And now for something completely different

Last month my colleague Todd Brown shared some insights from Aristotle to help us lead a more balanced life. The topic must have sparked some other neural connections in my brain because later that day I found myself remembering a classic Monty Python sketch called ‘International Philosophy’.

The sketch opens at Munich’s Olympic Football Stadium with a team comprised of German philosophers (Kant, Schopenhauer, Heidegger…) emerging from the tunnel followed by an equally star-studded Greek side (Aristotle, Socrates, Plato…). However, after some lively warm-up exercises, all the ‘players’ immediately become motionless when the ref blows the whistle for kick-off, suddenly deep in thought. Apart from a harsh booking for Nietsche, nothing at all happens for virtually the whole game.

It is, of course, gloriously silly but it also prompted some reflections about teamworking and GTD (the ‘Getting Things Done’ productivity methodology). The first thing that struck me about the sketch was how well it exemplifies a team deep in what GTD calls ‘the productive experience’. Once the game starts, everyone on the pitch is instantly focussed. In most office environments it’s hard to imagine everyone suddenly in the zone as the clock hand ticks over to 9am. It’s more likely that you’ll see a synchronised swallow dive into email inboxes as this recent tweet about another intellectual giant suggests;

“If Einstein were alive, he’d wake up tomorrow and spend the first couple of hours digging out his inbox and getting a bunch of Slack notifications. And we wouldn’t have relativity.”

However, a team in Sheffield that I worked with over the summer does things differently once a week when they engage in an interesting team GTD practice. Each Friday morning the whole team is encouraged to do their GTD weekly review at the same time. An expectation has been set by the team leader that they will allow each other to be undistracted during this time and she sets the tone by carrying out her own weekly review, too.

Part of the leadership message that this gives is that it’s OK for the world to wait a while, and it’s a message that carries beyond their weekly review into the way they manage their email responsiveness and availability for interruption on the other days of the week, too. They now know that they have tacit support not to allow the team to be overly driven by the latest and the loudest. GTD helps them maintain their focus but the managerial air cover is vital, too.

Thinking about this team gear change I was also reminded about something I saw earlier this year at a client’s offices in Stockholm. There I observed the practice of Fika, a workplace tradition in Swedish culture whereby everyone stops at least once a day at the same time for coffee and cake. The tray of pastries that appeared in the seminar room mid-afternoon provided a delightful interlude and while it’s not uncommon to see treats laid on for a training day, it was fascinating to discover that this was a part of their regular daily routine, too.

Not only does Fika enable breaks in the workday for people to mentally pause and refresh but the fact that everybody attends means it contributes to the social cohesion of the team. It’s also an important vehicle for informal communication of what’s happening in the organisation in ways that formal meetings don’t – a better way to share exactly the same stuff that might otherwise fill inboxes through the day with more distraction, less clarity and no cake at all. It’s such a valued practice in Sweden that it’s not only widespread in society but in some companies it’s almost mandatory to join in.

In both Sheffield and Stockholm, then, the value of the team pause, whether it’s the reflective space of the team weekly review or the refreshment space of the Fika, is recognised and nurtured as a group reset that is greater than the sum of its individuals’ parts.

So, in the spirit of a healthy pause, take a slice of metaphorical metaphysical cake and join the Monty Python team for the international philosophy final. You’ll also get to see who won the game with a ‘Eureka’ moment in the 90th minute (hint, hint)…