In this session, about ten of us went outside on a glorious warm spring day to explore three different ways to take your team for a walk:
1. Docent-style visit to a destination: I had explored the area around the conference location on my own the day before to find an interesting piece of public art nearby, then did some internet research to gather some basic facts about it. I chose the 2010 sculpture Ring Stone by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
When we gathered at the MIT Sloan School entrance to view the sculpture, I told the team what I'd learned, then led a brief discussion about it. This particular piece with this particular group inspired speculation about what would happen in the future when the trees growing through the granite links of the giant chain got bigger, and about whether the links of granite had sufficient tensile strength to hold up the full length of the chain if suspended from one link. There was also discussion of the significance of the numbers 12 (links) and 7 (trees) in Eastern and Western cultures.
This type of walk can be completed in 30 minutes. It can provide a team with knowledge and a shared experience, a break from being indoors, a sense of connection with the wider physical land and world where they work, and can inspire creativity.
2. VTS-inspired discussion of sculpture in nature: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a carefully designed and powerful method of facilitating a conversation about a piece of art. It was developed over decades by the museum curator community. It has moved into K-12 education (e.g. see Philip Yenawine's book Visual Thinking Strategies) as well as commercial enterprises and non-profit organizations (e.g. see the work of Hailey Group). It is very synergistic with Agile practices.
We gathered around Henry Moore's Sculpture Reclining Figure (working model for Lincoln Center sculpture), spent a few minutes in silence, then the participants experienced a facilitated discussion using the carefully crafted VTS questions ("What's going on in this sculpture and place?" "What do you see that makes you say that?" "What more can we find?"). Without any expert to dole out official interpretations, within 10-15 minutes the group was able to move from seeing fun dinosaurs and a diving whale, to observations about specific bones (vertebrae, shoulders, hips, knees) and geologic formations, to alternative connections between the two pieces, and then to deeper observations about a human form seeming to emerge or "push out" or "ooze" out of ancient structures, about evolution and breaks over time, and about connections between ancient and modern forms. A key turning point in the 15-minute conversation came when a 10-year old participant noticed a tiny face on top of the "neck". Towards the end of the conversation, one participant found the piece on the Internet and noted that the bigger version of this piece in Lincoln Center was set in a reflecting pool.
This type of walk can be completed in 30-45 minutes. Especially when repeated over time, it can provide a team with heightened observation and listening skills, improved critical thinking, an appreciation of the importance of soliciting and connecting different perspectives, and a common experience of absorbing new information as an ensemble. It meshes well with the mindset of an Agile Retrospective, and with a culture of ensuring every voice is heard. Formal training in VTS is available.
3. Walk with Focus: Inspired by a description of a design community event at VergeNYC, I distributed a different "focus card" to each participant with a suggestion on what to focus on during the walk back to the conference location at One Memorial Drive.
Towards the end of our walk along a breezy Charles River full of sailboats and kayaks, we compared observations. One participant had turned it into a game of guessing how many different surfaces we walked on, supplying photographs of all 14 (!). Another tuned into the difference between bird song and manmade sound. Another found himself thinking about how much cleaner the "dirty water" of the Charles River is now. Examples of what might be on a focus card include: "WATER: Where is the nearest whiter? What does the surface look like? What does rain fall on? Where does the rain go?" or "SOUND: What can you hear? Try closing your eyes…How does sound change your perception of a space?" or "TOUCH/SKIN: What can you feel? Find interesting textures."
This type of walk can be completed in 20-30 minutes. Giving each person's mind a focus area can be a playful way to understand the benefits and drawbacks of intense focus as an individual vs. as a group.
It was a fun hour outside on a fine day, with participants coming and going as "guinea pigs" in these experiments. Like "wanna play a game?", "let's go for a walk" often meets with a positive response. One participant thought it would be useful to use focus cards and the VTS questions in combination as a substitute for the docent-style tours of his open workplace. As museum curators and K-12 educators have learned, while the docent-style mini-lecture can be interesting, engagement and retention is much greater when participants are part of a conversation rather than just listening. I also think that when teams do this together, they get stronger.
Logistically, it's important to be prepared for the weather (it was quite hot on the first stop when we weren't in the shade), to have a clear meeting place ("the stairs" was ambiguous), and to provide the route (so people could catch up). Explicitly suggesting early that it's best not to look at the title of public art would have been helpful. Explicitly suggesting sun glasses or a hat would have been good, too.
Personally, it was very satisfying to see people connecting more with the land around them in this small way. Nature and artists have a lot to teach us — getting ourselves to pay attention is the challenge, and simply taking a walk helps with that. Many thanks to those who joined us!