The bus is full to capacity. Over 60 of my colleagues sit together, making more noise than a summer beehive. Everyone is excited, talking and gesticulating while catching up despite the early morning start, grabbing their breakfast on board. Some I haven’t seen for over a year, others I’m meeting for the first time, on the spot. Each one I’ve saluted with the joy you feel when you see an old friend, after a long trip away from home. Two cars shadow our way on the highway, carrying the rest of the colleagues who couldn’t fit in the bus. The meeting point is the port of Den Helder at 9:00 am where we will catch the ferry that will take us to the Island of Texel, in the North of the Netherlands. There we’ll spend three days together before returning to our Amsterdam headquarters for a day or two. This is the start of our annual Akvo Team Week – or #AkvoTW15, as we brand it.
Photo: The Akvo team. Texel, the Netherlands. Wednesday 23 September 2015. By Loic Sans.
Team Week is the one moment in the year when we are all together – or nearly all, and those that can’t make it (Like @amitangshu, @Frodo1977 and @@millogof) are highly missed – under the same roof. People fly in from all around the globe, and we spend a week together, meeting face to face. We’re an organisation with people spread over multiple different time zones, ranging from Seattle, United States to Canberra, Australia. Although this works well in many ways, and technology plays a big part in shortening the geographical gaps, nothing beats the opportunity to look at your colleague’s eyes to get things aligned for the future. Team week is our time to build our relationships, update, learn, discuss, connect and define how we move on together. It’s quite an investment – this year’s event cost about €80k – and it involves careful planning, but for multiple reasons, it’s worth every cent.
A great future behind our backs
Akvo has a good reputation for get togethers. Personally, I had my first team week experience back in September 2014. At that point, I hadn’t even started working for Akvo, but I was able to attend as I’d already signed my contract and it would be a good immersion opportunity. Meeting my future colleagues was great and I was able to connect with them on many levels. I also got a wide (and fast) sense of the organisation, the teams, the products, and the way it was growing.
A year later, I had the privilege to help arrange the 2015 edition. For the last four months, I’ve been half of the #AkvoTW15 organising duo, together with my buddy @StefanvH. Despite the hard work that is involved in coordinating over 70 people flying in from all round the world, I loved every part of the job. Our tasks included constructing a programme that worked, interviewing several colleagues to get a sense of needs and wants, managing people's expectations, working on logistics such as flights, hotels, and visas, and finding and liaising with the venue. An extra effort is also needed during the event itself, as you don't get to enjoy the course of the activities as they come. Your sixth sense is always expecting the unexpected and looking at the small details, those that make everything run smoothly. But it's fair to say that you also enjoy other aspects as well.
What happens in Texel...defines the future of our journey
There are multiple reasons why we choose to meet in the Island of Texel. The majority were based on the success of last year's Team Week, which mainly involved meeting in an inspiring location, reducing the costs of expensive Amsterdam accommodation, and having both the Amsterdam team and the international team spending as much as time together as possible, instead of local folks going back home each evening. Being all together for over 72 hours allows us to generate a strong impact moving forward.
Being in Texel was lovely. In addition to its own natural beauty, our travel there involved crossing open waters and a view of the dutch maritime scene. Personally, it takes little to convince me to jump onto any floating object, and I think the majority of the crew enjoyed this aspect too. The beach was within walking distance, and the hotel was located around a very embracing and inspiring setting that included a small lagoon, multiple plants and herbs, awesome and supporting staff, and a warming late summer sun shining upon us almost every day. Of course the North Sea “hair blowing” breezes were present as well, but hey, nothing like the ocean air to get your ideas in order, as they say. It was on the Island of Texel that we could discuss, debate, solve problems, reach conclusions, relax, have fun and get a sense of where things are, and where we want to go.
Growth vs. improvement
Being on the organising team this year, I felt the challenge (and the pressure) to take last year's success even further. Thus, we continued building on things that worked well, and tried to make the event even more inclusive, grounding ourselves in our own organisational values of openness, transparency and participation. We also worked very hard to avoid a “top down” agenda, where everyone gathers to listen to directors telling everyone how things are. Instead almost all of the programme was composed of two kinds of sessions, which we called “Debates” and “Workshops”. They were all 1.5 hours long but were different in format and powered by pretty much everyone, avoiding unilateral communications where one person only speaks, and the rest tries to follow as they can, after their 40 min attention span evaporates quickly.
This year, there were 10 workshops and 11 debates, representing a total of 1089 people hours. The debates were open discussions to explore and update our views on topics like “The future of our products”, “Staff development” or “Open data” amongst many others. These were intended to create a space to share different perspectives and be enriched by each other's views. Their format was the open fish bowl. The workshops were intended to improve processes or solve problems, even reaching conclusions and actions plans on the spot, and included topics like “Support”, “Project management” and “Training”. All the topics were submitted by people around the organisation and then everyone voted which ones should happen. People chose which to attend, splitting the group in two or three parallel routes.
A thing I loved about this Team Week is that everyone actively participated either as moderators or panelists in the debates, facilitators in the workshops, or active audience members. After a certain amount of time, people could engage in the discussion or swap seats with the panelists. We kept the plenary sessions to a minimum, mainly on specific topics that people need to get up to speed on, or to the same level on.
If I had to compare between the two and only team weeks I’ve attended since joining Akvo just over a year ago, one thing comes out very clear for me; last year, the meeting’s main motive was about supporting and managing our growth as we expanded regionally, pursuing opportunities, and as our set of tools and primary markets of focus grew. In my opinion, the tone of this year was about improvement and how we re-focus our energies, and create solid processes and management structures that work and keep everyone on the same page.
The programme also included some time to bond with each other, some fun activities like a team photo (which I love), a shrimp fishing boat excursion and going to the local Texel brewery. And at the end of three days, we all jumped on the bus, the two cars and the ferry to spend some time all together in the Akvo Amsterdam office. I’ve tweeted about it here. It involved the whole team getting to know other Akvo folks who couldn't made it to Texel, and get a sense of ownership of this office, which has a great history as well. The evening ended with a nice party, including the Akvo band and a karaoke session. It was a great closing, before everyone started to dissipate to their countries of origin, the next day.
The (Upcoming) challenges
Debates and Workshops - While it was great to see the majority of the team participating and asking questions, for me, sometimes it felt difficult to reach conclusions, (and sometimes that's no bad thing, as they could be reached too fast, and understanding needs to happen afterwards). However, we need to make sure we do nail down and act on the main outcomes. There are lots of things are discussed during an event like this and sometimes it's easy to fall into the daily routines and forget stuff.
Documenting - How do you capture knowledge that can be disseminated all across the organisation, for those who are interested, but were attending other sessions or missed the event? This year, we decided to ask for volunteers (or assign victims) to take notes and summarise each session. It worked well and we have every session documented with over 50 pages of things to digest and move on with.
Evaluation feedback - We’ve also systematically sent out a well thought through evaluation survey, to learn about the things that worked, those that did not work so well and to hone in on some of the discussions and agreements reached in the sessions. So far we’ve gathered 50 of 70 surveys and we are about to start processing everything once the rest are submitted.
Action plans - Although many times life has proven to me that plans never come out as expected, I learned they help you a lot to keep focus and anchor moving targets. Together with my follow up duo partner @Jo108 we are starting to process all the documentation and feedback to extract all the nuggets that will help us define the next steps in the form of action plans.
Follow up - No plan works without a proper follow up. If you want to be good at something, you need to practice it often and if you want to achieve stuff and produce constructive and positive change, you need to keep pushing and nudging things along. I joke a lot lately about stepping into a new role, as a “Follow up Executive”. I truly believe that if we can together evaluate things we’ve agreed on, and over the coming months we constantly evaluate how we are doing, I feel we’ll be heading in the right direction. Blowing winds are always contextual, but it's up to us to set up the right sails, and adjust them accordingly.
Video - Although I am a keen photographer, I must confess this year I felt a bit challenged, once I saw the caliber of the pictures that people like Loic, Paul, Marten, Stellan, Mark or Aulia take. To complement their fantastic documentation of this event, I decided to give my GoPro camera a full throttle experience, and came up with this video, that will give you an essence of what our Akvo Team Week 2015 was about.
Video: The #AkvoTW15 from Akvo on Vimeo. 21-25 September, 2015. By Alvaro de Salvo. Watch in Youtube here
It's all about the follow up
I still feel the intense energy of what Team Week was all about and how it truly reflected the organisational spirit. As we grow and we get better, as some people go and we mourn their leaving, and new ones join, I wonder how #AkvoTW16 will evolve. From where I stand, I see lots of homework and challenges to tackle together, and cannot stop thinking of Gandhi's “Be the change you want to see in the world”. We need to be the change we want to see in our organisation, our environment and the places we work. My invitation is to take ownership of the things you can actively and constructively change, let go of those you cannot, and polish your sense of discernment to understand the difference between the two.
Alvaro de Salvo is communications executive at Akvo, based in Amsterdam.