The TUI group, with its more than 70000 employees, lots of local organizations in many countries, own hotels, airplanes, and even cruise liners, is on an interesting journey. It is the journey of the world’s largest “classic” tour operator into the digital “online world”. Facing competitors like booking.com or holidaycheck.de, TUI is successfully building up online platforms, like tui.com. Additionally we are looking forward to deliver one state-of-the-art online platform as basis for the digital operation of all our local markets around the world, step by step.
This journey is accompanied by a massive change in the ways of working. There it is, a common, conservatively structured enterprise, with lots of management levels, decision councils, roles and responsibilities. Grown over 40 years, and including gems like a German “Betriebsrat” (works council). On the other side here are we, the development teams and leaders from the Berlin tui.com office. Digital natives, used to the flat-level, self-organized, agile, modern way of working. Cultures collide, as you may might expect. However, the culture we grew at our workplace here in Berlin is so awesome that even groups from other parts of the organization visit us regularly to have a closer look at how live and work is in our office. And they go home excited, with the desire to also work this way!
Now, we are additionally facing a structural change. It will not only be the Berlin folks anymore working on the new common TUI platform. But also colleagues from Stockholm, and even a big external partner from India. And from even more countries in the not so far future.
What makes this interesting are especially the contrasts:
- General culture: Germany (especially Berlin) vs. Sweden vs. India
- Language barriers: while the Swedish and Indian colleagues have no problem talking to each other in English, in Berlin – interestingly – people are not really used to talking English, and many are afraid of the complications this may bring.
- Ways of working: as already mentioned, Berlin has the flat-level, self-organized agile start-up attitude, while in the Swedish parts and even more in India a lot more hierarchical, roles and responsibility-based, structures exists.
This leads to fear and mistrust in the organization. People do not know each other, rumors spread, an “us vs. them” attitude grows. From my perspective this is based on two big causes. First, a lack of clarity regarding the vision and mission of our common future. What are we expected to do, where will our journey lead to? And second, a lack of personal relations and understanding. People do not know each other, have rarely seen faces behind names, and nearly never the chance for some private small talk.
Does not sound as a good base for a common journey, right? So what to do?
We decided to bring the people together. Physically, in Berlin, for two days, about 80 persons. To
- Create a common understanding of our vision, of what we will be and what we will do from now on
- Getting to know each other, understanding who “the others” are, what they do, and why they are all great
- Form Communities of Practice to drive further alignment and changes on topics that matter to the people within the organization, with strong support of the leaders.
Therefore we found a great location: The “Haus Ungarn” at Berlin, Alexanderplatz. About 1.200 square meters with open and closed spaces, a bar with great fresh coffee all day long, outstanding food and service, and this rough “halfway finished” charm typically associated with Berlin.
As format we agreed on an unconference style. After some inspiring opening talks by the leadership team, to provide clarity on the vision and even on the things we don’t know yet, the two days were merely open space style group work with a self-determined agenda, constructed by the people on-site.
The first day was for getting to know each other. We provided eight open spaces, where people had the chance to discuss topics that matter to them. Goal was on one hand to learn something, e.g. about the work done so far, or about the other people. On the other hand it was already about collecting topics that need to be addressed for our future collaboration.
The highlight was a “social network” game: Everybody had to create his profile on a sheet of paper, including some hand-drawn picture of him- or herself, information about his job in the organization and some personal facts, like hobbies, age, or relationship status. Then there had to be a place for people to sign your “friend list”, by dropping their mail address to your profile. All of the drawings were put to a big wall afterwards, and everybody had the chance to walk around, look at the profiles, find people he wants to connect to, and leave her or his mail address on the profile. The profiles stayed on the wall the two days long, and again and again you could see people standing there and putting their mail address on some sheets. After the event, everybody took his profile home with the order to get back to all people that signed the friend list. So this proved to be a really fun and valuable exercise.
The feedback after this day was partially “It did not feel so productive. We came up with a lot of topics, but have no solutions, no flesh by the bones!” On the other hand you could see how two separate groups, Berlin on one side and Sweden/India on the other, who gathered in two opposite corners with coffee in the morning, intermixed more and more during the day. Already at lunch time people from the different offices ate together and talked. Also the group work was border-crossing. Several times you heard comments like “Wow, I always thought those guys would XYZ, but now I learned they ABC, like us!” This was awesome to see, because our goal for day one was not to work “productive”, but to foster personal relations and understanding, to create trust and empathy as basis for our future collaboration. And this worked out nicely.
The second day then was about the questions “How do we get where we want to be?” In another open space people became the order to form about eight communities of practice, working cross-border whenever possible. To drive important topics in the organization after the end of this event. Especially for people that have been working in strong hierarchical structures until now this was quite an experience. They had to unterstand that the responsibility for solving problems and the power for decisions now lies with groups of people and not with single persons anymore, and that position or title don’t matter that much therefore. Also this exercise worked out well. Key topics we identified in discussions with the leaders of the organization upfront were seen and addressed by the people without the need to interfere. Even better: the communities founded hat not only operational focus (like development, quality & testing, architecture, product ownership and so forth), but communities for topics like creativity and ideation, or how the get closer to our customers emerged.
The feedback we got after the second day was also very positive. People had the feeling to be able to “get flesh by the bones” for real. There were room for essential things to be discussed. And for the important topics people eager to drive them found each other. This is a great prerequisite for being successful in the end: to be able to do what really drives you! Also the Get-Together attendees where happy that this were not two days packed with pre-defined content, but that they had the chance and time to build the agenda and address “their” topics.
Interesting side note: We ran the whole event without any “digital tools”. No slides, no beamers, no notebooks. Only flip charts, white boards, sticky notes, pens and paper. And the results where partially visually stunning! For this decision there were mainly two reasons: First, from our experience using digital tools can have negative impact on group work and energy levels. Just assume a group of ten people where suddenly somebody pulls out a notebook to look something up, while the others wait for him. Or bored people sneaking around in the web. Or a 80 people group staring at bad slides. So we had nothing of those Second point was: for the conditions at the location we would have needed a professional projector, which is about 2.000 EUR for two days. Not a good deal for the intended purpose.
All in all it was a really great event, and we took a big momentum with us back to our offices. Now I’m eager to see how this helps us to grow together as one big team, and how I can support this in the best way.