Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Team Building Exercises

My new company requires all new employees to attend seven full days of Human Resources training as part of their orientation. Some of it will be quite substantive, delving into business unit organization, the business of securities brokerages, and the internal mechanisms of asset management. But a lot of it is Human Resources nonsense, designed to establish the boundaries of tolerable behavior and rules to enforce conformity, hidden behind management buzzwords like “responsibility” and “service.”

Some of it is laughable. For example, we had to watch a Powerpoint presentation that must have been created in the early 80’s and shown to hundreds of employees over the years, but which nonetheless was laden with typos and grammatical errors. And we watched a video on the subject of business dining etiquette, hosted by an older woman who discussed the use of silverware, chewing with your mouth open, paying the bill, etc., all delivered in a condescending tone as though we had all been raised by wolves.

Today we focused on Team Building Exercises, a concept that normally sends a shiver down my spine. These exercises in futility are typically so embarrassing and demeaning that the only thing I learn from them is to avoid teams at all costs.

The “facilitator” divided the nine new employees taking training this week into two teams. Our first assignment was to name our team, define the word “team,” and compile a list of our individual strengths. It was definitely a low point for me. At least the facilitator refrained from gushing over the bullshit we were being forced to shovel.

But then, the day took an odd turn; it got interesting. Each team was given 12 soda straws, 18 inches of masking tape, and a golf ball. We were required to develop a mechanism that would enable us to drop the golf ball from six feet that would prevent it from touching the floor. Only three straws were permitted to touch the floor. We could hold the ball to drop it, but we couldn’t touch the mechanism. It was a challenging problem, and we had only about 10 minutes to solve it. The teams used very different designs.

The other team made a platform, supported by three straws, onto which they attempted to drop the golf ball. It didn’t work of course, because the ball simply bounced off the platform onto the floor. Our solution consisted of wrapping the ball in three triangles made from straws, and then taping the straws to the ball, leaving two small areas of the ball exposed for fingers to touch it. When we dropped the ball, it bounded around for a while and settled onto two of the straws, held off the floor by a fraction of an inch. I was so pleased, I completely lost sight of the fact that I was working for a banking company, and dropping golf balls would probably not be part of my duties.

Finally, we were presented with a bizarre survival problem. We were told that our team’s airplane had crashed in a wilderness area of sub-arctic northern Canada in late October. We were alive and unhurt, but we were wet, and the temperatures were below freezing. We had salvaged fifteen items from the crash, which included a compass, a box of matches, an axe, 50 feet of rope, an inner tube, a bottle of 151 proof rum, a flashlight, and so on.

We were asked to rank the items by importance to our survival. Then, the teams met to come up with a “consensus” ranking of those items. So those who put the compass first on the list had to defend that choice against those who selected matches. We wound up ranking matches first and the axe second. One of the guys on my team, who is not particularly bright, thought that we ranked the axe second on the list because we would use the matches to burn the axe for warmth. We eventually made him understand the value of the axe. I live in Florida, and people here just don’t understand cold at all.

Eventually, the facilitator showed us a video of a member of the Canadian Forest Service Rangers who explained the true survival ranking of each item. A score for each team was calculated, and my team won by a large margin. After the round of congratulatory fist-bumps, I started to wonder why a banking company would want to develop good team-building skills in a disaster scenario where no typical banking resources were available. Perhaps they know something about the future that I don’t know. I confess the words “zombie apocalypse” crossed my mind.

The facilitator told us that when he took the training, he was on a team with two other guys. They decided that the best survival strategy was to try and walk out of the wilderness, but one rule stated that if you wanted to leave the crash site, you could only carry one item each. They decided to carry the matches, the axe and the rum. “You all died,” joked one of the participants, “but at least one of you died drunk.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but not the one who was carrying the rum.”

“What do you mean?” asked the participant. “Who died drunk?”

He smiled knowingly. “The one with the axe.”


Anonymous said...

HI Tim,

The golf ball exercise sounds like some of the games/challenges that are part of the training for the Oddysey of the Mind kids team which foster team based creative problem solving.

As for the survival training exercise, maybe the bank knows more about the 2012 Mayan end of the world date than they are letting on

ciao - nbt

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