February 27, 2004

The Lunch Board

Today was my last day at the Puget Sound Educational Service District. My co-workers gave me a wonderful parting gift: a "lunch board." This deserves a bit more explanation, so here goes…

Among my co-workers, there has always been a desire to go to lunch together. Sometimes this means going to an actual restaurant, and other times it just means a trip to one of the nearby grocery stores. But the point was that we'd do it as a group. Of course, this wasn't an everyday occurrence, as working from home, meetings, and other plans often got in the way. We'd manage to do this about two or three times a week.

The challenge was figuring out where to go. "So, where do you want to go?" "I dunno, where do you want to go?" This could go on for, well, far too long. Mostly out of this frustration, the lunch board was born. I don't remember exactly how it started, but the key was an old bulletin board that Karen wanted out of her cubicle.

The lunch board is that (ugly pink) bulletin board, nailed to a cubicle in a central location. The board itself is divided (using pieces of ribbon nailed to the board) into a number of sections: Other Plans, Group Lunch, and Restaurants. We wrote everyone's name on a little strip of paper and tacked them to the board. We also wrote down every potential lunch place in the area on strips of paper.

Here's how it works: each person decides what they'd like to do that day. If they have other plans, which could include being out of the office or even bringing a sack lunch, they just move their name into the "Other Plans" section. Then, they're safely out of the "What do you want to do?" conversation. If you are interested in going out to lunch, move your name to the "Group Lunch" section. Then, in the Restaurants section, pick one or more places that you'd like to do. One of our later modifications was to add pieces of string attached to each person's name. A person could then tie their name to the specific restaurant they'd like to go to. This way, a consensus could form around one of the choices without spending too much time debating. Multiple groups could even form, based on who put what up on the board.

It might sound a bit confusing, but its actually a fairly simple process, and quite low-tech. A picture might help, but I don't have a digital camera handy.

The started somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it turned out to be a great development. And, I think we can draw some interesting conclusions for the world of collaboration and knowledge management:

Low-Tech. Sometimes the easiest, most low-tech solution is the best one. Sure, we could have written a peer-to-peer application that reached out of surveyed everyone's lunch preferences. But the lunch board took just about no money (I'm not sure if Karen bought the string or not), and not much time. Technology people often look to monstrous systems (KM systems, CM systems, etc). Low tech and cheap can work, too.

Informal Communication. The lunch board widened the circle of people I socialized with at work. The lunch board made it easy to go to lunch with a different group than just the same two or three people. In doing so, I learned more about what other groups in my department were working on. In our case, we were all working with the same customer base (school districts), but we're often working in different areas. Spending social time together allows us to check in with each other and draw connections that might not otherwise have happened.

So, in honor of my leaving, I received a brand new lunch board. I'll definitely miss going out to lunch with this group, and I can only hope that my new co-workers are as good.