I first got interested in training as a discipline and unusual ways of getting people to engage with potentially difficult material as a student volunteer with Nightline. Training sessions there were over two intense weekends, and by design we broke up sessions on bereavement, abuse and other heavy topics with stupid games which were less “ice breaker” and more “mental comfort food”. When I later volunteered with the Red Cross I got involved in training there too, where again I found it made difficult topics such as simulated emergencies a bit easier to inject some levity into the proceedings – the skills we were learning were life-or-death serious but jokes and absurdity took the sting out of the mental load for our trainees.
At first when I started sneaking this light-hearted approach into work events it was under the guise of team building exercises (an early effort of mine had teams running round the university I worked at at the time to find clues and solve puzzles, it ran at the Christmas party very successfully). When I joined IntentHQ last year, I was delighted to discover that part of their team culture involves learning summits where our mostly-remote developers get together in person to build their skills, and I started thinking about ways I could use these games I’d been designing to help people explore more technical topics.
For our most recent Summit, earlier this month, for the first time I had to design something which would be both remote-friendly and accessible to non-technical folk, as I’d blithely invited the rest of the company to join us for my workshop so they could learn a bit more about the challenges engineers face. Naturally I did this long before I had come up with any concrete ideas for the session, beyond a theme of exploring how different communication methods impact focused work.
However, after some quick pairing on ideas with my excellent colleague Javier we came up with an exercise which would be accessible to everyone and require collaboration between those in the room and those offsite. Equally importantly from my point of view, it was completely stupid.
The session eventually involved frivolous comic strips, flying unicorn toys and a particularly loud hand bell. It was chaotic, fun and fast-paced, and hopefully memorable. But crucially, when we came together to reflect on what we’d learnt at the end, some really important themes emerged around how communication styles impact collaborators, new strategies were developed for solving common problems, and colleagues from across the business got to experience the life of someone trying to deliver a working product in a chaotic environment.
It wasn’t perfect, and as always I’ve learnt a lot about how to run this kind of workshop better in future, but I think if you can give people the space and tools to find things our for themselves in a safe and non-threatening environment, beautiful learning can happen.