Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Chocopedia * – How the sweet stuff acted as a perfect enabler for collaboration.

Whoever said “When no one understands you, chocolate is there” probably didn’t realise how profound a statement this could actually be.

“Team Building” sessions are part and parcel to many company offsites and one I attended in Coventry recently was no different. Forrest Gump’s mother might have said, they’re just like a bunch of a chocolates, you’re never sure what you’re going to get (I’ll try to refrain from more choc puns).

While these events are sold as enrichment exercises and an opportunity to build bonds with colleagues in an informal environment, the company hierarchy and competitive spirit to win is all too present.

And it’s always interesting to see the lengths company employees will go to. Grown men and women reduced to running around after furry coloured balls, internalised into handling a bamboo stick like it was a stick of plutonium. Or my favourite to date, spending an hour working out the most efficient way to touch an object and return to the same position, only to be told that a group of school children were able to complete the same task in less than half the time. The group exercise I took part in, was a little easier on the ego though.

Freshtracks have been running their ‘Chocolate Challenge” event since 1998. Originally developed for the marketing team at Pepsi, it has since been used by several organisations and was the basis of the final challenge for BBC’s The Apprentice.

Prior to the exercise we were split into groups. Senior management, including one esteemed member who had worked for a couple of high profile confectionary companies were strategically placed in various teams. Every team except ours, who consisted of, dare I say it, ‘the little people’. A couple of respected procurement managers, an operational sourcing expert, accounting professional and yours truly (Mr Knowledge as I’m increasingly referred to these days). We made our introductions and sat down to hear the Freshtracks facilitator’s presentation.

To begin, three of the most successful chocolate campaigns of the past three decades were shown. The After Eight, Milk Tray and Ferrero Rocher commercials brought back memories of my childhood and the cold war, although younger members of the team clearly had no such emotional attachment to them.

The challenge itself consisted of three tasks:

1) Create an original box of chocolates – As teams we were tasked to create and make a unique, never-been-tasted before chocolate experience

2) Present a product or marketing strategy – We were told to write and present a marketing strategy that would explain how we would promote our chocolates to a desired sector with an appropriate brand name and profit margin.

3) Deliver a 30 second TV commercial – Each team was commissioned with writing and performing a television commercial that would support the marketing strategy. If the commercial ran over 30 seconds, points could be deducted. The finished advert would be presented at the end of the session following a two minute product presentation.

We were told that we could use an unlimited amount of dark, milk or white chocolate to create our product. We could add various ingredients (at a cost), from the fairly cheap and humdrum marshmallows and rice crispies to the more exotic and expensive crystallized ginger, chilli, nutmeg and coconut.

We sat down as a team and got to work. It struck me how we should consider targeting our brand of chocolate for the more premium market. The main focus of all three adverts was less about the chocolate and more about the kind of lifestyle that could be associated with these chocolates.

A younger member of the team was particularly enthused about contributing to the task. Considering he is also a regular reader of this blog, I’m going to refer to him with a pseudonym. “Bandy” a self proclaimed ideas man, got the ball rolling with his “5-a-day” proposal. “There’s loads of different types of fruit we can use. Let’s cover them in chocolate and boom! Job done!” he said clicking his fingers.

While this wasn't a bad idea, it didn’t jump out as a task winner either. I didn’t want to stifle Bandy’s gusto though. Another member of the team mentioned that while it would be a new, never been released before concept, there was probably a good reason for that! I took this as a cue to add a little constructive diplomacy.

We should definitely have this idea as a possibility, even if it could deliver a mixed message. On the one hand we would be trying to promote the health benefits of our product and on the other, smothering them in a high sugar and fat substance. The group agreed and Bandy gracefully accepted this feedback. We still had to come up with a concept though…

After 10 minutes of umming and aahing, I reminded the group that we had access to a large range of ingredients, sourced from different regions of the world. How about we create a ‘journey of chocolate’? Different regions of the world could dictate their own influence on the ingredients and this as far as I could see would be a truly unique concept. There was a collective agreement to go with this, but we still had to think of a name.

My first thoughts were ‘Coco-Republic’ except it could definitely be perceived as a rip-off from the strong Coffee-Republic brand. I then put forward Coco-Nation. Better perhaps, except in common with the majority, I felt it didn’t quite hit the spot.

Maybe we should be looking for terms from languages, other than English I figured. Another team member suggested that we could use ‘Du Monde’ or ‘Of the World’ in French somewhere in the name. “That’s it!” I said. “Coco Du Monde”. "How about simply Coco Monde?" said another member of the team. A catchy, classy, elegant and expensive sounding name that would capture the essence of our concept perfectly.

We then acquired a range of ingredients and packaging for Coco Monde that our accounting professional had worked out at the cost of 49p. A healthy profit if we were to market this chocolate as a luxury brand with our proposed RRP of £4.99.

I suggested we split the choice of chocolates into Continents. South America could have the whole Inca connection, where I remember hearing somewhere lay the origins of chocolate. Dark chocolate, with chilli and cinnamon would be a nice combination.

For Europe, we could keep it simple and sophisticated. Milk chocolate with hazelnuts was agreed to be the flavour of choice for this region.

For Africa, often referred to as the home of civilisation our accounting professional advised natural, earthy ingredients, such as crystallized ginger, honey and dark chocolate as the foundation.

Then, as a group we hit a collective mental block – we’d momentarily run out of good ideas.

Everyone except Bandy. “How about we include Antarctica and choose white chocolate and peppermint as a cool theme for that area!?”

Fantastic, we thought. A procurement professional within the team recommended we create a circular box, like an Aerial view of the world. Bandy was on a role, “yes and lets carry that theme into the inside of the box too!” he said, “Depending on what region of the world you choose, that would be the taste that you would experience!”

Time was running out and we hadn’t determined a target demographic and associated promotional campaign.

I suggested that this could simply be anyone who has an interest in travelling and the group approved. “And as a promotion we could give away some golden tickets in selected boxes where lucky winners could go on a world tour – Willy Wonka style!” (By now you will have assumed who made that statement)

It was time for the teams to present their ideas to the rest of the company and we were first up.

Tasked with doing the initial pitch and with zero rehearsal time being a factor, it probably came across as pretty poor – even if I managed to get the basic concept of all our hard work across. Bandy then took some samples around and they were well received by the group as a whole. Our accounting professional gave a breakdown of the costings, which all added up.

The final part of the presentation was to deliver a 30 second commercial. Again, we had left zero time for this area of the task.

Inspiration (and courage) hit me. I asked Bandy (who by now I’d learned was pretty fearless too) to fly past and mimic an aeroplane and then leave the rest to me…

“You know… I’d love to just pack up my bags and jump on a plane to somewhere exotic. What with these difficult economic times it’s something that I can’t just do. Well now I don’t have to leave my sitting room to enjoy some escapism. I can savour the fiery, spicy passion of South America, the creamy sophistication of Europe, the natural, gingery earthiness of Africa, and the soft, minty coolness of Antarctica, encapsulated in a dark, white and milk chocolate experience all for a recommended retail price of £4.99”

This impromptu, freestyled speech seemed to go down well and it was time for our team to sit back, relax and listen and score the rest of the groups offerings.

It’s fair to say all the presentations were delivered more professionally than ours, with the adverts better scripted and acted out. As slick as they were, it was also fair to say that with the exception of our group, it was difficult to identify any of the products being pitched as unique. The wider group and the Freshtrack’s judges agreed. Coco Monde won the challenge and we were each awarded a nice little book you see in the photo to the shock and awe of a few Senior Directors.

That’s a sweet story, you may be thinking, but what has it got to do with KM?

Let me take the group itself as an example. Unlike the others, there were no senior people present. Not that that’s always a bad thing of course, however it meant that as peers with no rank and essentially no hierarchy was established. A serious purpose to win was helped by the informal environment – arguably the best type for fostering innovation. Every contribution was also a valid contribution and led to a free flow of ideas. Entirely the guidelines by how Knowledge Caf├ęs are run.

Like most people trying to introduce a new concept into an organisation, you’re likely to encounter some challenging questions - even from well wishers. So when a colleague of mine (who was always a supporter of KM) expressed his concerns about KM succeeding if a culture of individual success was encouraged over any kind of team work, I didn’t have an answer. And not having one worried me for a while.

My boss reminded me of why this should potentially never be a barrier to knowledge sharing and collaboration. Before I could finish my sentence expressing my worries he was nodding his head in disagreement. He convinced me that being a winner, an entrepreneur, a leader and collaboration are part and parcel to each other. How Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have a whole team of people behind them that have contributed to their successes. Of course he was right. The crews of engineers, designers and R&D scientists all play a part in a successful podium position and are all, by rights – winners too.

The success of our team wasn’t the result of one good idea by one person, but the accumulation of ideas and workstreams created as a result of this. Ideas were encouraged, a unique concept discovered, then developed and built upon by different members of the team, all contributing to the same goal.

So perhaps the biggest lesson to me is how the Chocolate Challenge reinforced what someone once told me “A team can be perfect where an individual cannot”. As much as you need your project managers,  process people and techie's, you equally need your motivators, academics and Bandy’s too. I first heard Chris Collison use this phrase and I unequivocally agree. In the end "all of us know more than any of us".

Arshad Ahmed Knowledge Manager and team winner of the 2012 Castle Coombe Chocolate Challenge ;-)

* NB. Chocopedia was the name Cadbury’s used for their international collaboration tool. As a Knowledge worker It seems almost criminal to take credit for other peoples phrases!