From the March 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

There was no mystery about Michael Gordon's motives for gathering Angelo Gordon & Co.'s employees together. The New York City investment firm's co-owner and COO wanted to give his 40 employees an evening of socializing, relationship-building and fun. The time and date were set. The place: a New York City restaurant. Which left only one question--who done it?

Five years ago, Gordon, now 54, held a corporate mystery event. Over dinner, his employees were challenged to solve a make-believe murder staged by hired actors as part of an exercise in team-building, problem-solving and icebreaking. "It was very good," reports Gordon. "Everyone got involved, and it was a fun, relaxing night."

It turns out plenty of other corporate types have been sleuthing in the name of management. Companies such as Dell Computer, Samsung Semiconductor and Hershey Chocolate are just a few of the name-brand firms that have hired one of the burgeoning number of theatrical companies that mix mystery with business goals. And the idea works just as well for entrepreneurial firms.

The combination is a legitimate one, says Austin, Texas, communications consultant Lynn Segall. Although sleuthing might seem far removed from everyday management practices, placing employees in the middle of a pseudo-mystery is, if nothing else, a great way to engage their attention while imparting a bottom-line business message. And, Segall notes, "The amount of information you [need to dispense these days] is so overwhelming, any chance to plug entertainment into training is a plus."

Mysteries in the Making

Participatory mystery theater originated in the 1970s when a group of New York mystery writers started staging solve-it-yourself crimes for their own amusement. In 1981, two members of the group, husband
and wife Bill and Karen Palmer opened a New York City restaurant that served make-believe mysteries with each entree. The restaurant eventually morphed into Bogie's Mystery Tours, which produces mystery events.

Through this venture, the Palmers found a new market for mystery events among businesses. "We've done jobs for AT&T, Ford Modeling, Cunard Line, J.P. Morgan and The New Yorker," Karen says. The events have included crime mysteries and scavenger hunts. Held in restaurants, hotels and even on cruise ships, some events last as long as an entire weekend.

Today, dozens of companies nationwide offer similar events to business clients. Charles Granade was a University of South Alabama sophomore when he scripted his first mystery for a college function. The event's success led him to found Grenade Entertainment Inc., an Austin, Texas, company that, since 1995, has staged dozens of mystery events for clients. "There's a great future for this," says Granade. "To bring drama and acting into the workplace is really something new."

What's the Motive

What exactly do business owners see in mystery events? The answer, apparently, is an appealing combination of a good time and a good lesson.

Firms often tap the entertainment content in a mystery by staging them for employees as incentives or rewards for successfully completing demanding projects, says Palmer.

Better communication is another key benefit. Mixing employees from different levels in temporary crime-solving teams lets junior executives talk to CEOs on an equal level, says Granade. Customers and suppliers are also often invited. When customers enjoy a good time with their account executives, it can help seal profitable business relationships, notes Granade.

Many mystery events stress team-building. Putting people together in sleuthing teams allows them to practice the same problem-solving and communication skills they need at work, but in a more appealing environment. "The participants don't realize they're doing a team-building [exercise], so it's more fun," says Palmer. The pitch has found ready listeners among business meeting planners and trainers.

Get a Clue

There's more to putting on a corporate mystery than scattering a few clues and handing out magnifying glasses. The basic technique calls for using actors--perhaps augmented by a few theatrically-minded employees--to enact a not-too-convincing crime, then inform those in attendance that collaring a suspect is their job. Granade has, for instance, appeared at meetings as a team-building trainer whose speech is interrupted when a stooge bursts in to announce that the company president has been kidnapped. The employee/crime fighters are asked to search throughout the room or building for clues, then assemble them to come up with a convincing solution.

Beyond these basics, the plot thickens. One trick is to make sure the script fits the company's culture and goals. For instance, Granade says that one client asked him not to base the mystery on a violent crime. So his script revolved around the theft of an important plan. Kidnappings and scavenger hunts are other gore-free options.

It's important to involve as many people as possible. Office clowns and company hams may be recruited as amateur actors. Other employees should be assigned to detective teams whose composition is aimed at achieving team- or relationship-building goals. For instance, teaming salespeople with product developers can help break down the barriers that typically exist between these departments, says Granade.

Whatever you do, don't present a mystery that can't be solved within the time limit, which is typically a few hours. "How would you like to spend three or four hours doing something that couldn't be solved?" asks Palmer. "It would be frustrating and, at the very least, not much fun." Ideally, she says, 10 percent of those in attendance should be able to solve the mystery in the time allotted.

To get the most impact from your mystery, use a script written specifically, or at least adapted, to your goals. Warns Segall, "Don't do team-building in a can."

Mysteries Better Left Unsolved

A mystery event can be a great way to kick off or wrap up a project, but it's likely to be a bad idea if you face a serious crisis or deep-seated conflict in your company, warns Segall. "You're not going to mend relationships or overcome deep-set distrust with this lighthearted approach," he says.

Cost is also a factor when deciding whether a mystery event is right for your company. It generally costs a minimum of $1,500 to put on a mystery event, which mostly covers the actors fees; larger events can cost $5,000 or more.

If you're going to lay out that kind of money, mystery planners say you should make sure you have a solid business goal beyond merely enjoying playing the part of sleuth. "This isn't just a mystery event," says Granade. "We may help give people a good time, but if we haven't helped people understand one another, then we've failed."

Contact Sources

Bogie's Mystery Tours, 328 W. 86th St., #4A, New York, NY 10024-3124, (212) 362-7569

Grenade Entertainment Inc., (512) 302-9569, fun@team-focused.com

Segall Resources, 1212 Guadalupe St., #408, Austin, TX 78701, (512) 478-4308