What’s an Organizational Charrette and How Can It Enhance Your Business?

Developing a culture of true innovation and creativity within an organization is no easy task. Even if a leader advocates for their employees to be creative and pursue new ideas, organizations rarely allocate time and resources for those employees to be creative without risking the time they need for standard operations. To truly explore what creativity and innovation can accomplish for a firm, a practice is needed in which everyone puts down his or her usual work and focuses on a new idea.

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Enter the organizational charrette, a new management practice in which the entire company closes shop for 1 week so every employee can focus on innovation and future planning.

In my opinion, charrettes are magical. They provide time for deep intellectual exploration of matters significant to the success of the firm. They also provide the space and time for innovation. Charrettes allow people to work not only at their own pace but also on projects that matter to them and nothing more. If only the charrette tone and pace could be replicated every day and the firm could still meet our clients’ needs!

This past December at Organizational Performance Group (OPG), we completed our second organizational charrette. To understand what this week entails, you must first understand the term being used. The word charrette is French for “cart” or “chariot,” referring to a common practice in 19th century French architectural firms in which student architects would work right up until a deadline, at which a charrette would be wheeled among them to collect up their scale models for final review. The word charrette has now taken on a larger meaning; companies all over the world use it to describe an innovative period in which a team or a group of individuals from a company creates pioneering solutions and tackles complicated problems during an established period. These periods are being shown to improve productivity, innovation, employee retention, and internal relationships within companies.

As a part of our mission to be a laboratory for organizational development, we undertook an experimental charrette in December 2017 in order to test its effectiveness on team creativity and innovation, productivity, and overall staff engagement.

Here’s how our little “lab experiment” looked:

  • Every person works alone or in groups to complete one new innovation for the firm. They formulate the idea far in advance, presenting the project first to the partners and then to the organization to ask for feedback on the idea, explain how they will approach working through the charrette, and what goals the idea will accomplish for the firm.
  • During the charrette week kickoff, the entire staff meets for lunch on Wednesday to check in and discuss problems and pain points that are being encountered.
  • Finally, the week ends with each individual or group presenting their project and receiving questions and feedback from the entire organization.

The first charrette’s goal was to test the effectiveness of a charrette—does only focusing on one idea for an entire week facilitate a deeper, stronger innovation for the organization? How does the individual or group view their relationship with the project and with the company over the course of the week? How difficult will it be to follow through on each project after the charrette is finished?

To answer these questions, we suggest you collect data from every employee in the form of an initial survey at the start of the week, daily feedback forms, and a final debrief at the end of the week. Daily entries from each employee include:

  • What went well, what could have been better, general reactions, and a 1–5 scale of how meaningful this experience has been so far.
  • The responses are then categorized into qualitative data that show themes, trends, and potential pain points that the organization can address.
  • After the charrette is long over, you should also track the progress of each project on a quarterly basis and reallocate resources for projects that are lagging in implementation. This way, projects are seen through fully and don’t only live and thrive for a week.

Here’s what staffers had to say about the two charrettes I’ve been a part of:

  • Staff members on average rated the whole experience at 4.2 out of 5; in the second year, the average was 4.58.
  • Going into the charrettes, people reported feeling excited, nervous, optimistic, positive, and energetic. Things that went well included “time to think,” “rich discussion,” and “sticking to a daily plan.”
  • In both years, the experience improved over the week (3.63–4.75 in the first year and 4.00–5.00 in the second year).
  • When asked what could have made things better, several staff members said they wished they had done more preparation or research ahead of time.
  • Others noted frustration around “regular business” creeping into the charrette time.
  • Finally, staff members commented on needing to give themselves more breaks to move around or take a walk to break up the day and keep their minds fresh.

As the meaningfulness ratings suggest, there was a palpable arc to people’s engagement and experience in the charrette. At the beginning, there were anxieties about not being prepared enough, not being sure where the work was going, etc. By midweek, people were feeling like progress was being made, but they were feeling tired. By Friday, most everyone was in good spirits and felt that they had really accomplished something. Because the experience was positive and fruitful overall, I highly suggest businesses decided to try to hold charrettes with a cyclical cadence.

If a leader’s goal is to cultivate creativity and innovation within his or her organization, the charrette may be the perfect tool to do so. Through this process, employees often find themselves energized and engaged with their work in a way that is usually not experienced. Each person gets the time, resources, and support to make a personal contribution—this strengthens the bond between each team member and the organization for which they work.

Laura Freebairn-Smith is Partner at Organizational Performance Group. Laura has been a consultant for such distinguished companies as The New York Times and People’s Bank. Her specialty is assisting leaders in realizing the full potential of their organizations through humanistic and analytical practices, while offering guidance in the redesign of infrastructure, the creation of strategic plans, and with organizational development.

Freebairn-Smith’s credentials include a BA from UC Berkeley (Philosophy and Political Science) and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. She holds a doctorate in Organizational Systems from Saybrook Institute and has published articles and chapters on organizational development topics, most recently on radically informative indicators for organizational success.

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