If you’ve ever been to or witnessed an extravagant, multi-course dinner party, you may have noticed an Intermezzo course being served. The Intermezzo is a small, refreshing bite served between courses to cleanse the palate and slow down the dining experience so guests have the chance to really savor their meal.
At Venga, we call our quarterly company retreats “Intermezzos” because they serve a very similar purpose- a short break between extended periods of productivity for our team to come together, refocus, and reenergize. Each of the four annual Intermezzos lasts three days, during which no one on the Venga team does their regular work. All Venga employees are invited (required) to attend and no matter how large we get as a company, I am committed to having everyone, rather than just leadership, participate.
Put into context, we invest over 5% of the work year and thousands of dollars in these retreats because I firmly believe these are the most important 12 days of the year for our company.
There are four main objectives of each Venga Intermezzo:
Celebrate our achievements
Set the course for the next 3-12 months
Tap into the collective insight of the team
Bond as individuals and as an organization
Celebrate Our Achievements
If you look backward after each step you take hiking up a mountain, the view would never be impressive. But when you get to the top and gaze down upon the spot where your journey started, you can appreciate the distance from which you’ve traveled.
This intense feeling of pride and accomplishment is the same feeling I get during each intermezzo when we review our progress and think back on where we were as a company just three months ago.
I share all our financial results including revenue, profitability, sales, and churn. I highlight our sales wins, our new feature deployments, and the successes our clients have had with our product. I also review where we fell short of our goals and what previously unforeseen challenges we faced. Above all, I use this transparency to empower each member of my team to understand our business and Think Like an Owner (one of our core company values).
Set The Course For The Next 3-12 Months
After reviewing our progress from the last several months, we spend time charting the course for the next 3-12 months. This involves discussing current industry themes like capabilities our clients are asking for, actions our competitors and partners are taking, and emerging technologies we want to consider for our own product.
We use these identified themes to set the company-wide, high-level goals for the whole Venga team. These goals are then broken down into quarterly, team-specific goals for each employee to work towards. In this goal-setting process, I continue to emphasize the importance of transparency for success; everyone in the company knows the objectives of the organization, the objectives of their team, and the objectives of every other employee. With the whole team in alignment and pushing towards the same goals, it’s easy to see how each individual’s efforts contribute to the overall mission.
Tap Into The Collective Insight Of The Team
Fans of Star Trek will be familiar with the Vulcan Mind Meld, a technique where two individuals’ minds become a single entity. The Vulcans used this practice to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next for the benefit of the society. Unless this sci-fi technique becomes a reality, we need to resort to other methods of harnessing the collective insight, knowledge, and ideas of our organization.
We’ve developed a series of effective methods that we employ during our Intermezzos. One is what we call “Do Something Cool.” Each employee uses time prior to the Intermezzo (typically up to 16 hours) to work on anything that they want, even outside their own function, that they think will be a benefit to the company – a proof of concept of new feature, a revised pitch for our product, a better layout for our office. During Intermezzo we take turns presenting all the cool somethings that we did. Another method is “My Best Idea” in which each team member presents one idea they have to make the company or product better.
These two practices have birthed dozens of ideas that ultimately found their way into the product and our company’s DNA. Our use of text sentiment analysis to analyze online restaurant reviews, a method to onboard new software developers faster, and OKRs - our goals and measurement framework, were all ideas that came out of previous Intermezzos.
Another technique we use is working on problems collectively in cross-disciplinary teams. For example, when deciding to overhaul our dashboard guest profile, we split into teams consisting of at least one developer, someone from sales and marketing, and someone from the operations team. Each team member brings their own unique perspective to the problem – operations can speak to what clients are asking for, sales can speak to what they’re hearing in the market, and the engineers ground the conversation in what can actually be done.
After defining the problem as a group, each team works independently to create their ideal solution. We then reconvene and share the results. This has proven to be an incredibly successful way to jumpstart the product development process.
Bond As Individuals and As An Organization
The importance of team bonding is nothing new (check out my last post on Venga’s company culture!). At Venga, we focus on one particular aspect that we have found to be particularly effective: Empathy. It’s our ability to understand each other that is critical to getting through difficult times. When one team member makes a mistake that affects others, it’s the bank of goodwill and understanding that was built up at our Intermezzos that lets us ride smoothly over these bumps.
In addition to company happy hours, dinners, and purely social events (Top Golf, bowling, ping pong tournament) there are a couple methods we’ve used to promote team bonding and empathy. In one exercise each team member wrote their name on a paper cup. Each cup was passed around and when it got to you, you wrote that person’s best quality or skill on a slip of paper and put it in the cup. After all the cups made it around the room, each person took turns reading what was written about them. The result, in addition to a nice ego boost, was demonstrating how the team consists of a diverse set of skills and it’s that diversity that makes us successful.
So while I may start to get frustrated when my co-founder fails to understand a technical issue facing our development team, I remember that his contributions to the team are not intended to be his engineering prowess, but his unrivaled relationship building skills that have landed us countless clients, investors, and partners.
There are two final things I’ve learned about running these retreats that I’d like to share. The first is to save plenty of time at the end to wrap up and document next steps. Intermezzo is just the launching pad for the quarter and most of the hard work comes afterward.
The second is to gather feedback from all participants. We do a survey the next business day to find out what was productive and enjoyable and what can be improved on for next Intermezzo.
The idea generation, collaboration, and bonding that happens during our Intermezzo have made them my (and I like to think everyone’s) 12 favorite days of the year – ok maybe 12 favorite work days of the year! If I can be of assistance in helping start or improve your company retreats, please don’t hesitate to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.