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Demystifying the news nerds team with a ‘science fair’: 5 good questions with NPR’s Becky Lettenberger

The “news nerds” that make up the news application and multimedia teams usually sit in a different place, speak a different language, and work on different things. How do you create understanding and relationships that lead to a more innovative and collaborative workplace?

At NPR, the news applications team, who served as NPR’s graphics and data desks, and the multimedia team, who made and edited pictures and video merged at the end of last year, creating the visuals team.

Prompted by the merger then physical move of their space, multimedia producer Becky Lettenberger thought it would be helpful to have a “housewarming” of sorts to let people know where to find the newly formed team. But more importantly, it introduced people in the building to the work the team was doing and spurred cross-department collaboration. She also wanted to do something that was more interesting than a brown bag lunch — the result was the NPR Science Fair.

vizfair_grid
With the rest of the team, she organized the fair, posted flyers throughout the building directing people to their desks in the back corner of the newsroom, and about 50 people showed up.

A small and one-time gesture, the science fair helped bring together people in the newsroom who would otherwise not meet, to get a better understanding of each other’s work and spark serendipitous collaborations.

What was the inspiration behind the NPR “Science Fair”?

Every few months NPR’s Digital Media team hosts serendipity days, two days during the week when folks can work on passion projects. The most recent serendipity days coincided with the recent merger and subsequent move of the NPR Apps team and multimedia team. We were eager to introduce the newly named “Visuals Team” and our new digs to the newsroom and I decided to use my serendipity days to put together an open house/science fair. Our intentions were two-fold, to let people know, yes, in fact we did move desks and to share, and hopefully demystify, the work of our team.

What did you do or show?

It was really important to us that our colleagues walk away from our science fair with a better understanding of the kind of work we do. We converted each of our desks into “stations” and each station highlighted a different project, everything from our collaboration with Planet Money, to Borderland, to a tour of recently published daily news graphics. Viz team members staffed their stations, introducing projects and answering questions.

teamrosterWe also made sure to have some fun! There was a station to build structures out of mini-marshmallows and toothpicks, a DIY volcano borrowed from our friends on the science desk and a “selfies with Chris” station that encouraged people to take pictures with our remote team mate, Chris Groskopf, who joined us for the event via Google Hangout.

To entice people to visit stations, we raffled off two photographs and one graphic made by members of our team. To enter the raffle you had to collect check marks from five different Viz team members. This forced people to talk to each other. The next week we pulled three names from a hat and announced the winners in the company newsletter that goes out to every employee. We also shot portraits of people posing with cameras and put them in a collage that accompanied the raffle note.

And of course, we had beer and snacks.

You mentioned two intentions. Did you succeed?

I overheard several conversations that went something like, “You guys made this awesome thing? It’s so awesome! How can we make an awesome thing together?”

We definitely succeeded in letting people know where to find us. It’s hard to know for sure, but I think we managed to demystify some of what we do for people, I hope. I overheard several conversations that went something like, “You guys made this awesome thing? It’s so awesome! How can we make an awesome thing together?”

The most important takeaway for me was that people who otherwise don’t have a chance to interact spent time looking at cool stuff together, getting to know each other and having fun.

Will you be doing this again?

We don’t have any plans to do this again, but I could see us doing another one and encouraging other groups around the building to join in with us.

A big reason we did this is because at the end of the day, we can’t build awesome web things without awesome stories, which means we need to work with our awesome reporters. We know some stuff but we still have so much to learn from each other. This was a chance to bring together people with varied skill sets and hopefully spark more collaboration.

What are a few tips for another team to put on a similar science fair? Like a mini-guide or how-to.

  • Do your best to involve your entire team, even and especially your remote staff.
  • Get the word out early and often: tell bosses, put up fliers, send out reminder emails, etc.
  • Schedule it for a time that’s early enough for people to stop by before they have to tend to other obligations (like leaving work to pick up their kids).
  • Decorate! Signs, string lights, tablecloths, etc. go a long way in sprucing up an office space.
  • Incentivize participation with a raffle.
  • Be ready and willing to answer obvious (to you) questions.
  • Have fun! Channel your middle school science fair, provide some arts and crafts or other hands-on activities.
  • And don’t forget to ask your boss for beer money.

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