinking about how to reinvent their floorspace to allow for better team interaction in a more aesthetically pleasing work environment. And the lessons? For Monica and me it was a lesson in trust. Having worked together on a number of inventive leadership programs and workshops, we knew we could swing into action fast, that geography posed no barriers, and that our intuitive sense that a celebratory tone would be a more fitting end to the year than hard-nosed structural thought was the right way to go. We trusted each other to stretch the parameters of what was possible. What could we have done differently? Ask them to wear sensible shoes next time, Monica now muses.

“It was great to go on an adventure which included light, colour and outdoors with my team who were open and relaxed. Will now be doing my Christmas shopping at Bauhaus!”

Just like Siri is a virtual concoction, the team didn’t believe I existed at the start of their journey. They thought Monica had invented me and was the real brains behind the mysterious flow of text messages. Who was sending those messages every 20 minutes or so? Siri, of course, the facilitator from afar.

“It helped me realise that we’ve faced some real challenges this year and we need to be proud of the way we’ve handled them and the bond we’ve developed as a team. The only way from here is up!”


Summary of questions at each stop

  1. Bauhaus: Visually select two items that when combined will tell a story about what you have been through as a team this year. Discuss outside shop for 15 minutes, text me if confused.
  2. The Bauhaus was a creative bunch of artists, architects and designers in the early 20th century, you are creative too. Sometimes creative responses are required when things go crooked. Go to the crook in Ebenezer Place. In pairs, discuss: What was turning point in your team’s fortunes this year? Where might the curves (surprises) be next year? How do you feel about it?
  3. The Hub: Sit down in comfy chairs and relax. Do you need a drink? In threes, discuss: What do the physical aspects of your workplace mean to you? What colour do you associate with your workplace and why? What about psychological and emotional dimension, what colour would this be and why? Is there anything about The Hub (essence, design, colour) that you would like to bring into your workplace next year?
  4. Botanic Gardens Herbarium: Cool place to sit. Get drink etc. This is the last reflection. In different pairs of threes (ie different configuration for each of following two questions): What am I most proud of this year? I would get a spring in my step if we could……next year.