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  • Writer's pictureLouis Kokenis

Stretching Our Creative Muscles

There is a growing dialogue about corporate meeting culture and the need for improvements. Professionals across industries report being in back-to-back-to-back meetings all day, regardless of whether they work remotely, in the office or in a hybrid work environment. And as firms report that employee engagement is at a historic low, it may be time to re-think how we conduct business meetings.

At Notion, we try to be intentional with our monthly creative all-staff meeting, which includes writers, designers, video editors and creative directors. Historically, we used this meeting to review our business holistically, assess team member workloads and prepare for new projects and opportunities. But very quickly, we realized that approach wasn’t the best use of this time, and it didn’t reflect our culture, or the ways in which we wanted to interact as a team. Then in 2021, our shift to a hybrid work model highlighted the fact that change was necessary.

So, we shifted to using the monthly meeting in a different way: to foster our collaborative and creative culture, especially as our team continued to expand with the growth of our business. Rather than spending all the time talking about business, we developed a series of creative exercises to help promote engagement.

The purpose now is two-fold. We come together to flex our creative muscles in a low-stakes environment, offering a refreshing change from the presentations, print projects and corporate videos we typically work on. And the entertaining nature of the exercises helps build relationships among team members, empowering them to better collaborate on day-to-day work.

The process is simple, and we inject a little mystery and friendly competition to keep things interesting. Typically, the topic of the exercise is kept secret prior to the meeting, and participants never know what they’re getting into (i.e., they cannot prepare). We try to ensure a fair playing field, and the element of surprise is always fun.

To start the meeting, we present the exercise, lay out the rules and split up into teams. Each team takes 30 minutes to ideate and complete the task before we regroup to present our ideas. Next is the most entertaining part — when all the teams vote on the best presentation. And this is where the hilarious commentary, banter, friendly heckling – and team bonding – all happen. Suffice it to say that we share a lot of laughs.

Interested in doing something like this with your own team? You should! Here are some of my favorite exercises from the past year:

1. Dollar Store TV commercial: We bought a collection of random items from the Dollar Store, placed them in a basket, and a representative from each team blindly grabbed an item. The challenge was to develop a new name for the item and then write and pitch a TV commercial to the group. The team I was on picked a miniature paint rolling device that helps you touch up nicks on your walls. We pitched a commercial starring Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and his grandma, complete with a heavy metal performance of “Keep Rolling” that included a full mosh pit in the living room. Of course, in our commercial, grandma was able to use the device to touch up the walls after the party. Our team didn’t win, but our presentation had everyone laughing – with us, not at us, of course!

2. Industry beer labels: Another exercise involved creating a marketing industry-themed beer label. Ahead of the meeting, the exercise leader invented names for fake beers that relate to common marketing themes. We also purchased a good mix of different beers for inspiration (and hydration). We gave each team a pre-made template and 30 minutes to sketch a label design based on the name that they chose. My team developed “Moment of Zen,” a label designed to look like an email response to a project that was approved by the client in the first round – no edits!

3. Tattoo shop: This exercise was one of the few that required pre-work for the team. The objective was for teams to come up with an idea for my next tattoo and pitch it to me. Prior to the meeting, each team interviewed me for 5-10 minutes to learn about my background, interests and tattoos. Then they ideated and presented their concept during the meeting. It was so cool to see each team’s creative approach for something so personal. I chose the winner – a peacock design – that I actually plan to get inked. In addition to being fun, this exercise helped our team develop their interviewing and knowledge-gathering skills — two capabilities that are very important for our day-to-day work with our client partners.

These exercises are meant to break the mold of our day-to-day routines at Notion. As a B2B agency, we don’t often create broadcast TV commercials or design beer labels, and we definitely aren’t a tattoo shop (yet). But we’ve found that if you’re working with a team, day in and day out, it’s important to find new ways to interact and foster the growth of our professional relationships with one another.

The exercises also challenge our team to think differently. We’re a creative business so you might expect this type of meeting from us, but I would argue that you could take accountants or electricians and put them through creative challenges, and you’d also see effective results. If you make the purpose of these meetings about the culture rather than the business, any industry can benefit from them. And there’s the bonus of getting them laughing and having a good time together.

Something else I learned from this process is that I should not assume that I know what my team needs or wants. We thought that we needed to go over business during the creative all-staff meetings. But the team let us know that they were already doing that regularly in their smaller, client-focused meetings, so it led us to pivot.

There’s one key question you should ask yourself before scheduling recurring meetings: Is this helping my team work more effectively? You may also want to consider re-thinking the format of your meetings. For us, the 90 minutes of fun and creativity each month has improved our team’s engagement and camaraderie.

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