Those who want to ignore outdated structures and laws and break new ground sometimes have no choice but to engage in experiments whose outcome is uncertain. About the departure of a team into the age of the "agile organisational structure".
The alarm clock rings. It’s 7:00 am and I get right out of bed. In light of the fact that I belong to the night owl species, I’m usually not the “rise and shine” type. Most of the time the snooze button is my best friend…
Today is different. Today is the start of the coffee roulette in the office. I’m curious how my idea will be received. I jump into the shower. While washing my hair, I run the plan through my head one more time. Four of my coworkers will get together for a half-hour-long coffee klatch. They can talk about whatever comes to mind – no upfront rules. Nothing is taboo, nothing is mandatory. I call it roulette, because the participants are randomly selected. Apart from me, as the first host, no one knows who they can expect to meet today. Kind of exciting, don’t you think?
Perhaps you’re asking yourself why Sympatex employees are drinking coffee on a Thursday end of September, instead of working on the next winter collection of functional textiles. That’s a legitimate question. The answer is: both things are important. Or better yet, one thing sparks the other. Who knows? Maybe the coffee klatch will bring about an improved or more sustainable winter collection. If that sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s not. At least not if are you familiar with HELMUT.
Who or what is HELMUT, please?
HELMUT is a German abbreviation that represents our new approach to collaborating and working together as a team: Heiterkeit (Cheerfulness), Ein Ziel (One Goal), Mut (Courage), Loyalität (Loyalty) Umwelt (Envrionment) and Transparenz (Transparency). In early July, the team made a commitment to these six values with the aim of aligning our team spirit, and ultimately our collaborative efforts, with this clear direction. We’re supported by Stella und Mariola from Munich-based Tealfox, an agency that specializes in helping small-to-medium enterprises with internal transformation processes. We sequestered ourselves in our offices in Unterföhring for three days and did nothing more than work on the launch of HELMUT, a new team project designed to cultivate a new team spirit and way of collaborating within the still relatively-young Sympatex “agile organization” structure.
It feels like a start-up
You might be thinking, is that the only issue you have to focus on these days? Seems like a nice problem to have. On the contrary. I’m confident that the real problem arises when you DON’T address these issues and challenges straightaway as a team. We’re in the midst of a major transformation – as a company, industry and especially as a society. Take Sympatex as an example. The company has done a complete 180 over the past three years – essentially since the arrival of Dr Rüdiger Fox as CEO in July 2016. Since that time, we have left old structures and goals behind, and aligned ourselves with one single goal in mind: complete sustainability. In concrete terms, our aim is to close the textile loop as soon as possible by working together with the industry, our customers, end consumers and policy makers.
Sympatex has aligned everything with this goal. Every minor decision by every member of the team is made with this goal in mind. Even though we’ve been around for more than three decades, with the realignment of our corporate goal, it feels like a start-up environment – but one with more than 30 years of experience.
One thing we nevertheless forgot along the way – even though it’s something that nearly every magazine is covering at the moment – is the topic of “mindfulness”. In the process of concentrating so hard on this goal, on the research and development of sustainable functional textiles, on new partnerships and investments in recycling technologies, we forgot that we’re people, and a team. It’s no wonder that things started to boil under the surface. And as soon as it became clear to us that a good goal needs a good team, that’s when HELMUT came into the picture.
So we locked ourselves in our offices in Unterföhring for three days, and began to discuss, to brainstorm, and learn how to communicate in a non-hostile environment. We came up with lots of exciting ideas, which spurred the birth of HELMUT. One of the key learning processes during these three days was that each one of us is responsible for ensuring that HELMUT is successful. It also became readily apparent during these three days that in a company with such flat hierarchies like ours, changes and ideas are much more effective and easier to implement than in a large-company structure.
The birth of coffee roulette
The one thing that kept cropping up during our discussions was a desire for better communications and more understanding among the employees. This really preoccupied my thoughts. I then asked myself, how could Sympatex employees from different business areas get to know one another better in a relaxed environment. As we were sitting outside during one of the breaks on the patio that we built ourselves, the idea with the coffee roulette suddenly came to me. Fortunately, my idea was well-received, giving birth to the coffee roulette.
The experiment begins
Shortly after arriving at the office, I dashed around between my desk, the coffee machine and the red bar tables where the meeting would soon take place. I had already prepared the host gifts. And although the poster that I made with the words “WELCOME TO THE COFFEE ROULETTE! THANKS FOR SPENDING TIME WITH YOUR COLLEAGUES TODAY” in large yellow and purple letters had been hanging on the wall on the third floor since yesterday evening, I still didn’t know who my guests would be. That was our agreement. Everyone on the team would serve as the weekly host and let themselves be in for a surprise. It wasn’t until right before the start of the get-together that my project colleague Steffi would then let me know who my guests are.
Of course I hope that the four who show up will have something to say. I’m still not 100 percent certain if everyone will be willing to voluntarily participate. Never underestimate the power of peer or group pressure though. After all, who wants to be labeled as uncooperative or unwilling to be a team player? I interrupt my thoughts and think, “everything’s going to work out fine.” I turn on my PC and open my e-mail program. Steffi’s e-mail has already arrived. I’m only a click away from revealing the secret. Ta da! This could be a really interesting constellation.
Is the coffee roulette transferable to everyday working life?
Shortly before 10:00 am, I’m still fidgeting at the counter, waiting for my guests to show up. Thinking I should probably arrange some water, I quickly grab a couple of bottles and some glasses. I hope I can find the right words to kick-off the discussion. Every one of the participants should feel equally at home. All of them are on time, save for one. After a brief welcome and after re-emphasizing that this half-hour belongs to them, I deliberately step back and wait to see what happens. It takes no time before the topic of discussion crystallizes: sports.
The missing participant suddenly rushes in out-of-breath, apologizing profusely for being late. The others react understandingly. My inner host wakes up and begins to reflect on the on-going discussions. In this group, no one is judged for any alleged mistakes. On the contrary. Everyone knows how hectic the day-to-day business often is. That means a voluntary experiment can go right down the tubes. Or does it have to do with the relaxed coffee roulette situation that can’t be reproduced during daily business activities?
My train of thought is interrupted by roaring laughing. Bernhard, the group’s resident cutup, cracked another joke, this time making fun of the constant obsession with self-improvement among urbanites. Yoga, meditation, Tai Chi. Is there anything else we’re supposed to be involved in? Sabrina is of another opinion. Her daily yoga exercises are absolute sacred. Bernhard has no idea what he’s missing, she adds. Shy Angie then chimes in. She agrees with Bernhard. She wasn’t sure if this was something she could openly talk about here, but Munich’s preoccupation with sports and escaping to the mountains has gotten on her nerves for a long time – even if Sympatex profits from the booming outdoors industry of course. Our quiet coworker from the IT department then pipes up. From a sustainability standpoint, he views the issue critically. Do we really have to race to the mountains with all of those SUVs? After all, you can also use the Bavarian Oberlandbahn rail system if you want to head south to the mountains. He says he recently saw a report on television about the construction of an amusement park in the foothills of the Alps. Nothing more than exploiting the mountains for pure greed and profit he says. I almost feel bad about having to tell my guests that our half-hour is nearly up. I give them another five minutes so as not to interrupt them abruptly. As it turns out, HELMUT was in fact echoed throughout several aspects of the discussion. The courage to express a controversial opinion for instance, but also transparency and environment – and of course cheerfulness.
I thank everyone for their participation and conclude the round with a few final words, then hand each of them an envelope containing my gift: cards with various inspiring pieces of wisdom designed to accompany them throughout the day. One of the sayings I thought was especially good: Never Stop Exploring. I could have kept the card for myself.
After the guests departed, I remained at the counter for a moment and asked myself: why would I have kept that card for myself? Was there anything that I had wanted to rediscover for a long time? I reflected on that for a moment and then it occurred to me: my harmonica. So far, my feeble attempts to teach myself how to play the harmonica had failed miserably – perhaps time was at a premium, or I just didn’t stick with it. Maybe I should look around for a workshop. No sooner said than done, I was back at my desk. After googling harmonica workshops, I find a course this fall at the music school near our offices in Munich. At the end of the day, the coffee roulette pays off in two ways. And I hope it was just as profitable for the participants.
When you think about it, everyone needs a HELMUT from time to time, right?