For years I’ve written on this blog about new ways of working that allow people to bend time, space, and the human mind to their advantage.
How do I have the confidence to believe that a radically new and better way of working is possible?
Because I’ve experienced it, during what I call “accelerated work experiences,” or AWEs for short. This includes any work format that compresses productive activity in time or space to deliver a result much faster than would otherwise be possible. Popular methods include pomodoros, hackathons, design sprints, Scrum sprints, rapid prototyping sessions, design thinking crash courses, and Startup Weekends, among others.
We are living in a Cambrian explosion of AWEs. As work has become ever more digital, distributed, and asynchronous over the past few decades, we have basked in our newfound freedom. Now we can work anywhere, anytime! And thus we find ourselves working everywhere, all the time. The splintering of the experience of work into a million tiny pieces has made us stressed out, frazzled, and distracted. It has robbed us of many of the inherent pleasures of work: the bliss of deep concentration, the satisfaction of starting and finishing something in one sitting, and the fulfillment of working shoulder to shoulder with peers.
Many are seeking a return to what was lost: concentrated, intensive, experiential work environments that drive to completion and give us the satisfaction and fun of working closely alongside others.
I’ve participated in dozens of AWEs of various kinds over the years, and have reliably found them to be among the most gratifying, exciting, effective, and insightful experiences I’ve ever had, professional or otherwise. They win on nearly every dimension, calling into question every assumption about modern work and how it should be performed.
The MESA Method
There is one method that stands out from the rest: the MESA Method, created by a Brazilian company formerly known as Mesa & Cadeira (i.e. Table & Chair), and now known simply as MESA. I will call the company MESA Co. and the method itself “MESA.”
A MESA is a 5-day, intensive work sprint delivered on behalf of a client, usually a large company or other organization. MESA Co. gathers 12-16 participants (which they have found to be just the right number) in beautiful, often exotic locations around the world, seeking to create the ideal environment to focus on and solve a complex problem that the organization is facing. The participants are split more or less evenly between employees of the client company, and outside experts and makers, who offer outside perspectives and hands-on skills.
I participated in my first MESA about four years ago, and have been a part of three others in Brazil and the U.S. since then. I’ve also borrowed some of its practices for my own workshops. I can say unequivocally that they are among the most rewarding work experiences I’ve had. I’ve been collecting notes and ideas since that first experience to try to understand why.
Last weekend, the MESA Co. team gathered 32 of their closest collaborators at a beautifully designed eco-retreat center in the jungles of Southern Brazil, near the resort town of Paraty. But this was not a typical MESA – it was the first-ever MESA Leader Session. For the first time, they pulled back the curtains, and for three very full days told us everything they had learned from running more then 130 MESAs over the last 8 years, for clients including Google, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Samsung, Nestle, and many others.
I finally have what I need to tell you about it.
Photos from the first MESA leader session in Paraty, Brazil:
Here is the basic premise: the world is only getting more complex. This means there will be fewer and fewer proven solutions to problems. What we need is not a new and better solution, but a method for creating solutions quickly, in response to changing conditions.
At the same time, the most talented people are increasingly mobile, picky, and in demand. It is going to be ever more difficult to tie them down with full-time employment.
The only way to solve the world’s most complex challenges is by working with the best in the world. And the only way to do that is to keep the time commitment short, remove every obstacle to them creating value, and create an environment and a team where they can do the best work of their lives.
It was in pursuit of this vision that MESA was born.
The goal is to create a brief, but very intense working environment where a small group of carefully chosen participants can build something tangible to advance a mission or cause that they care about. The method takes advantage of rapid prototyping tools, software-as-a-service, and modular templates to build something real and functional that embodies the knowledge and experience of everyone at the table. This prototype is used not just to demonstrate the viability of a solution, but to build consensus around a new direction for the company.
The client is a “problem owner” responsible for an important challenge that they can’t solve on their own. Perhaps their main product is no longer resonating with a younger generation of consumers. Their marketing channels are outdated and obsolete, but they are afraid to cannibalize them with new ones. They could be tasked with revitalizing a product line in the face of major technological shifts. Or it could be a social mission, meeting the needs of an underserved population under tight budgetary constraints.
Whatever the problem, MESA is unique in that it is not primarily a service provided at arms’ length to a paying client. The MESA Co. team works with the client, not for the client. The problem owner and their team are the central participants in the process, which generates a level of trust and communication between clients and MESA leaders unlike what I have seen from agencies or consultancies. They had to demonstrate it again and again because it is so contrary to current thinking: taking the client at their word, not assuming or insisting that there must be a deeper problem that they aren’t aware of.
The overall structure of the week is fairly straightforward, and similar to other sprint methodologies.
Day 1 is a “download day” dedicated to getting all the relevant information out of everyone’s heads and “out on the table.” This includes the external participants, who were chosen for their specialized expertise in the industries, markets, and technologies thought to be most relevant.
On Day 2, the carefully worded “mission” is unveiled, drawing on the discoveries from the day before to frame the problem owner’s problem as an inspiring, yet feasible challenge. The second half of the day is spent generating a small set of ideas to prototype.
All photos are from the official MESA Instagram account
Day 3 is for prototyping, which includes small groups writing copy, making mockups or landing pages, building demos, or producing short videos or presentations to demonstrate the viability of the ideas from the day before. It is on Day 3, once people have to start making real tradeoffs in the making of the product, that the real constraints arise.
Day 4 is focused on more advanced prototyping, taking the most viable prototypes to a basic level of functionality. The leader pushes to bring the fidelity of the prototype as close to reality as possible, including real code and functional backends whenever possible. The further toward reality it moves, the more hidden constraints and priorities will come to the surface.
Day 5, the final day, is focused on wrapping up loose ends and preparing the final presentation. MESA Co. is adamant that the final deliverable cannot be just a presentation (or a report or briefing), but rather the presentation is a vehicle for delivering and explaining the prototype that was created. The presentation is ideally made to senior leaders of the company, or other stakeholders who will demand a high level of rigor. This is what creates a real sense of urgency and meaning around the deadline, and brings out the “productivity magic” of the last two days.
But where MESA shines is not in the explicit – the rules, structures, schedule, checklists – but in the tacit, the subtle, and the sublime. They have found a way to use these subtle touches not just to create a memorable experience, but to produce results that more heavy-handed methods can only dream of.
Why “mesa” (which means “table” in Portuguese)?
Because the table represents the intersection of pleasure and commitment. The pleasure of family and friends sitting together and sharing a meal in the evening. And the commitment of getting down to business, of giving everything you have to the task at hand.
Tables and the meals we eat on them are enveloped in rituals. From the way the table is set, to how the food is served, to how people sit and prepare themselves for eating, to how the food is actually eaten. Hundreds of these small rituals give us prescribed behaviors that we know will lead to the outcome we’re after – getting fed. They ensure we don’t disturb the experience of others, that we respect the host and the household, and that the food remains sanitary.
But there is a deeper purpose to these rituals that is easy to miss: they imbue the entire experience with significance. They make the process of getting calories into our bodies much more than the sum of its parts: an affirmation of our values, a time of connection with the people we love most, a reminder of what really matters at the end of a hectic day.
MESA seeks to reintroduce and translate some of these rituals to the world of work. But not just for nostalgic purposes. It recreates them from the ground up, focusing them like a laser on one thing: producing results. It is a reinvention of the rituals that once bound us together in a shared purpose, working toward a common cause, but adapted to the modern context.
The experience begins with the venue. MESA Co. very carefully chooses locations that support the results they are trying to produce. The venues almost always have a “wow factor” to inspire the participants with an environment that stimulates all the senses. Entering the venue as a group and seeing the meticulously laid out table gives you a sense of the gravity and importance of the mission you are about to undertake.
The table is, of course, central. It is laid out with precise measurements down to the centimeter, in order to put people just close enough to work together, while giving them enough space to work. Each place at the table has a name on it, like a wedding where every seating assignment is carefully chosen. The setting includes just the essential materials needed for the week, often including a notebook, pen, and bag. Even the color scheme is chosen with intention, often purposefully clashing with the client’s official colors to avoid the “business as usual” attitude.
Every element in the space is chosen with intention: the chairs are comfortable for long hours of sitting and working; bags are collected in a central location so they don’t get in the way; the food is prepared simply and to avoid afternoon crashes; there are no clocks, giving the experience a sense of timelessness. My favorite touch is the “Leave Me Alone” wall – a grid of pockets with participants’ names on them, where everyone is asked to leave their phones to remove the temptation.
The real purpose of all these decisions and rituals is to change participants’ behavior, away from the counterproductive habits we’ve developed, and toward a more focused way of working that is rarely possible in a distraction-filled workplace. MESA changes behavior not with rules, but by changing the context. As you find yourself in an environment purposefully free of the usual triggers and hooks, with a full staff dedicated to protecting you from every distraction or discomfort, your creativity is unleashed. People respect rituals more than rules, because rituals give us something meaningful in return for our compliance.
Coming back to the everyday world, I’ve begun to notice a phenomenon everywhere: as soon as one person in a group takes out their phone or computer, everyone else is much more likely to do so as well. It only takes one person to check out for the atmosphere of human presence to start being sucked out of the room, like an airplane cabin with a punctured window. And once that air is gone, it’s very hard to bring people back.
A quick glance at your notifications seems so harmless, but it communicates something unmistakable to others: there is somewhere you’d rather be, mentally if not physically. Check your phone, and an invisible cocoon suddenly springs up around you. It is this cocoon that makes it hard to connect with the people around us, even after the phones are put away.
I believe that people naturally want to focus, but only if that focus will be protected and respected. They want to give their best, but only if that effort will be put to good use. As the idealism of wanting to do a good job collides with the fragmented reality of modern schedules, we become resigned, gradually coming to resent the environment that seemingly won’t allow us to excel. What I see among MESA participants is a sigh of relief, followed by an unbelievable explosion of creative energy. Every signal tells them that this is a place for focus, that their contributions are wanted and valued. When the internal and the external conditions align, it feels like anything is possible.
Now that you have the overall picture of what a MESA looks like, in Part 2 I’ll dive into what I believe are the underlying principles, and later we’ll look at how you can apply them to your own work.
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