Thinking outside the box

Karen Sills, left, and some of her team from the Westdale Montessori school gather at Thinkspot retreat in Flamborough.

Karen Sills, left, and some of her team from the Westdale Montessori school gather at Thinkspot retreat in Flamborough.

Lisa Grace Marr

The Hamilton Spectator

When Karen Sills was handed a box of Lego at a recent off-site staff rebuilding exercise, even the acting principal of Westdale Montessori felt a “bit uncomfortable.”

So imagine when a bunch of accountants on a corporate retreat are told to go stand around a fire pit or stare at a tree and think deeply.

Lego? Meditation? Fire pits?

It’s all a growing trend where companies are tapping into what makes it and its people tick: the collective ethics, values and beliefs and turning that into its biggest resource.

It’s not New Age fluffy stuff, it’s real enough that multibillion-dollar corporations such as Google launched ‘Search Within Yourself’ in 2012. Search Within Yourself is a course in meditation to help employees gain more emotional intelligence – something that might get lost in a work environment uber-focused on computer screens.

Much has been written and studied on Canadian corporate inertia: Canada’s ranking in spending on R&D has slipped to 15th and is nowhere on the list of top countries for economic growth, number of large companies, productivity, or services output.

StatsCan recently issued a report which showed Central Canada to have near stagnant growth with Ontario and Quebec squeezing out mere 1.2 and 1.1 per cent growth rates respectively.

John Chisholm, CEO of SB Partners, said his accounting firm decided to change up its retreat last summer as a way to try to rethink its corporate strategy.

SB Partners is celebrating its 40th anniversary – something to be celebrated given the size of an increasingly consolidated set of firms that forms the main competition.

He said although asking accountants to think creatively is a little like asking a firefighter to dance in a ballet, it was an approach that worked. Employee engagement is way up in its philanthropic drives and he said staff is much more vocal in contributing to discussions about the firms’ strategy.

Debra Pickfield, owner of Thinkspot, the Flamborough retreat for businesses where Sills and Chisholm held their events, said when companies forget to allow creativity and conversations flow, that can lead to zero growth.

“Canadian companies are falling behind and they really need to listen to all of the voices (in their organizations) to get all of the information they need to move ahead.

“Collaboration is actually quite difficult. Yet, we have the power to get answers and insights.

“Being in conversation is more rare now,” she said, pointing the finger at tweets, email and Facebook posting as a poor substitute.

Chisholm said SB Partners, said two of its main challenges are retaining top-quality staff and maintaining close customer relationships.

And yet, staff, particularly younger staff immersed in social media and technology, sometimes resist picking up the old-fashioned phone or going to meet people in person.

Sills said creating a Lego sculpture, taking a walk through the woods near Thinkspot and gathering around the fire pit, helped all of her staff identify what led to some issues that had started to fester in the workplace.

She said the creative exercises helped staff remember that the Montessori philosophy was a common element they shared. The next step was creating a way to talk about the problems that were pulling them apart so they could find a way to work together again.

“It was safer (to meet offsite),” she said. “It’s a calm place. A lot of it is just communication – listening to people’s perspectives.”

Pickfield said she created Thinkspot with costumes tucked into comfy corners, bowls of treats and a giant clock sitting on its side, to help “create a place where people can say I don’t have all the answers.”

“Taking time out to reflect is almost non-existent.”

Ron Neumann, former executive director of Innovation Factory, and serial entrepreneur of nearly a dozen high-tech companies, said it’s all about recognizing what makes you tick and not being afraid to incorporate that into a business strategy.

Neumann said throughout his career, he’s read hundreds of books, many about faith and spirituality, and for him, they helped start those kinds of dialogues with co-workers or staff about different perspectives.

“At one point, I was living two separate lives but I worked in a bank so what I did was take a few books I was reading and stacked them on my desk. Then if someone came in and made a comment, I could say ‘take a book, read it and let me know what you think,’” he said. “You’ll see successful companies based on ‘what’s important to me’ or ‘what I’m passionate about’.”

Since leaving IF several months ago, Neumann, hired a small staff for his company Vista Shift and engaged another Hamilton startup, Orbital Communications, to create software to use in helping companies figure out what they came from and where they want to go.

“What I often tell people is this: Each perspective is true but it is only partial,” he said. “We all have a piece to share.”

lmarr@thespec.com

905-526-3992 | @lisamatthespec

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