A 2007 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review contained an article on Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams.
Lynda Gratton and her fellow authors studied 55 project teams (as opposed to the one that I observed) and were able to reach some 'important conclusions'. Amongst these were the observation that the first faultlines that occur in teams are superficial ones that reflect surface-level attributes like gender, nationality and functional background. Later on, deeper faultlines emerge, reflecting personal values, dispositions and attitudes.
The trick, the authors further conclude, is for the team leader first to assume a task orientation (getting the team to do things), switching later on to a relationship orientation, focusing on building trust and a common culture of shared values.
In the mucky real world, which I observed, Mike Seery did a bit of both and often at the same time. Inevitably, there was more 'team-building' at the outset, when the team didn't really have anything proper to do and more 'fire-fighting' at later stages when the team had too much to do and not enough time to stop and try and fix the culture.
The lego game
In the first week of the project, Mike got them to play the 'Lego game', where a Lego model was located in one room and the team had to replicate it with a supply of Lego bricks in another room. Team members were only allowed into the lavatory - where the master model resided - one at a time. They duly emerged, memorising some piece of the model, and tried to replicate it.
Though it started promisingly, problems soon emerged as team members began to move bricks that others had placed with certainty but, apparently, without precision. A strategy emerged as a result: each team member would be responsible for one area of the model, or for one colour of brick. This too dissolved in confusion. Eventually, Mike told them that there was a saboteur in the group, who 'might be hampering the others.'
Both Stewart and Joanna were quickly and separately suspected of being the culprit and Joanna didn't touch another block after Ludwig accused her of stealing the red bricks.
Groucho Marx-like, Stewart said that he didn't trust anyone who wanted to play the game - a tactic which could have led to a stand-off, but didn't because enough people still wanted to get a result. Techniques were discussed for identifying the saboteur once it was realised what was happening: one member of the team was changing the master model when they went to the lavatory. But none of these techniques was properly implemented.
It was perfectly clear to me that Ludwig was the culprit. Not only was he German, but he looked guilty, answered accusations made against him defensively and uncomfortably, and gave every impression of being unhappy with his role of disrupting the group. At the end, four of the five (Mike was running the exercise rather than participating) identified Ludwig as the saboteur. Only Ludwig rightly identified Steven as the saboteur.
At the end of the day Mike asked, 'What were our takeaways from the Lego game?'.
Joanna: 'I like to determine a process but everyone else seemed happy to just put their heads down and plough on. I just think the process is so critical.'
Tom: 'Don't trust a Chinese guy.'
Mike: 'No, it was don't rush in.'
So what was happening here? Well, for a start Mike was clearly putting himself outside the team by running the exercise rather than participating. Of course, he had to take that role if he was to introduce and run the game. The only alternative would have been to get an external facilitator to come in and run a game that Mike didn't know. (Mike later told me, 'I really did want to use someone else', and that cost was the principal reason for not using an external facilitator on occasions like this - a facilitator's daily rate would have quickly eaten into the project budget). In any case, the Lego exercise offered confirmation of how things were and would be. Mike was essentially running the show. This position had its pros and cons, which I talk about elsewhere, but the exercise could be seen in several ways:
It alerted the team to problems of planning and co-ordination on an unimportant exercise and before those issues arose in a more significant context.
It was potentially humiliating or embarrassing for the participants - and the embarrassment was observed, rather than shared, by the team leader.
It confirmed that there was a clear hierarchy in operation. [And we've been doing hierarchy for so long that it's become the default mode for almost any social or micro-social structure.] Soon after the day of the Lego exercise, the team decided to try a different system: if one of them stood up, it was understood that they were acting as team leader until they sat down again. I never saw anyone do this but I took the idea back to my own office and agreed something similar with a colleague. In conversation, if one of us picked up a sheet of paper, we would be allowed by the other to carry on talking until we put the piece of paper down. Unsurprisingly, both experiments soon lapsed and the status quo reasserted itself - Mike led and my sentences remained unfinished. For me there was never a sense that anyone other than Mike could be the team leader; rather, from time to time, the others would challenge Mike's assumption of the role by becoming temporarily assertive or recalcitrant in their resistance to hierarchy.
Steven's conclusion in the public blog was as follows:
With or without a saboteur, we made a total mess of this exercise. We did not make a plan. We did not deal with adversity. We did not work as a team. We realised afterwards that one person could have recreated the model accurately within the time period given without any help from the others. Needless to say... we need to do better when we tackle the real model.
I have reservations about games and exercises like this. They can 'fix' our assumptions too early on. The Lego game certainly was referred to later and became a significant moment in the team's own history and in the stories that it told about itself. But I think it might be useful to give a team the chance to redeem itself after an episode like this, rather than risking that it define itself as 'crap at planning'.
And this habit that we have of defining and pigeon-holing ourselves, others and our relationships with them is nowhere more clearly seen than in a team like this. As I've said, later on in the project it felt like there was never time for exercises like this. But it might have been productive to run something like it later on to shake up the team's perceptions of each other, to loosen fixed ideas and to 'promote opportunities for change'.
Still, this is nit-picking. The team looked under some quite distasteful stones during the course of the exercise and carefully examined what they found.
From an answer about Lego on answers.com I discover that the Danish language is a likely source for the following English words:
Jacobson's organ, Gram's stain and the Bohr effect.
Definitely my kind of language. In fact, would it be too long for the title of a darkly intense novel about guilt and homosexuality on a passenger ferry?
When you're forming a team, if you devise and run the team-building exercises yourself, you will tend to set yourself apart from the others in the group. But bringing in a facilitator or consultant to do it is expensive, time-consuming and likely to be less well focused on the particular needs of the team.
If you run team-building exercises that highlight communication or other issues, you get early warning of potential problems but may encourage the team to develop a fixed view of itself.
The moments in a team's trajectory when you most need to run exercises like this are, almost by definition, the moments when you haven't got time to run them.
Lego fish on a lego bicycle: Windell H. Oskay, http://www.evilmadscientist.com/