“Liberating” Staff and Improving Service at Seattle Center

By: Ron Kaufman

By Karin Butler, Strategic Advisor, Seattle Center

Some of the most valuable ideas for improving customer service in any organization come directly from staff, who see and understand opportunities and obstacles first hand through their daily work and customer interactions. But how do we uncover the best ideas inside complex organizations?  And what benefit might result if we could empower staff to take action on their own service improvement ideas, creating change from the inside out?

At Seattle Center we’re discovering answers to these questions.

About Seattle Center

Seattle Center’s purpose is to create exceptional events, experiences and environments that delight and inspire the human spirit to build stronger communities.

A department of the City of Seattle, Seattle Center serves as an arts, civic and family gathering place in the core of our region. The more than 30 cultural, educational, sports and entertainment organizations residing on the 74-acre campus, together with a broad range of public and community programs, create nearly 5,000 events attracting 12 million visitors each year.

A Seattle Center core value is giving uplifting and professional service to our guests, clients, partners and each other. This is also an essential business strategy, and we’re constantly seeking ways to improve our performance.

An Uplifting Service All Staff Retreat

In pursuit of this core value, in April 2013 we tried something new. We tossed our normal meeting formats out the window and held an unconventional half-day Uplifting Service All Staff Retreat, where we engaged close to 180 staff across all levels and roles in exploring uplifting service at Seattle Center together.

We used a new approach to designing our all staff retreat – we turned to Liberating Structures. If you don’t yet know these simple and effective ways to approach how people work together (beyond conventional meeting structures like presentations, managed discussions or brainstorming sessions) take a look at www.liberatingstructures.com.

For any kind of organizational development effort (such as uplifting service) where your goal is to include and engage everyone and seek actionable ideas from unexpected sources, Liberating Structures work.

If I Were 10 Times Bolder…

Our staff retreat culminated in a Liberating Structure called “25-10 Crowdsourcing”.  Using this structure, a large group can generate and sort their boldest ideas for action in 20 minutes or less.  It is serious and seriously fun!

25-10 Crowdsourcing works like this:

1.  Participants are given an invitation. They are asked, “If you were 10 times bolder, what big idea would you recommend? What first step would you take to get started?”  In our case, the invitation was, “If you were 10 times bolder, what would you do to create uplifting service at Seattle Center?”

2.  Participants write their idea for action on 3 by 5 cards, anonymously.

3.  The crowd does 5 quick rounds of milling (you need an open space) where cards are exchanged and mixed up, and all the ideas are scored by members of the crowd. Be prepared for laughter and energy!

4.  After 5 rounds, the top scoring ideas are shared in priority order.

Now, you have a top ten set of bold ideas, generated by everyone at once, where everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute.

The top ideas that emerged from Seattle Center staff ranged from improving employee relations (so that by knowing each other better we can better serve our customers), to ideas for new training initiatives and a new staff ambassador role to assist guests on the Seattle Center campus.

We then took things a step further — we invited staff to sign up right then to work on any of these new service improvement ideas, and a small but important number did. These motivated staff helped form our first three Customer Service Improvement groups, and have made a big impact since then!

CSI : Seattle Center

What do you do with inspired staff eager to work on their ideas to improve service?  What we did was give our Customer Service Improvement groups (known as CSI Groups) time, autonomy, coaching, and the ears of our Executive Team.

The CSI Groups, which included frontline staff from across the organization, were supported over several months to research and develop their ideas. Support included a dedicated coach for each group. Staff were in charge of their own progress, while coaches offered advice, removed obstacles, and helped grow the team members’ skills. CSI Groups also were given an approved number of hours per week to work on the project during their regular shifts; all were working outside their normal areas of expertise.

The CSI Groups presented proposals for their service improvement ideas to Seattle Center executives in October 2013. Results were eye-opening for both staff and executives, and not just because the ideas were great. An intentional part of these improvement efforts was to grow our staff and give them exposure to the executive team. Seattle Center directors were fired up not only to discover new uplifting service ideas, but also to witness these emerging leaders stretch themselves in the process. Likewise, participating staff reported feeling valued, appreciated getting to know directors more personally, and excited to be contributing to the success of Seattle Center.

After careful consideration, all three projects were approved to move forward.  Seattle Center is now in the early stages of execution of these service improvement efforts:

An enhanced employee directory that will feature all staff, including pictures and job responsibilities

A customer service training program for all staff based on our new engaging service vision, mindset and behaviors

A pilot project for Seattle Center Ambassadors to proactively assist guests on campus during busy summer festivals

The CSI Program is now an official ongoing pathway at Seattle Center for staff to share their ideas and launch new service improvement projects. We are just as excited about growing our people through this program as we are about improving our business – that’s the unexpected value in liberating staff to create uplifting service at Seattle Center.


A Customer Service Improvement Group tests their concept on Seattle Center grounds.(photo credit: Seattle Center)

A Customer Service Improvement Group tests their concept on Seattle Center grounds.(photo credit: Seattle Center)

CSI Group members with their coach prepare for presentations to Seattle Center Executive Team.(photo credit: Seattle Center)

CSI Group members with their coach prepare for presentations to Seattle Center Executive Team.(photo credit: Seattle Center)