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In Part 1, I described the basics of the team-based work sprint methodology known as MESA. In this article, I’ll take a closer look at the underlying principles that tie together MESA and other kinds of Accelerated Work Experiences (AWEs).

MESA’s 3 Core Principles

The team at MESA Co. has identified three principles they believe lie at the heart of their method: vulnerability, intention, and presence.

Vulnerability appears when the Leader takes the head of the table, stepping into a role that is part master of ceremonies, part inspirational visionary, part herder of cats, and part group therapist. If vulnerability is the courage to be seen when you have no control over the outcome, then the job of MESA Leader squarely fits.

Intention is all about knowing exactly why you’re doing something. Every pen and paper clip is set on the table with intention, each one subtly communicating, “We put this much intention into each pen – will you be as intentional about the work you do here?”

Presence is perhaps the most fundamental of the three. It includes doing just one thing at a time, and doing it well. But it goes far beyond focus. Being present as a Leader means making your personality 100% available to the people you are working with. It requires pulling all the various selves from the past and future, to reside in the here and now where discomfort, but also opportunity, reigns.

The 10 Principles of Sprints

As important as these three principles are, I believe they are only the tip of the iceberg of what is happening during a MESA. By exploring the others, I believe we can start to reveal what different kinds of Accelerated Work Experiences (AWEs) have in common.

These principles come in pairs, each balancing the other. The job of the Leader is to choose which one manifests at any given moment.

Indulgence vs. minimalism

There is undoubtedly a “WOW Factor” that is an important part of the MESA experience. The venues are often jaw-dropping, creating an atmosphere of indulgence and luxury so different from the bland offices or cramped cafes where so much of modern work is performed.

But this indulgence is counterbalanced against a stark, practical minimalism. The experience design team repeats “only the essentials” like a mantra, looking for any opportunity to strip away what isn’t needed. They will remove paintings from the walls if they are distracting, or count the number of pages in the notebooks to ensure there is no excess.

Obsession vs. improvisation

There is an unmistakable attitude of obsession in everything that MESA Co. does. From the precision of the place settings, to the unyielding commitment to tangible results, it is a culture that leaves room for the perfectionism of the creative people who participate as experts and makers. They are encouraged to fulfill the high standards that they often don’t have the chance to reach doing commercial work.

But the drive for excellence is balanced against a willingness to improvise at a moment’s notice. Leaders are even discouraged from researching too much about the client or their problem beforehand, because their learning in real time is an opportunity for everyone to learn along with them. Especially after Day 2, improvisation to changing circumstances is the art of leading a MESA.

Conflict vs. conviction

The MESA approach to conflict is very different from what I’ve witnessed in most corporate environments. Everyone is encouraged to “bring everything to the table,” especially their reservations and concerns about the progress of the MESA. There are no side conversations, no backchannels, and no hidden agendas entertained. The whole point of bringing everyone together in one place is to force the problems to emerge out into the open, where they can be addressed.

But it is towards the end of the MESA that the purpose of this conflict becomes clear. It is only by getting everyone’s doubts and fears out into the open, and showing them that they’ll be seen and heard, that you have the opportunity to build real conviction. Not just consensus, but a conviction that they know exactly what to do when they get home. The Problem Owner must go through every up and down of the experience to have the confidence to stand in front of an audience during the final presentation and say, “This is the solution I believe in.” Not because it went through many months of analysis, but because it emerged from a meeting of great minds working at their full capacity.

Pleasure vs. responsibility

One of MESA Co’s strongest beliefs is that work is inherently pleasurable. They don’t believe in adding games and gimmicks to make work “engaging.” Instead, they amplify natural rewards: the camaraderie of working late into the night with peers you respect, the satisfaction of seeing something you created immediately put to use, and the pure euphoria of completing the mission on the last day, with no follow up work required. MESA Co. sometimes speaks of their job as “seducing” participants into giving them their best work.

This seduction is balanced against responsibility. The role of the Leader is quite different from a typical facilitator on this point. The Leader is “110% responsible” for the results of the MESA, in the words of founder Bárbara Soalheiro. She insists that the Leader must be committed to greatness, not just delivering something to specifications. She is fond of telling people NOT to “trust the process,” because that just invites blind faith. Instead of trusting the process, the Leader has to make a decision that will produce results.

Thinking vs. doing

The MESA experience is extremely intellectually challenging. As a participant, you are expected to integrate new knowledge and turn it into action at a stunning pace. The problems that are worthy of a MESA are often thorny and multidimensional. They often involve shaping complex systems impacting many thousands of people. Thinking through the implications is essential.

But thinking also has its limits. While in debate mode, people’s minds are set to criticize. And they can always find something to critique. By switching everyone into maker mode any time progress bogs down, suddenly their minds begin looking for solutions. By asking them to demonstrate instead of elaborate, any decisions that are made are more grounded in reality.

Tuning the environment

Each of the pairs of principles above is like a dial on a control panel, allowing the MESA Leader to fine tune how the group is working.  By holding time as the only fixed constraint, explicitly meeting the needs of everyone present, and placing them all around the same table with access to the same information, the playing field is leveled.

On this level playing field, it is the responsibility and the burden of the MESA Leader to allow everyone to do the best work of their lives.

In Part 3, I’ll look at other key elements of the MESA method, and how they help unlock the creative potential of the people who participate.

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