Here at Zalando Technology, we held twelve fun team retreats at cool locations in under four months. We played games that helped us get to know one another better. And we played with LEGO! What were our team retreats really like? And why are team retreats so important to an organization in general? Read on to find out! And make sure to check out our funny YouTube-video about the LEGO robots we built!
Sharpen Your Saw
Let me start with a quick anecdote I once read that illustrates the importance of team retreats rather vividly:
Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree. "What are you doing?" you ask. "Can’t you see?" comes the impatient reply. "I’m sawing down this tree." "You look exhausted!" you exclaim. "How long have you been at it?" "Over five hours," he returns, "and I’m beat! This is hard work." "Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?" you inquire. "I’m sure it would go a lot faster." "I don’t have time to sharpen the saw," the man says emphatically. "I’m too busy sawing!"
A story from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
What this anecdote illustrates is that we often fall into the trap of focusing on finishing our many daily tasks -- at the cost of losing track of the bigger picture. We get caught up in doing the things we have to do without taking the time to improve the way we get them done. As Covey wrote, "Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important." It’s a common trap that we fall into -- privately and professionally. For that reason, Zalando Technology decided to conduct many fun team retreats over the past few months.
Our First Team Retreat
We held our first team retreat on a late summer day in 2012. For one full Friday, all of our product managers met at Die Insel der Jugend ("The Island of Youth"), which is only a quick walk from our office. It was a true offsite retreat, held on a picturesque small island on Berlin’s Spree river. Led by the young and friendly leadership coaches from Förster & Netzwerk, our PMs enjoyed a fun- filled day of outdoor activities that were geared at deepening trust and improving communication even further.
To give you an idea of the types of activities that the PMs participated in, I will explain two of the six activities. First, outside in the morning, all PMs were split into two groups. Both groups were tasked with rebuilding a computer chip 1-to-1. What made this task difficult is that each group had to do this while playing the telephone game (called "Stille Post" in German). That is, team member A saw what the chip was supposed to look like, had to explain it to team member B next to him, who had to explain it to team member C, who then had to explain it to team member D, and so on until it reached the last team member. This went until these "specifications" reached the last team member, who had to implement the "specifications" that were passed down the line, rebuilding the computer chip. The winning group rebuilt a computer chip that most closely resembled the actual computer chip. The lessons here are obvious and particularly relevant for product managers: communicate at a very detailed level, don't be afraid to ask clarifying questions, explain one small part at a time, and work iteratively.
Later, outside in the afternoon, the PMs were split into separate groups that had to try to build identical bridges using a loose collection of equipment in under an hour -- without any sort of directions. The groups also could not see or hear each other. Therefore, what was important was for representatives from the groups to periodically meet up in order to compare what their bridges looks like now and what they're going to build next. In this fun but challenging outdoor activity, the main lesson was twofold: to create an environment in your group in which one can voice his/her opinion freely (i.e., on how to build this bridge) and to sync up with your counterpart often to make sure you are both on the same page.
The PM retreat resulted in several constructive managerial lessons, which the PMs applied directly to their respective teams. The resulting organizational changes have proven to be popular.
Following the first retreat's enormous success, we decided to embark on a comprehensive series of twelve team retreats in under four months, from mid-December 2012 until early April 2013. The first two retreats were only for our managers, whom we call "team leads". The remaining ten retreats were for individual teams.
Two Team Lead Retreats
Our two team lead retreats came at an important point in time. We had just finished doubling our cohort of team leads over only the last six months. That is, since Zalando Technology is a rapidly-growing organization with flat hierarchies and fast opportunities to rise, we wanted to use the team lead retreats as an opportunity to update our managerial guidelines so that they incorporate the opinions of all team leads, old and new.
So we took all of our team leads to two cool offsite locations. In December 2012, during the first team lead retreat, we spent a full day at Launchlabs -- an open and creative space well suited to brainstorming new ideas. In the morning, Christoph, Philipp, and Arash set the tone by recapping the tremendous accomplishments of 2012 and looking ahead at the exciting challenges coming in 2013. Then, our leadership coaches structured the activities so that our team leads got to know one another in a fun and engaging atmosphere. In the latter part of the day, our team leads sat side-by-side working collaboratively on updating some of our managerial guidelines.
The second team lead retreat, held in January 2013, started where the first team lead retreat left off. Held in The Apartment in West-Berlin, the second team lead retreat focused on team leads working in groups to update the remaining managerial guidelines. In the process of drafting and debating those guidelines in a friendly environment, our team leads got to know one another better. Both team lead retreats were extremely productive because two things were accomplished: 1. our team leads, old and new, developed good working relationships with one another and 2. our team leads established lasting managerial guidelines that reflect everyone's input.
Ten Team Days
On the heels of our last team lead retreat, we launched into the ten team retreats for our individual teams. From mid- February until early April, we held nine so-called "team days" in Berlin and one in Dortmund, since we have a large and growing team there as well. In Berlin, our team days were held at Betahaus, a well-known "coworking space" that houses some of Berlin's most creative minds. In Dortmund, our team day was held at Ständige Vertretung. Each of the ten team days consisted of the following agenda:
- In the morning, the team leads rallied their teams. More specifically, the team leads showed their teams the impressive things that their teams had accomplished over the last few months and previewed the innovative projects that lie ahead.
The highlight of the day was the LEGO challenge. Each team was divided into smaller groups, and each group had to work together to build a robot that was able to sort blocks by color along a production line. This proved to be difficult in and of itself. But it didn't stop there: The group whose robot was able to do the sorting the fastest would win. Across all ten team days, the average time it took a working robot to do the sorting was about 22 seconds. The winning group built a robot that could do the sorting in only 9.4 seconds! Check out the video recap of the LEGO challenge below!
Fun with LEGO - Zalando Technology Team Days
Teamwork was essential to winning most of the day's games The people who participated in the two team lead retreats and the ten team days reported that they felt that those outings were fun, productive, and worthwhile. Team leads of different teams got to know one another better, people within the same teams got to know one another better, and the guidelines for working collaboratively were reinforced. In short, trust was strengthened within the whole Zalando Technology team. And as Covey wrote, "Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication." As a result, teams have reported that they are now even more productive and even happier when working together.
In conclusion, as our experiences with the team retreats show, these full-day outings are healthy for any organization. Admittedly, team retreats achieve greater impact in a fast-moving and rapidly- growing organization like Zalando Technology, but they are important regardless. Sure, team retreats take you away from your work for a day. But getting away from it all for only a day helps create a better functioning team. In short, team retreats have helped us, like the anecdote at the beginning of this post indicates, "sharpen our saw".