Designing The One-Week Team Sabbatical That Will Transform Your Company

Will you ever get those worthy internal projects done? Yes, says Indianapolis-based SmallBox. Their tips for a great “Factory Week” help make it happen.

Your corporate website is a shambles. Your team’s falling into creative ruts right and left. You’ve been sitting on a juicy product idea for months--all you need is sufficient time to scope it out. Are you twitching uncomfortably with self-recognition yet?

“We were discussing internal projects and moaning about how we never got to them,” recalls Jeb Banner, CEO of SmallBox, a web design and marketing agency based in Indianapolis. “We felt really bad about that. So the new project became: What can we do to concentrate on all these projects, cleanups, whatever they might be?”

They mulled the one-day-per-week model popularized by Google (and refined by Detroit Labs), in which employees devote one workday weekly to furthering projects they deem worthwhile. “We decided [one-day-per-week] encourages individual creative work, not collective work,” says Banner. Dedicating one full week, however, seemed both doable and focused enough to work. Enter Factory Week. Named for Andy Warhol’s Factory (but presumably less drug-addled in its corporate version), the Factory Week concept was both simple and distilled. As Banner puts it, “Take the entire team offsite for a week, scope out the projects, and focus on getting things done.”

What elements make for a maximally productive Factory Week--and not just an extended feel-good session? Banner enumerates a few.

Give everyone three months’ notice.
The recipe starts with early and frequent communication.

SmallBox reserves the date with clients and staff three months in advance and makes contingencies for addressing client emergencies. Not only does that assuage antsy clients, it invites outsiders--clients and prospects--to submit project ideas, or weigh in on project priorities for the week. (It also builds nice buzz.) All of SmallBox’s 18 employees, including interns, can submit project ideas via Basecamp, which get vetted and prioritized over successive lunch meetings.

A week before the event, Banner assembles a team with a leader for each project, defines the project vision, and sets the project scope tightly to accomplish that vision during Factory Week, the fourth of which will be held next year in January. They typically run 15-20 smaller projects simultaneously during each Factory Week, although the January event will be focused on one biggie: overhauling their corporate website. “We make sure to load-balance the projects,” Banner says. “Each employee is assigned to no more than three projects and leading no more than two.”

Scope each project rigorously--and aim for clear wins.
“You don’t want to fail to finish what you scoped” for the week, Banner advises. “Factory Week is as much about building your team’s culture as the projects. We’d hate to end the week feeling like something is half-done.” (See a full list of Factory Week projects by SmallBox employees here.)

For some projects, the ideal Factory Week scope might end with planning. That worked well for Wrangle, SmallBox’s content-gathering tool designed to unite Basecamp, Evernote, Google Docs, and all the disconnected tools clients use to keep track of their most valuable content. “For Wrangle, we decided during Factory Week what the product would be, its intended audience, and roughed out wireframes,” Banner continues. “The scope was to finish the planning; for that we needed focused time away from everything else. [After that] it could go into scheduling with our other projects.”

In other words, choose that sliver of a project that’s difficult to get through without collective, sustained focus--then merge the project into the processes that drive your everyday business. Once planned, Wrangle sailed through SmallBox’s regular production queue; now the firm is hiring a product manager to take Wrangle from beta to a full launch.

Cook up something with instant value for your team and clients.
Factory Week is tailor-made for making the tools you and your clients could badly use--and stop you both from eating your own dog food. “We were spending lots of time every month doing client reporting, and we felt every tool out there--like Hubspot--was just a 75% solution,” Banner recalls. “We wanted to make something SmallBoxy, a tool that tracked everything we thought mattered in terms of web metrics and key signals.” With a Factory Week jump-start, this reporting tool just launched internally in beta to manage and automate reporting of analytics, keyword rankings, plus marketing results for email campaigns, Twitter, and so forth.

Take everyone off-site.
Banner swears by going off-site for Factory Week. “Team members always say: If I can even see my desk and sit down at it, before you know it I’m writing client emails again,” he says. “You have to break out of the ruts.” SmallBox reserves space at The Speak Easy, a co-working site down the street from their offices, where the vibe is refreshingly unfamiliar but the amenities, like reliable Wi-Fi, are just as handily corporate as any office. It’s also more cost-effective than flying the entire team to an entirely new location, and more convenient, especially for workers with families.

Inject a little hilarity into the proceedings.
Fact is, a week of all-doing, no hemming-or-hawing can be exhausting, so don’t be afraid to plan some team-building levity. Take the Musée de Bobby Pin video game. “Our building dates from the 1930s and has these telephone carve-outs in the walls, no more than a foot-and-a-half wide,” Banner describes. “Our design director Lydia Whitehead saw those and made a museum in one. It’s filled with little bobby pins with tiny descriptions of each.” One night the museum was vandalized; the perpetrator signed his work with a calling card from “The Jackal.” “This was traumatic to Lydia, so we thought a healing project [for Factory Week] would be to create a video game around the vandalization,” Banner recalls. The game’s goal is to steal a bobby pin protected by a video monitor--and it’s nigh unto impossible to do.

Clearly it’s an inside joke for the SmallBox team--and that’s the point. Not only was it novel for their SEO expert to try a hand at making 8-bit graphics, the whole team bonded while meting out “justice.” Did they ever catch the Jackal? Banner is bemused but tight-lipped: “Yeah, we found out who it was. Let’s just say that guy ended up coding the entire game project.”

Get over your objections and just try it once.
Banner lists three objections he hears often to Factory Week: You can’t afford to take this time off; your company is too big for this to work; or your industry or culture isn’t a great fit for this. He offers a counter-argument for each.

On the question of affordability, Banner argues: “Especially in a service industry like ours, your clients pay you to be more bleeding-edge, to look 3-5 years out and prepare them for that. You can’t afford not to do this…If you plan ahead, your clients will be rooting for you and excited to hear what you got done.”

Larger companies who are tempted by the idea but worried it can’t work should parcel out Factory Weeks to teams or cross-section of teams. “It’s a challenge to teams, but it’s also about challenging yourself [as a manager],” Banner argues. "Don’t sell your team short.”

What about companies with a dysfunctional culture, or whose industries aren’t an obvious fit for the idea? Banner once led a Factory Week for a state-wide governmental agency which--to his surprise--transformed into a full-blown intervention. “I can’t tell you how intense it got in these sessions,” Banner recalls. “Lots of people didn’t want to be there or openly said it was a waste of time.” He remembers promising a woman who was the most vociferous opponent: “Give us a chance, and if we’re not best friends by the end of today, I owe you an apology.” The day’s projects included an Elephant Inventory, in which employees plumbed all the taboo topics at work, “all those hard conversations that keep getting put off,” as Banner puts it. “By the end of the day, that woman gave me a hug,” Banner remembers. “They’re not fixed; one day isn’t enough to fix them. But they’re starting to have real dialogue, and we’re following up to make sure those changes stick.”

Banner says SmallBox has benefited from Factory Week in unexpected ways, like a branding boost and increased employee empowerment. Banner recalls a client email he got in response to Factory Week: “This client wrote: ‘I love that I can sit down with your team, without you there, and they’re empowered to make decisions on the spot that are right for the project and right for the relationship,'” Banner says. “I met with a prospective client recently who asked: What do you do to stay innovative? It was a perfect opening to describe Factory Week. And they were thrilled by my answer.”

--Has your team done a working sabbatical? Tell us about what worked--and what didn't--in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user U.S. Navy]

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4 Comments

  • Marcus Goodyear

    Our team just took a working sabbatical last week. We build communities online, so much of our efforts were spent on setting aside digital tools to remember what makes community happen in any context. Then we picked up the tools again, looking for the most efficient ways to be present and actively listening through the noise.

    We also went swimming in some chilly waters of the Frio River, descended into Box Canyon via ropes, and had a disco costume contest using bags of toilet paper, tin foil, streamers, and pink fluff.

  • Guest

    I've wanted to do something like this for years. It's amazing how inundated everyone gets with the day to day tasks, to the point that we stop focusing on the future. I've actually heard a co-worker say "I can't even think anymore. I'm so busy trying to get the work done." When your work life has devolved to that level, it's time to put things aside and re-evaluate whether what you are doing is materially impacting the mission of the company. In our company, it would probably work best to start it out as a departmental event. This article is a great guide to how to make it work effectively.