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The Hogwarts Master Class: How to Make Your Team Fly

Who couldn’t benefit from a magic spell or two right now? Tough times call for enchanting solutions, so one Massachusetts company is looking to Harry Potter for team-building strategies to spark a positive transfiguration in the workplace.

Clustered around blueprints and rough calculations, the Slytherins schemed and plotted in hushed tones and dark corners for days before this autumn’s most anticipated competition. Shifty and cunning as ever, Slytherin team members intercepted conversations on rival house Gryffindor’s strategy and determined that, if they hoped to capture the most points, their house would need to work some serious magic. All without the benefit of wands, potions, or flying brooms.

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You see, these Slytherins don’t actually attend Hogwarts. They are neither witches nor wizards. Most of them don’t even know how to spell Dumbledore.

They’re employees of Deploy Solutions Inc., a software company that creates HR, and hiring and recruiting tools in Westwood, Massachusetts. And along with dozens of colleagues on the East and West coasts, these Slytherins are taking part in a companywide experiment — a team-building transfiguration designed to foster trust and build personal relationships with a little help from Harry Potter.

And last month’s cutthroat challenge? To design and construct the most creative canned-food receptacle for Deploy’s first-annual Harry Potter food drive. Slytherin collected the most points for its model of the Hogwarts Express — the train that departs from platform nine and three-quarters. But Gryffindor, which constructed a model of the Dursley’s staircase with Harry’s bedroom-cupboard nestled underneath, won the food collection competition by amassing the most cans. After the competition, Deploy donated the Harry Potter boxes to Boston public schools.

“The question facing every president and CEO right now is, How do I create excitement and better productivity at a time when budgets and people are getting crunched more every day?” says Nicole Stata, founder, president, and CEO of Deploy, which is struggling through a shift in the war for talent that rivals Voldemort’s ravage of the Potter family. “We launched this Harry Potter program as a way to bolster spirits and increase participation in company events. But after September 11, we also found that it provided our employees a way to reach out and make a difference in the community.”

Since its launch earlier this year, the Harry Potter program has metamorphosed into a competitive rivalry — a challenge to rack up the best bowling score, collect the most canned goods, and crown the most unflappable Potter trivia master. In November, the ambitious Hogwarts houses collected more than 1,000 canned items for local food banks. This month, Deploy employees are competing to see which team can donate the most used coats and Christmas gifts to needy families.

“I work in the finance department, so I don’t get to collaborate with people very often at all,” says Jenn Gorman, Deploy’s Harry Potter trivia champ and a member of Slytherin. “My team contains people from administration, marketing, and tech support — Deploy employees whom I would never interact with otherwise. And here we are forming personal relationships and giving back to our community together. That’s pretty cool.”

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Harry Potter fever first swept through the 100-employee company in late 2000, when the whole office seemed to be reading J.K. Rowling’s fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It was then that Stata hatched the idea for a team-building program built around the four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.

In early 2001, the program launched with a “sorting ceremony” taken from the pages of the first Harry Potter story. Deploy’s vice president of technical and client services, Susan Marciano, dressed up as Harry’s transfiguration teacher, professor McGonagall, and gathered the company for a video conference with the famed “sorting hat.” Employees in Massachusetts and Mountain View, California placed the hat on their heads and rooted around inside for slips of paper printed with the names of Hogwarts’ houses. Following the random selection, teams immediately began training for their first challenge: a bowling competition.

“It was the most exciting company meeting we’ve ever had,” Stata says. “People were willing to give my crazy idea a chance, and it ended up being a whole lot of fun.”

During the summer, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin each chose two captains — one on each coast — to represent them in a live trivia contest. Teams chose leaders who exhibited mastery of Harry Potter minutiae, demonstrated motivational skills, or never really got a chance to speak up at work. The teams and their captains went head-to-head in a trivia competition that ended with Gorman’s sweep of the final speed round, in which she answered 11 of the round’s 12 questions.

“The toughest question was, During the final exam in professor McGonagall’s class, Harry Potter had to transform a mouse into what?” says Gorman, who has read each of Rowling’s novels at least three times. “The answer was a snuffbox.”

Though some employees have opted out of the Harry Potter challenges, Stata says the competition has succeeded in opening the lines of communication between employees on different coasts and in disparate departments. She says it has provided a cost-effective way for Deploy to build leadership skills and contribute to charitable events without forcing activities down anyone’s throat.

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“It’s important to recognize that the September 11 events took place during work hours,” Stata says. “We were attacked at work, and now we’re rebuilding at work. This program is helping us cope and rebuild, but it’s also increasing productivity, strengthening relationships, and helping Deploy align itself behind some good causes.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about Deploy Solutions on the Web.