Our client was a senior VP for a global Health Care based in corporate headquarters in London. We had supported the Health Care conference in the spring and this had received great feedback as it had lots of interaction and team events built into the design which had participants fully engaged and actively involved in the content. The autumn conference was a follow on from this and our client wanted it to be an even better experience and an event that could help him with his quest to create a Health Care community across the diverse functions of category marketing, research & development, regulatory & medical, market research, sales, & supply. The participants were drawn from a pool of 50 – 55 senior managers based in three primary sites across the UK.
The reason we chose a ‘Conference on the Move’ format was to break the mold from previous conferences and to take the participants on a collective adventure together. The idea being that during the journey participants will deepen relationships, build a community spirit and develop some real insights into how they can work more effectively together in the future.
We centered the conference on Oxford, one the UK’s most beautiful cities. The design utilised the city, the Thames and the surrounding countryside. A small client planning team worked with us and our chosen events partner ‘In Any Event.’
The participants received detailed joining instructions as well as information about what to bring and the fact that they would be sleeping in shared accommodation, but had no further agenda or idea about what was in store for them at the event. The conference design was deliberately kept secret from the participant group as this heightened the sense of adventure and discovery. The locations and team events were carefully chosen to enable strategic work in an environment free from the relentless operational ‘noise’ that consumes everyone’s day to day interactions.
The event started on the coach to the venue with a ‘Top 10 Challenge’. On arrival each participant was given an envelope and was asked to identify 10 things they appreciated about their colleagues based in the other locations, including at least two things that should: make us smile; compliment the town / office; compliment a person or team; challenge a prevailing behaviour and suggest how to improve; and say whatever they like…
On arrival at the Trout Pub in Wolverton, participants were formally welcomed to the conference, grabbed a coffee and an early bacon sandwich and then the adventure started in the car park! Using one of sensei’s communication models, each participant was asked to expose their preferred communication style. They then had to adopt a communication style that was totally unfamiliar to them. By asking them to deliberately play a style that is unfamiliar participants began to appreciate the different communication styles of their colleagues.
The next exercise is called ‘In2MeC’ and is designed to quickly get to know everyone in the group. Participants drew a colourful mind map that brought to life and enabled them to share, the various ‘masks’ they wear in their day to day life. Once the mind map was created, everyone got their 5’ of fame to share their pictures
Once the In2MeC exercise was completed, participants were divided into natural work teams, a leader was selected and they embarked on a 2 mile amble along the banks of the river Thames. During this time each group was asked to engage in the first of several ‘leadership conversations’. This first conversation was framed around a number of operational challenges faced by their team. Each participant was asked to conduct this conversation in the communication style that was given to them in the car park exercise, to build their appreciation of others who do not communicate in the same way as them. Obstacles encountered along the way simply added to the richness of the debate and those with ‘weak’ ankles had all the support they required!
On arrival at the next scheduled stop, each participant once again changed communication style and then embarked on the next stage of the journey. This was a gentle river cruise down the Thames, through some locks into the heart of the city of Oxford. During this part of the journey the teams had their second ‘Leadership Conversation – this time on some of the strategic challenges faced by their team.
Lunch at a Thames side restaurant was a final chance to consolidate the morning conversations before the teams were briefed for the Oxford Challenge. This was a competitive team activity where teams earned points from achieving certain tasks that involved them planning and working effectively together, solving clues and interacting with the city and citizens of Oxford. Not only was this exercise great fun, it also provided a chance to learn about this fabulous city and to understand what it takes to work as a team under pressure in highly competitive circumstances.
The Oxford Challenge culminated in a meeting in the Old Court House where we were joined by an external speaker who talked to us about emotional intelligence and how to sustain ourselves to cope with the busy, busy world we all now inhabit. After our stimulating discussions at the Court House, the group left Oxford on a coach and headed for our evening accommodation and activities. At last a chance to have some much needed ‘relax and chill’ time after what was a very busy day.
The evening activity started with the results from the morning’s ‘Top 10 challenge’ and prizes were awarded to the teams who did well in the afternoon’s Oxford Challenge. After a hearty meal the Barn Dance got into full swing; with a break for oxygen during which we were joined by the fantastic Florence! Florence was an expert in the ancient craft of corn doll making. She showed us how to make a button hole corn doll and – in true ‘Generation Style’ – manner we had a corn doll competition! Great fun and a much needed breather before the barn dance got back in full swing.
Day 2 started bright and early with morning assembly and stretch and yawn! This was followed by ’50 Up’, a team exercise designed to get the blood going, clear the heads from the night before and work up an appetite for breakfast. After breakfast, each team told a story of what they had gleaned from day 1 in the style of their choosing. Some of the teams used the coach journey to our next destination to replay their stories so we could use all the time available.
The next sessions took place in the Thythe Barn, a fantastic oak and thatched barn, which we used as a venue for the remainder of the conference. This large creative space enabled us to work on a number of exercises for the rest of the day.
The conference was now transcending from small category team work to the challenge of building the whole Health Care community. In our first task we had to work together and plant bulbs that will flower in spring. This work will help with the recovery of the declining UK Bee population and – common to all our conferences, where we use the landscape as a stimuli – we also used this exercise to ensure we leave a positive footprint in the community we pass through; one that is life sustaining and in tune with our desire to leave the world in a better state than when we found it.
After the physical exertions of the bulb planting, the group then entered a more cerebral exercise – one we call ‘Future States’. In this exercise participants listened to the head of Health Care describe the vision for 2020 and then they split into randomly selected mixed groups. Using a sheet of white wall paper, each group drew what they considered would be the strategic journey the Health Care community will take in the next five years. They highlighted transition states the community will need to pass through in order to bring the 2020 vision to life. This exercise produced some interesting insights into what the participants felt about the challenges that lie ahead and how they saw the future unfolding.
The final exercise before lunch was an Oxford Style Debate. Four participants had prepared short manifesto’s that explained what they felt about the ‘engagement’ challenges faced by the Health Care community. We had a Project Party who argued that there is always a smarter way to deliver change and suggested the organisation should be fluid, coming together and disbanding as the strategic and operational challenges change. The People’s Party argued for more flexible working and greater trust for the individual. Their slogan was ‘overtime is a hobby not a financial transaction’. The Central Party who argued ‘One Central Hub’ was the most efficient way to organise the community with power being held in the center. This party was initially the most popular amongst participants as it is what the business has as a operating paradigm at the moment. The final party was the ‘Local Party’ who, as the name suggests, argued precisely the opposite by giving power to the local companies and dissolving the centre. This party received the most initial ridicule as it clearly flew in the face of the current operating paradigm.
Each leader put their case to the participants who literally voted with their feet and joined the party that most appealed. After some judicious re-balancing of floating voters, we finally started the debate. Our logistics team and the catering team at the Thythe Barn acted as the general public listening to the debate. After that they voted via a secret ballot for the team, who they felt, made the most compelling case. Needless to say, the party that won was the one that flew in the face of the current operating paradigm, prompting mutterings from several of the leaders: “That’s what you get when you ask the public! What do they know”
After lunch, the final exercise was a community drumming challenge, which finished the conference on a real high as everyone worked together to create a great noise and send us away with rhythm and beat ringing in our ears.
‘A note of thanks to all of you for inviting me to participate in the Oxford adventure. All the hard work that has gone into organising this is very much appreciated. I have attended many conferences and events before but this one was the best. Not only did I get a chance to meet my fellow colleagues in a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, I also got to know them quite well in a short space of time. Although the 2 days were intense, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.’
‘I thought this was a great two days. I appreciated the time to think and discuss the future both what we do and how we do it’