M.I.N.M: Milk & Cookies
Who: Ronald Paige, president, Digital Pilot Corp.
Players: The entire squadron — about 20 people
Frequency: Every other Friday, usually from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Purpose: "To share intelligence from the field and to acknowledge and reward extreme thinking."
Why I Never Miss It: "We learn more from the tale of each pilot's experiences than any status report could ever tell us."
What's the best way to get workers out of the comfort zone? Feed them comfort food. That's the idea behind the biweekly snack sessions at Digital Pilot, a Dallas-based software company. After a couple of weeks of "flying solo" in the field, creating customized Web-server applications for such clients as IBM, Coopers & Lybrand (part of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP), and USData Corp., the company's far-flung "pilots" touch down for an afternoon of milk, cookies, and field reports. It's snack time with a definite business purpose: to breed a culture of risk taking and bold thinking. "We're not going to succeed by playing it safe," says Ronald Paige, 41, president of the two-year-old company. "This meeting is about encouraging radical thinking." For Paige, that's as simple as chucking a candy bar at the consultant who reports the boldest breakthrough — and as subtle as reminding pilots to look for lessons in mistakes as well as in triumphs. "Around here, 'positive' doesn't mean 'perfect.' We want the good, the bad, and the ugly — as long as we can learn from it."
Extreme thinking. "Pilots come to the meeting ready to report tales of breakthrough thinking or risky behavior — even bold missteps. In spirit, it's more a story swap than a debriefing session. In practice, it's all about sharing lessons and making important connections."
The Kudos Toss. "I come armed with a bunch of Kudos candy bars and toss them at pilots who distinguish themselves by their chutzpah. The recognition is purposefully informal — to keep people from taking themselves too seriously. But 'informal' does not mean 'insignificant': Nobody ever seems to eat the Kudos; they end up molding on desks because people are so damn proud of them."
"Nonfat milk and Oreos — sometimes supplemented by harder stuff, like hummus and beer. Seeing milk and cookies when you walk into a meeting has a warm, disarming effect."
"The atmosphere is collegial but focused. We devote the first few minutes to operational updates: I'll go over financial issues, and our CEO will usually cover issues like marketing and strategy. Then we go around the table, and each pilot takes the floor for a few minutes to regale us with tales of his or her recent exploits. The stories that show the most ambition are rewarded with flying Kudos. There's a lot of teasing and joke telling. When intense discussions or debates break out, we try to contain them and move on to the next story."
Cathy Olofson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.