From the July 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

When Sally Crawford and one of her salespeople had a problem they couldn't solve, they decided to take it outside. Outside the office, that is. Crawford asked the employee to accompany her on a walk through the neighborhood in order to find a solution to the challenging business problem. In the end, they were able to come up with an answer. "We figured it out," she says. "We just needed a change of pace."

Crawford, 47, is CEO of Crawford & Associates International, a Palo Alto, California, creative-learning company with 25 employees. There's evidence that many employees would embrace her "change of pace" idea. In a poll jointly conducted by ABCNEWS.com and WorkingWounded.com, a Web site that offers advice and insight to help solve many of the problems that workplaces might have, employees were asked to describe what helps them brainstorm effectively. Roughly 48 percent of respondents to the survey said simply leaving the office-getting out of Dodge for a few hours-is the best way to start generating new ideas at work.

"A lot of meetings can fall into a learned helplessness, where the meeting is [always] at the same time in the same place, and that leads to boredom," says Gary Vikesland, a licensed psychologist and certified employee-assistance counselor in Bloomington, Minnesota. "Going to a different place can change the rhythm of a meeting and create better ideas."


Change Of Scenery

Working with the same people on routine tasks in the same setting constitutes 90 percent of most people's jobs. This creates a certain comfortable consistency. For most of us, going to the office in the morning means knowing where we're supposed to be and what we'll be working on.

That sense of comfort that's found in routine even applies to meetings. Most business owners always hold their staff meetings in the same room, and many employees even tend to gravitate toward the same chairs every time. This is our human nature at work, staking out our boundaries and finding our place in the scheme of things. At heart, we're all creatures of habit.

Familiarity, however, can breed ineptitude when work teams are seeking to come up with something new, says Frank McAndrew, a professor of social psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. The office setting, he says, reinforces the habitual ways in which we deal with our co-workers and problems. Most people tend to rely on old solutions, simply because it's easier. "The more you're in the same surroundings, the more you'll do this," McAndrew says. "People like familiarity because they don't have to process new information. But really, we're primed to be our best when we're put in new places."

Giving employees a change of scenery-even something as simple as walking around the block-can help trigger new ideas, new enthusiasm and a boost in morale that will have at least short-term benefits for your organization. Studies have shown that today's employees place a high value on their ability to strategize in a job and want recognition for their ideas. In a 1999 Walker Information survey, employees listed "opportunities to contribute" as a major factor in building job satisfaction, but less than half those surveyed (47 percent) felt the companies they worked for were encouraging them to experiment with new ways of doing things.

Crawford says she tries to form a connection so her staff can see a link between the purpose of her business and everyday life in the office, and her employees have grown accustomed to her efforts to break out of the stale routine of traditional office meetings. "I'm consciously trying to create a culture where it's desirable to take things outside," she says. "I encourage my employees to take a walk to chat and share ideas."

Staff members often take half-hour breaks to visit a nearby toy store, where they can check out the assortment of toys while talking business strategy. Crawford and her employees also frequent the local food market to do the same thing. Crawford is sold on the idea that these kinds of activities increase the creativity of her and her employees. "Spending a small amount of time to change the environment creates a major payoff. It helps you take ideas to another level," she says. "It's a freebie I can give my employees. I can create something that doesn't cost anything, and it's important for employee retention, especially here in the Silicon Valley."

Vicki Whiting, an assistant professor at the Gore School of Business Management at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, says that getting away from the typical roundtable office meeting-for a cup of coffee, a walk or another refreshing activity-can remove many of the hierarchical barriers that surface in formal meetings. "If you have the leader leaning in one direction on an idea, subordinates will tend to follow if things are formal," Whiting says. "Offsite meetings make things more equal between employees and manager."

Offering employees a change of surroundings is by no means a new idea; many companies send their teams out to go white-water rafting or to sit by the fire at a scenic lodge to strategize. The goal is to bring out the best in your staff and create an atmosphere that encourages teamwork. The problem is that many companies can only provide such activities periodically because they require such a large investment of time and money-which leaves a lot of time between retreats for owners to slip back into the same routines.

"Doing one company event a year isn't enough," says Beverly Murray, the 36-year-old president of R&M Group, a Raleigh, North Carolina, design and marketing firm that's been in business for eight years. "There needs to be a consistent, ongoing effort that says management is encouraging employees to think differently."

At R&M Group, for example, "thinking differently" means Murray strategizes with her eight employees during games of Laser Tag, while having picnics or in the midst of Play-Doh sessions. Murray is sold on the idea that these activities help demonstrate to her employees that it's OK to take the risk of offering new suggestions, even ones that might not work. "I want it to be OK for people to have a bad idea, because they often lead to the ones that do work," she says. "By getting out of the office and doing these things, I'm quietly making a statement that it's OK to think outside the box."

R&M Group budgets a monthly get-together outside the office; each time, a different employee is in charge of picking the location for the meeting location, coming up with the discussion topics and keeping things moving when it gets quiet. Whiting sees these opportunities as a good way to open things up. "You let employees take the ball and run," she says. "This implies trust, which sends positive signals to employees."

When it came time to revise the marketing strategy at Crawford & Associates, Crawford held the staff meeting at her home. Employees brainstormed and wrote various ideas on a giant piece of butcher paper. "There was a great stream of consciousness in that meeting that we could never have had at the office," Crawford says. "Being in a different place allowed us to get rid of distractions and pay attention."

Out Of The Box

How shocked would your employees be if, as they filed into the room for a meeting, you said "Today, let's do something different. Why don't we go sit in the park instead?" If you're feeling stuck for ideas when it comes to new and creative meeting places, there's no need. Even a small change, like going down the hall and sitting on sofas, can make a difference. "The point is that you're trying to get out of the box," McAndrew says. The main consideration for entrepreneurs to keep in mind is that some things shouldn't be taken outside the office-mainly proprietary information, which will limit location choices depending on the nature of the session. Here are some other tips:

  • Start Small. Beginning with informal one-on-one meetings outside the office is a good way to encourage both you and your employees to think outside the typical meeting rut when it's time to discuss new ideas. Eventually, the whole group should participate in the outside sessions.
  • Know the meeting process. "Formal meetings are OK for distributing information, but are a lousy way to get new ideas," Vikesland says. He adds that there are three different kinds of meetings: informational (for training and procedures), problem-solving (for finding a solution) and brainstorming (for strategizing and ideas). The brainstorming session, he says, adapts best to outside the office because a relaxed atmosphere encourages people to share more freely.
  • Mine the knowledge. Getting out will reveal some things about your employees that you may not have known before, especially regarding your quieter staff members. While some people can tend to dominate traditional roundtable office meetings, a dose of spontaneity will allow other employees to take over as the experts. Their way of looking at things may even surprise you. "This is a way for the others to contribute their knowledge, which can really shake things up," McAndrew says. So take advantage of it.

Incorporating meeting opportunities that take place outside the standard setting at your office will provide an outlet for your employees and, with time, might even become habit-forming. Crawford continues to set her sights higher, encouraging employees to accompany her on hikes around "The Dish," a nearby three mile trail. "I don't have any takers yet," she laughs. "But if I have time for a meeting with an employee, truthfully, I'd rather go there."

Next Step
  • www.employer-employee.com: Here, Gary Vikesland, a licensed psychologist and certified employee-asstistance counselor, offers ideas on how employers and employees can learn to work together better.
  • www.sccu.edu/Faculty/R_Harris/crebook2.htm is the Web site of Robert Harris, a professor at Vanguard University of Southern California in Costa Mesa. Harris provides visitors with a guide to classic creative thinking techniques and how to produce new ideas and solutions.


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