How A Great Field Trip Makes New Ideas Bloom Brilliantly

Have a mean case of the brainstorming blues? Get out of the office and get inspired.

A few weeks ago, I spent two days visiting charter schools around the Boston area with an organization called Building Excellent Schools (BES). This nonprofit trains prospective school leaders in many ways, but a key part is getting them into schools that work so they see what works. It is one thing to know, vaguely, that students should feel welcomed and safe from the time they get off the school bus. It’s quite another to see Match Community Day’s aides walk backwards across the parking lot like college tour guides so they can keep their eyes on their lines of elementary school pupils the whole time.

Every organization needs new ideas and needs to improve the ideas it has. Getting out into the world and seeing things in person is key to that process. “We just need to get out of the office periodically, because we all get stale,” says Alan Gregerman, author of the new book, The Necessity of Strangers, which advocates purposefully exposing your business to different people, places, and ideas. This happens less than it should. "The primary lever, typically, when we want to innovate, is to go to a retreat center. We bring the smartest people and assume that by being in a different environment, they’ll think really differently," he says. But “without other ideas, other perspectives, you’re not going to get them to think differently.”

A field trip, on the other hand, should spark new ideas in your teams by immersing them in how other organizations or people deal with issues in real life. Cindy Lieberman, VP of marketing at Celsis International, Ltd., took her team to SOFA 2012 , the Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design show in Chicago last year. In addition to getting people away from their screens, she found that “functional art invites us to see everyday objects in new ways and challenges us to rethink and reimagine our own work product,” she says.

If you’d like to plan a work field trip that’s worth your employees’ time, try these ideas.

1. Set a specific and strategic objective.

“Come up with new ideas” is oppressively vague. “Figure out ways to get the lines moving faster in our stores” is more doable and really helps with idea No. 2 (below).

2. Pick the right spots.

Gregerman, who leads what he calls Team Learning Adventures for companies, likes sending people on “a one-day race through a city.” They go to museums, zoos, bustling neighborhoods, performances, and companies in different industries—anything that would offer “lots of different perspectives on what it means to be remarkable or provide great service.”

Chris Moss, the social enterprise program manager at the Pillar Nonprofit Network in London, Ontario, stages bus tours of various social enterprises operating in her community. “Where you go matters,” she says. “The people on the other end have to be able to tell their story well.” You should also think through how to make the experience as interactive and pleasant as possible. Moss brings groups to several food-oriented enterprises (such as the Youth Opportunities Unlimited cafe, and the London Training Centre, which teaches people culinary skills), in part to keep her groups eating. She also takes them to an enterprise called Impact Junk Solutions, which gives people with mental health challenges job training and opportunities as they run a junk removal service. Visitors can help themselves to some of the salvaged stuff: “It’s like a free garage sale,” says Moss. “Little things like this really make a difference.”

3. Use all your time.

Moss notes that on her field trips, “It’s not just getting on the bus and going from A to B—it’s a story from beginning to end.” She tells participants what they’ll see, and offers ideas of what to look for. She’ll describe a challenge one entrepreneur faced, then introduce another organization’s approach: “See how he did this really differently.”

Since getting out of the office creates a shared experience, you can also use the space between field trip stops to strengthen social ties. Gregerman notes that, “If I know there are some collaboration or teamwork challenges, I’ll put people together so they can get comfortable with each other.”

4. Travel light.

Of course, one challenge with field trips is that the act of observing something changes the thing being observed. “If 25 people descend on all these businesses, it kind of breaks the spirit,” says Gregerman. Organize people into smaller teams of three to four people to avoid creating a scene. The schools I visited with BES often requested that no more than three to four people observe a classroom at any given time. We were welcome to wander the halls, but if we saw more than a handful of people in a classroom, we knew to come back later.

5. Debrief promptly.

BES’s prospective school leaders came back to the office and did “thin slicing” right after each school visit to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Gregerman reports that organizations find it challenging to devote two days in a row to their field trips—one for the trip, then another to talk through what happened—but if you can do a prompt debrief, it’s better. At that point, what people saw is “still fresh in our minds,” he says. A month later, you might not remember why, exactly, one cashier’s behavior was so striking. Right after, you do.

“It’s a powerful experience,” he says, of a field trip done right. “I can read about what it means to kayak, but that’s nothing like kayaking down a river.”

[Image: Flickr user Danielle Scott]

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