Surprising Pitfalls of Teamwork Training

With a background in the Indian army, this Babson MBA student thought working in teams would be a breeze. He was in for a shock

Imagine yourself with a group of a dozen or so classmates being asked to undertake a series of physical maneuvers requiring planning, precise orchestration, and some dexterity with geometric forms. Imagine the clock ticking. Imagine everyone on your team to be as motivated as you, if not more…each a leader in his own right, each eager to "help" the team accomplish its assigned task. Imagine 10 voices speaking at the same time. Imagine you trying to make sense of it, wondering whether to speak, SHOUT, listen, or simply switch off. Imagine the chaos!

And, by the way, imagine each one of you being blindfolded all the while. Welcome to the team process day at Babson.

Coming from an armed forces background, I thought working in teams would be a cakewalk. The Indian army is composed of officers and soldiers from diverse backgrounds with different languages, upbringings, and even gods of worship. But while we had diversity, one thing that kept us bound together was our common nationality. Switch to Babson, and the team dynamics here was altogether different.

It's one thing being a team member of an army unit/sub-unit, and it's a completely different experience when you have people from different nationalities (our current class has almost 50% international composition)…all of them highly motivated—each highly accomplished. All I can say is—it's not as easy as I would have liked it to be. And boy, did I have occasions when I had to use up all my reserves of army adaptability training! But, lest I be misunderstood, it has been fun all the while. Nothing is more satisfying than the taste of success while undertaking something that is considered quite challenging otherwise.

Insight and Confusion

But hey, before I digress, let me go back to our team process day. Continuing with what now appears to be somewhat of a tradition, I will share a particularly insightful interaction that we had within our team about this day. But before that, a brief explanation is warranted to put things in context.

One of the many team assignments—of what you may now already be beginning to realize was one hell of an eventful day—required us to position our team members in a particularly complex end-position from a given beginning configuration. Confused? Let me explain. Each of the members of the team was assigned an initial place to stand. Now following certain predefined rules, the members had to move—one at a time—in a manner so as to reach another predefined ending configuration, much like a series of moves of chessboard pieces.

This required a lot of thinking and trial-and-error sort of experimentation since there was only one particular way it was possible to get to the solution. Also, the rules required that once the solution was found, only one person—a chosen "leader"—was allowed to talk, to give out the instructions that told others exactly what to do. All others had to follow the given instructions to the letter. Additionally, each member of the team was also required to be aware of the solution. To make things worse, this solution was quite complicated, as we discovered and, therefore, not easily teachable. Finally, every member of the team was to be prepared to take on the "leader's" role, if asked. The team's success depended upon the ability of the entire team to implement the solution.

Time's Wasting

As it turned out, although someone else arrived at the solution, I found myself to be the person who had the onerous privilege of instructing others, a job I readily accepted. The intensity and decibel level of my voice reflected the energy levels I usually bring—from sheer habit of my past army life—to any such physically challenging activity.

Thereafter, Ben and Felicia, our second-year MBA coordinators and official conductors for the day cold-called one of the team members to take on the leader's role. (This is one of the many ways, including even conducting tutoring sessions for those of us quantitatively challenged, our 2nd year MBAs contribute toward our learning.) To our surprise, oblivious to the rushing minutes, that person couldn't do it. Now our very success depended upon this person's ability to complete the required job—and in time too. After a few very excited and almost desperate attempts, we realized we weren't going anywhere. The resulting tension in the air was painfully palpable.

But instead of creating pressure and making the situation worse for all of us, our team took it upon itself to see that we created an environment where this "leader" could feel comfortable. And realizing things weren't moving as desired, we even decided to take a jog around a nearby building, forgetting the racing clock, just to get everyone to loosen up and flush out our built-up anxieties. Then all of us gathered in a circle and, again so as not to put any undue pressure on anyone in particular, the entire team slowly recited the required steps aloud, one step at a time, going over it many times so that repeating it became very easy.

Strength Through Adversity

Meanwhile I continued to do my bit to help the person out, blissfully unaware that it was essentially my bearing and demeanor that had a major role in creating the current state. Needless to say the person did successfully direct all of us to an eventual "win."

Later, in an e-mail to the team, my classmate mentioned what had gone wrong. It was basically the chaos and disorder in combination with people's raised voices that created an overwhelming impact that led to the turn of events. In fact, my classmate even sought our suggestions for improvement to avoid such a situation in the future.

Here was a perfect example of someone who wanted to grow stronger from an otherwise adverse experience that could have resulted in avoidable guilt and suffering. My classmate instead chose to learn from it and move on.

Another of my fellow classmates chimed in with his own e-mail of support. Also, realizing my significant role in the day's proceedings, I too decided to share some of my thoughts. Below are excerpts from my e-mail to my team.

"Let me also take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts. Coming from an armed forces background, it never occurred to me that the qualities that I normally associated with teamwork and team-building could be understood anyway otherwise. In the army we usually are more fired or charged up, energy levels (testosterone levels actually) are quite high, there is a certain sense of urgency which also translates into higher decibel levels. Where others would usually make suggestions, we, kind of, end up "barking" (orders). While this may seem natural when everyone else is from a similar background, it may appear to be too pushy or aggressive for others.

"And now I realize why some of us, when we transition into a civilian world, find it difficult to adjust. And I must thank all of you to have helped me in my personal growth by providing such valuable inputs. I'm quite sure without this feedback I would have carried on believing in my "high" team-building skills…living in my make-believe world…wondering why aren't people displaying similar "enthusiasm."

"I guess I need to be more gentle and patient, and appreciative of other people's perspectives. I assure you guys, I do have a soft side which I need to be more in touch with, especially in such diverse settings."

Back to Basics

Later my classmate mentioned that it wasn't my voice that was the cause of the problem. But I, somehow, wasn't ready to bite that. But we all did grow from that experience. Felicia in fact mentioned she was really impressed. She had never seen such great team spirit when she saw the team members supporting and nourishing each other's spirits especially when things weren't going all too well for all of us. All in all it was a truly learning experience for everyone.

Creativity…team-building…puppetry…team process…it's been quite an experience so far. But hey, I'm supposed to be in an MBA program and three posts and almost 5,500 words later, I still haven't mentioned anything about accounting, finance, or statistics, subjects we would typically associate with any rigorous MBA curriculum. Does this sound strange? I guess it should. O.K., in my next post, I promise I'll tell you how do these relate to a Masters in Business Administration program from one of the world's top B-schools.

It's been a pleasure talking to you all and once again it's time for me to say good-bye. I never realized sharing some of these insights could be so engrossing that I would lose sense of time and—just like last time—my word limit.

Take care,