At my old company VUURR, we used to work out of an amazing collaborative workspace in Arizona called Gangplank. They allow companies to use their space, their WiFi, and their resources rent free. In exchange they pay only with social capital. This means they mentor, give back to the community, and generally “pay it forward.” It’s a radical concept. In addition to the radical high minded notions, there are the more pedantic details like taking out the trash.
Every Thursday at four we’d spend about 5 minutes getting everyone ready, then loosely disperse and take out all the trash and recycling from the facility. However, I started to notice every Thursday at four one of our partners was always busy. Now in his defense, he’s always busy. I love him to death, but I was worried we were sending the wrong message to the juniors. One of the best parts about working in that company was that we all held each other very accountable.
I didn’t want to call him out for working, how could one partner get huffy at another doing their job? That wouldn’t send the right message to the juniors either. Struggle at the top is no way to lead. The message that I wanted to send, and the culture that I wanted to build was one of “Get shit done.” I don’t care if it’s mopping the floors or taking notes in a client meeting. Nobody in our organization is too important for anything. This is the kind of radical accountability I think breeds strong teams and empowers autonomy.
The best answer I could muster was Trash Racing. We had a company meeting and I told the team that starting Thursday at 3:59 everyone will need to be at their desk to get ready for Trash Races. At 3:59 I explained that every week we’d be timing our trash runs, and competing against ourselves to be more efficient. We spent the next 30 seconds making a plan. I did a small countdown to add to the drama.
All at once 12 people got up, and started running all over the workspace in what can best be described as controlled chaos. The other companies had come to understand that VUURR could be a little boisterous, but as we ran about they noticed this was about doing a better job. The timer is only stopped once everyone is back in their seats, and as each person boomeranged back to their chairs, they were met with the enthusiasm of the team. The last person had all 11 people cheering them on. Our first trash time was somewhere in the middle of four minutes. Each week we’d write the time on the board to keep us focused. By the time I left we had a sub-three minute time.
I’m not sure if this helped build a stronger culture of accountability and empowerment, but I do know that everyone participated, and maybe even had a little fun in the process. The culture shift was pervasive enough that other companies in the space started to take notice of our ‘antics’ and ask about what we were doing. Weeks after starting this experiment, an email to all the companies in the space said, “We’re adding a garbage can in the annex. (Sorry VUURR, I know this will affect your trash times.)”