“Build a tower, build a team”

One of my favorite teambuilding exercises is the marshmallow challenge. For those of you that have not yet experienced it, it’s an exercise using a few tools – some string, tape, a marshmallow, and uncooked spaghetti – used to form the tallest freestanding structure.

In coaching leaders, this exercise yields deep insights into what makes an effective team. In the link provided above, there is a Ted Talk featuring Tom Wujec, where he summarizes this well, “build a tower; build a team.”

So, let’s explain more about what makes an effective team utilizing a story about this exercise.

***Spoiler alert, if you have not yet done this exercise, the following contains some inside tips to success***

In one of my recent workshops, there was a diverse team of folks – a data-driven engineer, a R&D team leader, a marketing executive, and a front line manager. When the team learned of the exercise, they first discussed roles. They knew they had time to plan.

They assigned roles based on the expertise, skills, and preferences of the individual team members. Each team member had time to brainstorm ideas, and a chance to share their idea. The team listened to all of the ideas, and chose the best one as a team. There was no dismissal of ideas before giving it a good listen, and showing the team how it would work. All ideas were good ideas.

The team was iterative. While the first idea they selected accomplished the tall objective, it did not stand freely very well. They went back to the drawing board. Again, as a team they selected the best idea to try next. They were not afraid to fail, even twice. After each prototype, the leader asked “how can we make it better.” There was instant feedback after each iteration. The leader facilitated the process by asking questions throughout, encouraging each team member to participate based on their area of expertise, and praised each contribution. This team ended up with the tallest freestanding structure I have yet to see in my dozens of workshops.

Lessons learned about teams and communication from this story.

All ideas are good ideas. Especially at the beginning of the brainstorm. In real meetings, I see teams use sticky notes to document all ideas from the team to ensure all ideas are heard sometimes. This is a powerful way to ensure all participate and all are heard.

Be willing to fail. As long as the team learns from the mistake, it helps them build a better tower the next time. Being iterative is a good thing.

Give live feedback. When done instantly and often – with a simple, welcoming – “how can we make it better?” – goes a long way. People feel safe sharing their feedback, and it makes it far less personal.

Leaders are facilitators. Asking questions is essential in this exercise. I have seen teams with their heads buried on their own tower, not willing to share their ideas or help make someone else’s idea better. Communication, early and often, sets teams up for success. This is the leader’s job.

Leaders that communicate well have better business results.

How will you communicate with your team?

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