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September 23rd, 2011

MASH Into a Slim Jim

If you’re in a service-driven business you understand the priority placed on the work for your clients. “The shoemaker’s children have no shoes” was the cliche I often used to justify why we weren’t quite dedicating enough attention to our own needs. What you start to learn is that while you can stay heads down to deliver when you’re in demand, there will come a day when that demand dries up and you don’t even recognize your industry.

So, my answer to this was I wanted a week where the team could get away from the office and from the usual client obligations. A week where we’d take the talent that exists on the team and solve our own internal problems. Create things we’d build “if only we had the time.”

I bring this up now because we are closing out our most recent offsite (MASH) and after five of these, I continue to wonder how we survived before it.

Like anything else, it comes with a healthy dose of lessons learned, so here are a few things I’ve learned in how we make this work:

This isn’t a week off.

Quite the opposite, in fact. What looks on the surface as a week away from the office is actually a week where folks on this team deliver more work than in any 5 day stretch.

Make a wish list.

We set up a Google document and allow anyone on the team to contribute at any time throughout the year. Having input from the team works far better than if I created a list of 50 things I wanted the team to do. Individual ownership in the agenda and the tasks is key here.

Set time limits.

Everything that makes the list for our week needs to be complete within the week. No unfinished pieces. We want usable, deliverable pieces by the week’s end. Stay focused on the truly important elements and manage your scope.

Late night

Get out.

Saying you’re turning off the outside distractions for that week is a great step, but keeping the same work environment/location won’t lend itself to the best results. Get out of the office/house. We rent a few houses for the week and bring in everyone to jam. Together.

The change in atmosphere relaxes the entire experience and helps prevent settling into the usual groove.

Name it.

We made the mistake of first calling this a “retreat” and then an “offsite.” It’s neither. While relaxation and getting away are absolutely components to make this successful, this is about doing things that will have lasting impacts on how we all become better at our craft and do better things for our clients. We voted and now we call ours MASH (Making Awesome S Happen).

Bring everyone together.

Our Platforms team is 15 people now (up from five in 2009) and not everyone is located in our Winter Haven office. We go to great lengths to schedule things to ensure the entire group can come together. As a result, there isn’t one single thing we do in a year that contributes more to cohesion and morale than this week.

Plan ahead.

The biggest blocker to making this happen is the idea of “what happens to client work?” We’ve found that with thorough planning and communication, we can make this week happen with little issue. We’re realistic in being available for the unexpected, but we truly attempt to protect the team and the week otherwise.

Commemorate the event.

We’ve started doing a small run of shirts to help commemorate each MASH. How do we decide what goes on the shirt? There’s no telling. This most recent shirt was the result of Mr. Savage’s passing right around the time we were trying to plan the shirt.

MASH into a Slim Jim shirt.

Show results.

The best way to explain what this type of event accomplishes is to show it. Let folks know what you’ve accomplished as a result of these weeks. For us it could be our measurement applications, source control management, or even WordPress plugins we release.

About the Author
Nick Gernert leads the Platform Services team that's part of Voce Connect and oversees all web development efforts as well as making sure all those efforts are strategically sound. He is on Twitter as @nickgernert.

Filed in Voce Culture, Voce Platform Services, Who We Are

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