One of the biggest questions when planning Petri Dish was how to get people who don’t know each other form meaningful professional relationships and get into productive mode fast. Here are a few takeaways from the experiment for planning future events.
The first challenge of the program was getting the group to transform from a bunch of strangers to a team that feel that they know, trust and hopefully like each other. We conducted a number of exercises where the group learned each others names an backgrounds and got to speak to each other one-on-one, speed dating style. The exercise that worked best, however was one that was inspired by Arthur Aarons 36 questions method (Generation of Interpersonal Closeness). The method is based on the belief that interpersonal closeness can be generated through self disclosure and responsiveness. Based on this assumption we created and exercise where all the participants had to share with the group 3 things that shaped them into the person that they are today. This way people can decide for themselves the level of self disclosure that they are comfortable with. However, to inspire openness the facilitators of the exercise were the first to share and set the tone with a high level of candidness. This resulted in that most of the participants followed this and shared things they would usually not share in a similar situations. Emotional responses and tears occurred, and it was evident that the group immediately felt like they were in a trusting environment.
This lasted throughout the entire 7 days of the project and had a tremendously positive effect on the group culture and work. In future Petri Dish projects we hope to develop this exercise and try additional variations of it to see if it is possible to enhance the benefits even further, perhaps also in bigger groups.
There are many tradeoffs between choosing a location that is easily accessible as opposed to a remote location from which the team cannot easily leave. We found that the biggest benefit with choosing a remote location was that it instilled a feeling of disconnectedness from the outside world. Participants claimed to be less attached to their smartphones than usual and having a much easier time concentrating on the here and now. When asked to the reasons for this feeling, most mentioned that the sheer knowledge that they are far away from “civilisation” for a full week made them feel more present. Another effect was experiencing less need to stay connected- even as high speed internet access was available almost throughout the whole stay. The size of the house was beneficial, as people needed at time space to work away from others, but also big rooms for everyone to comfortably convene.
The main problem with the location was the relatively low standard of amenities. Rooms were shared between 4-7 people, the bathrooms were located outside of the main house and were not comfortable. There was only one shower shared between 15 people. These shortcomings made it harder for participants to concentrate on the project activities and goals. For the next Petri Dish project it will be important to find a more convenient location.
The group had a wi-fi connection throughout the week. There were a few instances where we experimented with cutting the connection to see if this affect the way people work. It did not seem to have any significant impact on the work (this was not done during exercises where internet might be needed). However, this was done to a very limited extent and should be tested more extensively in future Petri Dish projects before determined insignificant. Another note: the internet rationing was not properly communicated to the group, which proved to be a mistake.
The group size proved to work very well. At the end of the project everyone felt like they had a chance to get to know all the others in the team and would feel comfortable to contact them in the future if they wanted to. During the week there was a constant feeling of “life” in the house and during no activity was there a feeling of lack of participants. The group was easy to divide into smaller groups and there was enough diversity to mix the groups up a few times.
In hindsight I would recommend for future projects for there to be no less than 12 participants and no more than 20.
The schedule we used was quite rigid during the first two days of the project and very flexible during the rest of the project. The rigid schedule worked better than the flexible schedule in getting people engaged and productive, however the loose schedule was better in allowing for forming of new relationships and productive serendipity. In the future it will be good to try to have 2-3 scheduled events per day, preferably at the beginning and at the end of the day and leave enough time for participants own ideas, work etc. The most important takeaway is that it is important to adequately communicate the schedule to the team.