… From the desk of Mark Battey

My seatmate looked out the van window, saw the commotion and gasped, “Oh my God. It looks like we have an international incident brewing!

I was in Noida, a New Delhi suburb, and had just finished a visit to a factory that made CDs and DVDs. It was the end of a week of attending seminars at Amity University, India’s largest private university.

I was with a group of doctoral students from the International School of Management (ISM). ISM is a niche graduate business school headquartered in Paris that teams with universities across the globe to run executive seminars on international business. ISM currently runs programs in New York, Shanghai, and New Delhi.Amity New Delhi

It had been a long, interesting, and frustrating week for the twenty of us. The faculty and staff at Amity had been exceedingly welcoming and hospitable. Amity treated us like foreign dignitaries and saw to all our needs. They provided group transportation to and from our hotels and provided daily lunch at the campus cafeteria. We really did not have to make any choices – Amity provided all.

This degree of Indian hospitality was at times comical and constraining. For example, after sitting through the welcoming ceremony, a few hours of lectures, lunch, and another lecture, we were excited to hear we were going on a tour of the campus. Glad to stretch our legs, we walked outside and were surprised to see a line of six or seven cars at our disposal.

One student asked, “Can’t we walk?”

“Oh no, sir. It is much too hot and we don’t want you to get lost,” a smiling Amity staff person responded.

We obligingly piled into the caravan; drove no more than a quarter mile; and then got out for our first stop. After a few more short drives and visits, we were back in our seats for the last set of lectures.

Back in the van to the hotel, there was some grumbling. “Now I know that being an inmate and a grad student in India are really the same,” quipped a student.ISMDelhi1

The next three days brought more of the same. Our hosts were very nice and accommodating – but we were stuck in a windowless classroom and there was not much opportunity for interaction. By Friday afternoon, the four and one half days of (quite nice) confinement was taking its toll. We were getting antsy and irritable. Fortunately, the seminar was going to end with a class visit to the company led by a prominent Amity alum.

“Take me anywhere … a DVD factory … a sweat shop … just get me out of this classroom, “ a classmate snorted.

After a 25 minute van ride, we arrived at the factory. We slipped on our clean suits – slippers, overalls, and headgear – and the CEO led us on a tour. Soon it was clear that this was not going to be our best moment as gracious guests. Several students started talking and laughing – loud enough that the CEO paused his talk several times. Frustrated at our behavior, the CEO eventually let his assistant finish the tour and stormed out muttering, “This is the last time I am doing this.” Ouch.

After an awkward 15 minutes or so, the visit mercifully ended and we headed to the parking lot. It was 5:30. The Amity staffer said, “OK. Let’s get on the van and go back to campus. Then the van will take you to your hotels.”

One surprised student who was staying at a hotel quite close to the factory, said, “My hotel is only 5 minutes from here. Can’t we just go to the hotel instead of driving 25 minutes to the campus and then 25 minutes back here?” The Amity staffer responded, “I’m afraid not. My instructions are to take you back to the campus.”

She shrugged and started heading to the van. A colleague, however, could not take it any longer and said, “This is ridiculous. Why should she have to suffer another hour of driving? Let’s take her to her hotel!”

“I’m sorry Sir. I have my instructions.”

His voice rising, the enraged student said, “Well that’s crazy. You don’t control me. You don’t control her. We can make are own decisions.”

“I’m sorry sir, that is not possible. I have my instructions.”

“The hell with your instructions. You call and get new instructions!”

The first student said, “Calm down. She is just doing her job. Let’s get on the van and go back to campus.”

The “defender” student now turned on her, “What are you a slave? Are you a hypocrite?” That remark set the fuse and the international incident burst open. Tempers flared; hands were flailing; and insults and curses in multiple languages cascaded across the parking lot. Meanwhile, a shaken, red-faced Amity staffer called her office to get instructions.

After what seemed like hours, the Amity staffer announced that she had new instructions, and we could go to the hotels instead of back to campus. It was uncomfortably quiet on the ride. Most of us were pleased with the result – it really would have been crazy to return to campus and then retrace our steps back to the hotels – but we were stunned and thought “Wow. What just happened here?”

Lessons

What happened in New Delhi reminds me of what often happens with corporate retreats and off-sites. Well-meaning and accommodating retreat planners take their high performing team to a very nice hotel. They provide all the basics – good transportation, lots of coffee and food, detailed agendas and prep materials – and then they stick the team in a windowless conference room for a day or two and make sure that everything runs smoothly. And at the end of the meeting they wonder, “Seems like the energy was low. We did not get the interaction and creativity we were hoping for.”

My New Delhi seminar and the multiple Marriott meetings I have experienced in my career both suffer from this same problem – trying to control too much. Being organized, whether in a classroom or in a retreat, is good. But being over-organized and over-controlling can sap the spontaneity and interactivity that is required for truly effective and creative seminars or meetings. With that in mind, here are a few lessons I have drawn from my recent New Delhi experience:

  • Place matters. My seminar was in one of the most fascinating and diverse cities I have ever visited, but I did not experience Delhi until I traveled on my own after the seminar ended. We were shuttled from a very nice hotel in a very nice van to a very nice classroom in a very nice campus. But it could have been anywhere. We could have been in a Marriott in Fresno. We were not taking advantage of our place.
  • Space matters. Ditto for our classroom space. We had plenty of room, good chairs, good technology and AV equipment, etc. What we didn’t have, unfortunately, were any windows and really any opportunity to move around and interact with each other. The space was set up so that we could receive information effectively. It was not set up to optimize discussion and interaction.
  • Interaction matters. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity at my seminar was our limited interaction and opportunity to learn from each other. The true strength of the ISM program is in the diversity of the global students. The New Delhi seminar did not take advantage of that diversity or encourage the intellectual interaction that might have sparked meaningful dialogue.
  • Wandering matters. Finally, it’s hard to be energized when you are not expending any energy. I find that providing some room for wandering – both physically and mentally – makes for a more creative and ultimately productive seminar. We did not have that freedom in New Delhi, and that contributed to our growing sense of captivity and stress.

My next ISM seminar is in New York this summer. It will still be a long way from Miramar – and our seminar room almost certainly won’t have any windows – but this time I can guarantee we won’t be shackled to campus and shuttled around in a corporate van. And that should be enough to keep us from having another international incident.