We spent this last week end in a cabin in Vermont overlooking impossibly green mountains and a glistening lake below us. We were there to attend our niece's wedding, along with 69 other guests divided into 35 cabins. Idyllic as the surroundings were, I am sure most people didn’t arrive in an ecstatic frame of mind. Maybe some of them had a lingering work-related problem in their mind; were fighting a cold or recovering from a bad night’s sleep.
As for me--let me hasten to say-- I am a city person. A year ago we had rented a “cabin” at a country inn for a few days in the fall. You know, the kind that has a Jacuzzi tub, room service, neatly wrapped little chocolates on your pillow, plush quilts on the bed and gourmet meals at the central manor house. Well, they did call it a "cabin," after all. How was I to know that real cabins had hard, narrow beds; no heating or air-conditioning; rough, woolen blankets and a rickety plastic shower you shared with others? And besides, I associated the term “wedding” with crowded, tense events. Somehow, their orchestrated formality, while ensuring that no shred of messy spontaneity would interfere with the plans, took a toll on human elements like authentic connections and warmth.
But of course, as I came to find out, this was not this kind of wedding. What did it take to convert individual participants into a community of co-celebrants? I thought about it in the long ride home.
In the first place this was not a 4-hour event, but an entire, luxurious week-end of adventure, good conversation, fine food and celebration. More than this, in the course of the week-end guests increasingly shifted from spectators to participants. There were no expert “event planners” and other “wedding specialists” to organize every conceivable detail. The young couple – both natural scientists and outdoor enthusiasts—did not adhere to a ready-made protocol. They spent months of excitement and sheer joy in re-creating the experiences that brought them together, as an offering to their guests. For their wedding celebration, they had pieced together a microcosm of the life they treasured —3 days of immersion in nature, the beauty of the landscape, physical activities, friendships, simplicity and a perspective of reverence for the natural world.
After a while, people naturally peeled off in different directions—hiking, swimming, socializing or reading a book on their front porches-- in groups or as individuals. One could suddenly strike a deep conversation with a relative, new acquaintance or old friend; play with a baby; or join a group of strangers on a hike.
No florists and extravagant flower arrangements! My sister-in-law simply asked willing neighbors to bring fresh flowers from their own gardens. On the day of the ceremony all the neighbors’ flowers were piled on a table in the little patio behind the building which suddenly became overcome with an explosion of color, texture and fragrance. Volunteers sorted flowers into bouquets and placed them in vases they distributed among the tables. Others set up the chairs on the lawn for the wedding ceremony and still others decorated the reception hall or set tables. Listening to the banter and laughter all around, it occurred to me that there were no longer strangers or relatives with "baggage" among the guests. In fact, there were no longer “guests” and “hosts” but a community of shared celebration and care for the young couple. When the father of the bride asked us to support the newlyweds in their new journey, you knew that the thunderous promised from this community came from the heart.
If we looked at the workplace in human terms rather than a set of rules and products; and at customers/members on the basis of relationships rather than transactions, we could see parallels in how people become engaged and disconnected pieces acquire fresh value and meaning as inter-dependent pieces of a community of shared purpose.
A while ago, a client association with serious attrition problems finally agreed that they had to dramatically improve their relationship with members. To my astonishment, the only way they could even conceive of improvement was in terms of refinements and increased frequency of their formal, canned “communications” with members. I realized that in the eyes of many associations the minute people are termed “members,” the laws of natural human interaction appear to be suspended. Staff simply do not know how to increase their understanding of and intimacy with members as whole human beings. The entire organization is wired to sell memberships and programs; push prepared “messages” and information and promote its value.
What would happen if you genuinely committed to members' success, invited them to participate in shaping the solutions that mattered to them, engaged them in meaningful and purposeful communities and connected with them without a script or sales agenda?