Last week I participated in a mini workshop on building high performance teams, ran by “realizing ambition” (http://www.realisingambition.com) in Cambridge. It was a fun morning leading to some valuable insights.
We were divided into four teams with different numbers of team members, given a couple of tennis balls, an office bin and four rules of the game. We played four rounds. You are right in guessing that the first lesson learned was that one has to be a rule breaker and better start breaking them rather sooner than later. However, the whole thing was subtler than that. Observing the team dynamics and how we evolved was a delight.
In the first round we took the rules for granted, organized ourselves as efficiently as possible in two minutes, and actually did very well. As the pressure mounted and expectations rose we were forced to change the way we played, which lead to the need for changing the way we interacted, communicated, and related to each other as well as to the environment. It was not until the final round that we fully understood that there is no way to win the game except by questioning the meaning and scope of the rules we were given at the start. Energy and enthusiasm was back and we were inventing and innovating, using every possible object in the room to interpret the rules and prepare for the final round to go for the epic win. No wonder, we did indeed spectacularly well and enjoyed the highly improvised last round the best. Being the largest team, in the last round we outdid other teams by a good margin.
The interesting point is that at the beginning when we were not yet aligned and still bound to our limited interpretation of the rules, and in a state of chaos, our performance was below some of the smaller teams.
The morning was well spent and good fun. It also emphasised the old wisdoms that we often forget when it comes to action:
• Rules should be questioned and scoped to make sure that we only carry with us the bare minimum of rules, and are free from any assumed limitations
• Communication is key to keep the cohesion of a team
• The power of a team is not in the numbers; it is mainly in a healthy team dynamics. A large team can be far less effective than a small one when it does not function properly.
The points above become more important when we consider that we are living in a world that is constantly changing, where the rules we used to live and play by may have already changed, though we have not noticed; and what we assumed to be impossible until a short while ago, may well be possible today.
The same goes with organisations. Maybe when next time facing a failed innovation initiative, flopped product or a technology sourced through various initiatives, instead of trying to fix the team or the program, or the technology, pause and try to understand first how the world and the context have changed. Most importantly, how many of the rules are still valid and how many are merely assumed?
Innovation starts with asking the questions others fail or do not dare to ask.