This month, 50 Atlassians participated in a rather unique team-building day.

We went to prison.

As part of taking the Pledge 1% pledge, Atlassian gives 1% of employee time to social causes. That translates into roughly 5 days each year that Atlassians use for all manner of social good – volunteering at a food bank, or at a public school in need of extra hands, or using our knowledge as programmers or SEO specialists to help build or refine a non-profit’s website.

The privilege to take time away from Atlassian, and use it to give back, is how 50 of us found ourselves on a bus to Valley State Prison, three hours east of San Francisco. The program was organized by Defy Ventures, a non-profit that believes in a better criminal justice system, in second chances, and in energizing the entrepreneurial spirit that’s common among the men and women incarcerated in America’s prisons. Defy is directly attacking the vicious recidivism rate that returns close to 75% of released prisoners back to the prison system. The recidivism rate of inmates that go through the Defy program is less than 5%.

We met 63 Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs) during our day in Valley State. Each of them had qualified for and committed to Defy’s “CEO of Your New Life” program, which among many things, included a Shark Tank-style competition where EITs pitched businesses they would build if and when they’re released. As volunteers, we formed the panels of judges that listened to their ideas, gave them feedback, and ultimately advanced the finalists. In addition, we met and spoke to each EIT, heard their stories, and celebrated their graduation. To qualify for the Defy program, each EIT completed coursework that earned them a Certificate in Career Readiness from the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University. It was the first time many of them had donned a cap and gown.

I hadn’t seen that many smiles in a long time.

Many wonderful posts have captured the experience of this day and the impact it has on participants so I won’t do that here. But read those. It’s worth it.

I did want to capture the ingredients that I believe made the day work, and why I believe those same ingredients also made the day a unique and powerful exercise in team-building.

  • Trust and empathy: one of the popular exercises is “Step to the Line.” There’s a wonderful video that captures what it’s like that’s definitely worth watching. The exercise did two things at once. It helped establish a deeper connection between EIT and volunteer, and also highlighted some of the important differences and similarities between us. Trust and empathy are at the root of the exercise, and similarly at the root of great teams. Trust allows us to be our true selves, and empathy helps us receive the true selves of others, whether at work or in prison. The Atlassians on this trip had a chance to practice this both with people we were meeting for the first time, as well as with each other. And like all things, trust and empathy get better with practice.
  • Open, with no bullshit: standing opposite someone dressed in state-sanctioned prison garb, whom you’ve just met, isn’t easy. And standing opposite someone as the person dressed in state-sanctioned prison garb, when that someone across from you is a raw reminder of everything you’re missing beyond the four walls of your cell, is definitely not easy. Both sides of that face-to-face exchange had to swallow their pride and steel their nerves and be open to connecting with the person across from them. The best teams thrive on transparency and openness. Snapping into a completely different reality was a good reminder to the Atlassians visiting Valley State how important open communication and connection are to building relationships and stronger teams. Helping identify where dysfunction sits in a team, and attacking that dysfunction through open communication, was the genesis of our Team Health Check.
  • Play, as a team: one of Atlassian’s five company values is centered around having fun together. And while the day at Valley State was deeply emotional, it was punctuated by moments of laughter, gleeful shouting, raucous applause, and (although you wouldn’t call it this by watching me) dancing. We’re all creatures of balance and moderation, and blending in moments of lighthearted joy amongst a lot of deeper emotion gave the long day the kind of sustaining the momentum it needed. Teamwork is often fueled by the same balance of highs and lows, of hard deadlines and let-your-hair-down celebrations. The Defy team did a wonderful job of coordinating both, and it was a good reminder of how important balance and play are to teamwork.

We went into the day not really knowing what to expect. Building strength in our own teams certainly wasn’t what we anticipated. But that happened. 50 Atlassians left Valley State Prison with a stronger connection to each other, a kind of secret handshake learned through the eyes and voices and stories of the EITs we met during that long, incredible day. It may seem like an odd team-building day, but it’s one we’re grateful for and would encourage other teams to consider.

We plan to visit again, as a team.

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Team building, in prison