Throw a surprise party, minus the party.

Mar 25, 2016 by Brendan Jack

It’s a Monday afternoon and you’re about to go into a brainstorming session. The current website is looking a bit tired - time for a fresh approach. You have gathered some of the longstanding staff together with a bunch of newcomers. You want the newbies bonding with the veterans and the purpose of the meeting is to try come up with new ideas for additions to the company website. You have 60 minutes to create some team spirit and to get the creative juices flowing.

About a dozen people sit in a boardroom – you enter, right on time. The old employees check mails on their phones or sit around with slightly bored expressions; it’s not their first rodeo (meeting) after all. The newbies seem more attentive, some even have a notebook and pen in front of them. (A good move on their part.) You’ve got some things on the agenda outside of the company website brainstorm, but don’t want to take more time out of everyone’s day than needs be.

Some of the old timers take each other for granted, while some of the newbies look a bit shy. Do you jump straight in and motor through your bullet points? Or do you set the pace a little slower and take your time? You could always go for plan C… surprise them with a different approach. You want them at ease, to engage, to contribute. You want more than just creative ideas – you want everyone to get involved and to connect with each other.

Hi everyone, thanks for being on time. We have some newbies in attendance… Let’s just go around the table and everyone say your name and what your role is at the company. Any questions for me, or any others around the table, don’t hesitate to ask, we don’t bite. Except for Stan over there, but that’s a long story.

Humour is all about surprise. That punchline you never saw coming, the moral of the story. Adding humour can add surprise.

You see Susan looking distracted and stressed.

Susan, you ok?

You’re showing some compassion and breaking the ice, not coming across as a machine.

I’m fine. Just a bit overloaded today. Crazy Monday.

Tell me about it…

But if you need any help with anything then please just shout. I will be in the office until late tonight and my phone is always on. If I can help in any way, I will.

You could ask a few key people about their weekends, but time is tight – there is a lot to cover in that short hour. You run through the few points on the agenda and now it’s time to jump into the brainstorming. You have a few things prepared – you want to get their full attention. Surprise enhances the general mood, but consider not surprising anyone when they’re stressed or distracted, so probably don’t focus on Susan. Hone in on the smilers - when they’re feeling good, you can make them feel even better.

You feel that the time is right for an unexpected icebreaker… so you pull out a piece of black cardboard shaped like a cellphone.

Can everyone put off their phones.

You look around the room. There are a few of them looking at their phones.

Let’s all put our phones away. We got some cool stuff to brainstorm …

Brian is still looking at his phone. You give him a gentle, nudging look, and a wee smile. He gets the message. His phone goes off.


Sorry, just waiting for something important.

We are all slaves to these things – we love our phones, but they often don’t love us back. They just keep us wired all the time and never give us a moment’s peace. So, I won’t just turn off my phone, I’m getting rid of it for the duration of the meeting.

You throw a fake cardboard phone onto the floor, ala Mobile Flight Mood, or maybe rip it up for maximum effect. The room is now all yours. Even Brian is now on board.

You let them take this moment in and then you share the surprise. It’s a good time to get the creative meeting underway…

The meeting has gone well so far, you’ve allowed others to engage and not just made it a monotone speech. There is lot of discussion, you write down key points and make notes (on paper, with a pen).

You ask a question. There doesn’t seem to be much in way of a response.

Do any of you think we should scrap the current website… you know, throw it out, and start all over again?

Now this is a tricky question. If someone answers in the affirmative they may feel compelled to explain why, and you will certainly ask them why they think so. But, the room is quiet. You asked a question that needs to be answered with some caution.

You can ask them all to think about it after the meeting and to e-mail you their thoughts. Or you could ask them to come talk to you one-on-one.

What is important here is your own personal view. If you believe that the website doesn’t need to be scrapped and re-done from fresh, then you want one of them to challenge the current site and be bold and express their view. So, your personal view is fundamental. If you feel the website is actually ok, but just needs a re-vamp then you would not push for an answer. But assuming you do want to hear some new perspective on this then you would like someone to be brave and speak up - how do you break the silence?

You could tell them a compelling story, about challenging the current scenario and about being bold, then hoping someone will be inspired to share their perspective. Or, you could ask them all to write down an answer and fold it their piece of paper and hand it to you, and then you can go through it with them. Some people feel more comfortable to write things down than to talk in front of a group of people. Or you could try lighten the mood and break some ice, and hopefully then someone will feel more at ease to express a view.

You’re nearing the end of the hour and can sense that attention is starting to wane.

Sandra, John, you guys are looking a bit glazed over.

We were working all weekend – big deadlines for this Friday.

Do you call them out for not giving this their full attention? Probably not a smart move. You need to try give them a boost, so that the last few minutes are high octane. You want to get them re-energized and thinking about new creative angles in the week ahead. Do you get them to share a tin of nuts you brought as a snack… but when they open the tin, a jack-in-the-box snake fires out at them? You’d get them back into listening mode, but is it worth the risk in this meeting? Surprises can scare and un-nerve, and they may be fun and cool, but know your audience. The old “Behind you!” can get a laugh and reaction, just make sure no one jumps out of their skin.

What other ways can you think of to capture their imaginations in an appropriate way? You have a few more surprises prepared.

Stan, because you’re such a champion and a sports lover, and because you also asked me recently… and we got lucky - yes, there are two tickets available to the company box for this weekend’s games, they’re yours… also, because you didn’t bite anyone.

Surprise can make people like Stan feel special. You’ve done something specifically with them in mind. Making colleagues or clients feel special, in an appropriate way, creates rapport beyond just a working relationship.

You pull out a laminated card and flash it before Brian. You have shown him “some respect”. You then show it to everyone.

This is for all of you – you all command some respect.

They are all smiling, and you soldier on with the last remaining part of the session.

Thank you again everyone. That was a productive session.

You’re happy with the meeting, and head back to your office to call a client.

Going out of your way to help people is usually a much-appreciated surprise… it’s often unexpected. Sometimes even delivering on promises, on time, can be a surprise in a world where others needs and customer satisfaction doesn’t always come first. You dial your client’s number.

I know we promised to make your delivery deadline by this afternoon, but I’m calling to tell you, uh, the thing is, and I hope you don’t mind, but we finished everything early, so we’re delivering this morning.

Keep people engaged, give them a reason to want to see you again. Have fun, delight them. If it’s done in a genuine way then it becomes contagious. We are all curious creatures, keep feeding imaginations.

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