I’ve been through a few team building exercises in my day. Most team building activities become punchlines during water cooler conversations in the office. Did sitting on each other’s laps during the fabled “Trust Circle” improve your team’s performance? Right, didn’t think so. That’s just one example. At a previous job I was assigned to a small team of four tasked with keeping a piece of tissue paper aloft for 30 seconds. Needless to say, I remember the antics of what ensued after the rules were explained, but for the life of me I can’t remember what the point of it all was.
While I’m a strong proponent of smart, strategic team building, at the same time I don’t hesitate to admit most efforts in that arena turn out to be abject, comical failures (albeit memorable ones). So, imagine my surprise when I came across a team building activity which I found to have not only the usual tropes of team building, but some actual real-world application as well.
The name of it is “The Helium Stick.” In it, a facilitator lines up a group into two rows, facing each other. Participants hold out their arms and extend their fingers. The facilitator then lays a long, lightweight rod (usually wooden) over the fingertips of the group. The task of the team is to then lower the rod to the ground, with the following conditions:
- Everyone’s fingers have to be touching the stick at all times.
- Pinching or grabbing is not allowed; only the tops of the fingers can touch the rod.
If you’re having trouble visualizing what this would look like: here’s a video example:
Without fail, a team’s first few attempts at lowering the stick will actually result in the opposite. The rod almost always rises, to everyone’s confused laughter. That is, until they enter the “storming phase,” at which point team members actually start yelling and cursing at each other in order to get the &^%$^ stick to go down instead of up. This stage is illustrated in the following excerpts from a fascinating helium stick case study:
“Without any real discussion, John and Tom both took over and began giving instructions. When they didn’t get the results they wanted, they began shouting directions, louder and louder, but the pole continued to rise. And then it happened—the accusations. Tom was yelling at Gary that it was all his fault, and that he was the one making the pole go up. Amazingly, save for a few murmurs of protest, Gary remained silent. But then John and Susan began to yell at Gary too. “Get your act together, or we’re all going to fail because of YOU!” This was more than Gary could stand. He exploded! Yelling at no one in particular, but everyone at once, he pulled his fingers down a foot below the bar and exclaimed that it couldn’t be his *%?!* fault because he wasn’t even touching the !<*?# pole!”
Following this intense storming moment, the case study group worked through their frustrations to come up with the following solution (spoiler alert!):
“Gary slid his fingers together, capturing Susan’s. Trent’s eyes lit up and he did the same, capturing one of John’s fingers. Gary instructed everyone to slide their fingers into groups. ‘Look, now we have three players on the team instead of 12—communication has to be easier.’ Tom suggested they shift to two groups of fingers, one at each end of the pole. Then, with quiet confidence, the group slowly and easily lowered the pole to the ground, their fingers ‘talking’ through their shared sense of touch.”
The author of this study then describes another team which was unable to figure out how to lower the helium stick. They reached the hilarious laughter phase, but gave up after trying a few attempts.
What was the difference between the two teams? Team #1 embraced the storming phase, and Team #2 did not. The fact that Team #1 was able to express their frustrations–and then work through them–allowed them to solve the problem. Team #2 never got past the “forming” phase; they weren’t willing to enter into constructive conflict to discuss what was and wasn’t working:
“When something does get thrown on the table that is in direct conflict with someone else’s need—something too painful to ignore—and the team member speaking up still feels a bit unsure of his or her safety, then the resulting challenge may be a bit clumsy and emotional. This can be painful (not meaning blood is spilled or punches are thrown), but until all team members have put all their needs on the table, and they’ve all been addressed by the group, the team won’t get to performing. It’s necessary for a team to go through the awkward, uncomfortable discussions we’ve labeled as ‘storming.’ So, don’t be afraid of it. Encourage it.”
That last bit about encouraging storming is so important. Conflict for the sake of conflict isn’t constructive, but positive, honest storming–working through our clumsy efforts to voice concerns and emotions–is crucial to the success of a project.
That’s what stuck out to me. What takeaways do you see in this team building activity?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.
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