I spent this past week facilitating a series of meetings for a government group of scientists who were going through a reorganization.  Most had been based in regional field offices and had reported up through a regional structure, but now they were to report up through the Washington office and provide support to the field on a national level.  The challenging part was that they would still be based in their regional offices; the move would be virtual, not physical.

These were all very smart people, and they were moving through the changes issues well.  But naturally there was angst around issues of continuity: continuity of relationships, projects, communication flows, etc.   People were afraid they might have to pull out in the middle of a project, or tell previous teammates “no” when they called for help.  The issues came up over and over, despite the fact that senior leadership was there at the meeting, communicating reassuring messages to the contrary throughout the week.

A pivotal moment came on the second day in the breakout session I was facilitating.  One of the participants had brought a bag of miniature Dove chocolate bars to pass around, and there were little messages inside the foil wrappers, sort of like fortune cookies.  One of the participants opened a wrapper and then said, “Hey, you’ve all got to hear this.  My fortune says, ‘Think without boundaries’.”

At first our reaction to this rather stunning coincidence was to laugh at how appropriate it was.  But as the meetings went on, we referenced the fortune more and more often and it began to resonate for all of us.  One of the senior leaders came into the room that afternoon and we read it to him.  We began to tell the other groups about it.  Whenever someone got “stuck” discussing a communication issue, we’d repeat to that person like a mantra, “Think without boundaries”.  At the end of the week, in a final debrief meeting, the woman who had first received the fortune presented it to the program director in front of the whole group, in a frame, and told him it was something to remember the meeting by.

I couldn’t have created a more perfect experience for the group if I’d tried.  Any number of people at the meeting could have coined the phrase and put it up on a screen or in a handout and repeated it throughout the meeting, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact.  It made me think; what could you do to deliberately engineer a group experience like that?  Could you buy customized fortune cookies with pre-determined messages inside, or would the premeditation of the act ruin the effect?

What do you think?

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