By Kelsey Casselbury 2016-04-05 06:08:16
Clever team-building exercises lead to closer colleagues, clearer communication and creative changes. Working in a small school kitchen within a tight time construction requires some fancy footwork. When everything and everyone is in sync, it’s a well-choreographed dance to prep and serve multiple menu items, while also ensuring food safety protocols are in place and meals have eye-appeal. When you don’t know or respect what the other person is doing, second guess them or yourself or aren’t willing to communicate yourself, there are inevitable missteps. An ingredient gets missed. One person turns around with a hot sheet pan in hand and hits a coworker. Scattered lettuce mars the look of the salad bar. The dance falls to pieces. This lack of trust and communication among the “dancers” can trip up attempts to nurture creativity in the workplace, too. With few exceptions, staffers typically don’t share their brilliant ideas when they’re worried about making a misstep. This is precisely what JoAnne Robinett, SNS, a 30-year school nutrition veteran and training consultant, noticed when she first took over the foodservice director’s position in her former district. There, as is very typical, site managers throughout the system came together once a month for a meeting. “It was boring,” she exclaims. “It was a data dump.” No one was making solid connections, never mind offering up ideas on how to improve site-level operations. So, new choreography had to be devised. “I started bumping up the frequency of the meetings—first every two weeks, then every week,” Robinett recollects. “I made them spontaneous; they didn’t know what was going to be on the agenda,” she adds. Before, managers didn’t want to share any of their problems or ask for advice in fear of being judged. But as the group came together more often, getting to know one another better, they began to share problems and work together toward solutions. “People got comfortable with each other, and started sharing the good and the bad,” says Robinett. Then , “a little brainstorming would take place.” The managers had banded together into a team. The dance, mesmerizing to watch in its simple efficiency, resumed. Sometimes, it takes nothing more than giving employees an opportunity to speak openly and put their heads together to spark creativity. If you want to take it further, though, schedule some clever and fun team-building, creative-thinking activities. Whether these are simple one-and-done exercises or multi-day, multicomponent sessions, such activities will demonstrate your commitment to innovation and encourage team members to tap their imaginations in a safe environment where no idea is “stupid.” Single-Session Activities If you’ve scheduled a brainstorming huddle or plan to dedicate an hour or so of a daylong inservice training to idea generation, try out one of these activities to get the creative juices flowing and help the team come together. Who’s the Most Ridiculous? Good for: Thinking Outside the Box, Collaboration Without Judgment When it comes down to it, folks tend to resist offering up their ideas, because they fear being perceived as dumb or ludicrous. How do you get past this? Encourage everyone to toss out the most ridiculous idea they have as a possible solution to a problem, without thought to feasibility, resources, federal regulations or plain, old common sense. For example, let’s say you pose this question to the group: How do we give our cafeteria a fresher look without breaking the budget? Possible ridiculous answers: 1) We’re going to be on HGTV’s Kitchen Crashers, and they’ll makeover the lunchroom without charging us a dime! 2)The Board of Education will volunteer their weekend and make financial contributions to paint a cafeteria mural! 3) We’ll all pool our money to buy lottery tickets, and we can spruce the lunchroom up with our winnings! OK, so it’s unlikely that any of these will happen. But once you have collected a long list of ideas, you can return to some of the options and see which ones actually aren’t all that preposterous—although they may need modification. For example, you might not win the multi-state-lottery jackpot, but you can apply for grants that will provide the funds you need for a cafeteria makeover. Or perhaps an area big box home improvement store has discontinued paint it would donate to your cafeteria and you can persuade the parent-teacher association to volunteer hours to paint over the slow summer months. “You have to make [the activity] a safe place for people,” advises Robinett. “Friendly and welcoming, even if someone says something ridiculous.” Phrases that should never be uttered during this activity include, “That would never work,” “We can’t do that” or “That’s going too far.” Back-to-Back Drawing Good for: Open Communication Skills, Tangible Creativity Skills, Teamwork Split the group into pairs, and hand each duo a sheet of blank paper, a pen or marker and a printout of a simple line drawing of, say, a house, flower, animal or vehicle. The pair sits back-to-back, and one takes the drawing and the other takes the blank paper and pen. The person with the line drawing must give her teammate verbal instructions on how to replicate the picture, without revealing the actual image or details. (For example, a house might be described as: “a square, with two smaller squares and a small rectangle within and a triangle on the top.”) After a set amount of time, the partners compare their images and all teams evaluate the most accurate replicas. Each duo should then discuss what was—or wasn’t—clear in the instructions and how better communication skills might have made for more effective teamwork. Carve It Out Good for: Tangible Creativity Skills, Teamwork For this activity, gather up a variety of fruits and vegetables of different sizes. Include several large, firm items (watermelon, melons, squash and pineapples are all fair game), as well as smaller varieties to use for details (berries, tomatoes, grapes, raisins). Split your group into teams of three, giving each team a sharp knife. Challenge teams to create a food art display within 20 minutes. The team will have to pick a design, discuss a strategy and work together within a set time period. (Make sure that carving knives are handled safely!) As a bonus, now your team has food art to display on the serving line the following day! Sometimes, it take nothing more than giving employees an opportunity to speak openly and put their heads together to spark creativity. Extended Exercises Creativity and team-building activities need not be limited to one session or day. To develop a close-knit, solutions-driven team, encourage synergy as part of the daily routine. Innovation Teams Good for: Thinking Outside the Box, Teamwork, Innovation Sometimes, creative solutions don’t come in an hour, an afternoon or even a day. Robinett describes her creative success with a favorite Einstein quote: “It’s not really that I’m smarter than people, it’s that I stay with the problem longer.” To take your operation to the next level of service and success, it likely will require a sustained attitude toward problem-solving and visioning. To do this, you may want to appoint an “Innovation Team” and charge this small group with an ongoing mission to identify areas of improvement, along with creative solutions. This is a project you may need to implement at the district-level, as you may not have sufficient staff members at the individual site level. Request volunteers or identify a few individuals who’ve already demonstrated creative problem-solving skills. Consider rotating members on and off this team over time, to give introverts their chance to participate and shine. Assign the team one aspect of the operation at a time: receiving, storage, prep efficiency, batch cooking, wait times, customer service, merchandising, cleaning, promotions, nutrition education, etc. They may look at this aspect across all serving sites in the district or focus on either high-or low-performing sites to gather intel or address concerns. Task the team with spending time observing what works well and what can be improved. Be sure that your Innovation Team and its work are given some structure, priority and accountability within the organization. You don’t want this group to repeatedly put their charges on the back-burner in favor of other urgencies. You could make a regular report to the larger team a part of their charge. What If... Good for: Out-of-the Box Thinking, Collaboratin Without Judgement Arrange to install a large whiteboard or simply set up an easel in the manager’s office or breakroom. Pose a truly outrageous “What if?” question, such as “What would happen if mice took over the country?” or “What would happen if all the students started loving Brussels sprouts?” Encourage employees to write an answer to that crazy question whenever inspiration strikes and not to feel constrained by “practical” responses. Change the question once a week. Make individual staff responsible for the weekly question, creating a rotating schedule across the semester. Questions can be relevant to school nutrition—or they can be completely random. Either way, simply being engaged with creative questions on a regular basis helps to get the brain thinking in a different way, freeing us from the narrow process we typically use to devise answers or solutions. Let Creativity Take Flight! In a typical brainstorming session, there’s usually an end goal—you’re looking for an answer that shows that the gathering “worked.” Don’t make that be the focus of your creativity-building exercises. Even if your group doesn’t come up with any actionable innovative solutions to your school nutrition problems, that’s OK. The point is to create a safe zone that encourages new ideas, fresh processes and open communication as a regular and integral part of your team dynamics. It will be a work in progress, but rest assured that it will lead to great work satisfaction and overall innovation! Create a Safe Haven One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in a team setting is the fear of judgment, as studies show that people are less likely to speak up when there’s a supervisor or boss in the room. Employees often fear that sharing a bad idea is worse than not participating at all, as it could indicate that they’re not smart enough for the job. Therefore, as said supervisor, it’s your responsibility to eliminate that fear. The Who’s the Most Ridiculous?” activity described in this piece can help to put everyone on equal footing. But also consider sharing with the team an occasion when you thought you had a brilliant idea that went completely and utterly bust. Another tactic to help employees get over the fear of failure is to actually reward them for it! Whenever a staff member goes out on a limb to try something new, acknowledge it publicly, even if the experiment seemed unsuccessful. Explain that there is always success simply in making the effort. Go even further: Offer up a prize once a quarter for the best worst idea of the group, although take pains to be positive so that a sensitive employee doesn’t perceive some implied ridicule, despite your good intentions. Keep reiterating the message: It’s not always about the triumphs, as the trials (floundering or fortuitous) are what actually get you to your goal. Kelsey Casselbury is the managing editor of School Nutrition. Illustrations by Oko SwanOmurphy/Thinkstock.
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