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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Team Building: Why Teams Fail To Execute Great Ideas

There's a learning game I often facilitate as a team building facilitator in the Philippines. It's called Helium Stick (or ring depending on what I'm using at the time). It's a very tricky game that tests the ability of groups to work as a team. The goal is to move the stick from one's eye level down to that person's knee. It's a pretty simple task made difficult by the requirement that everyone's fingers must be touching the stick from below and that at any time during the game, if one of them loses connection with the stick, the group goes back to the beginning point.

The exercise can be quite frustrating because the stick keeps moving up instead of down. Most teams eventually find their rhythm and win the game while others fail. I have seen this game played dozens of times and I think I may have seen every conceivable strategy of bringing the stick down but here's the thing. I have seen most of them strategies both fail and succeed which leads me to conclude that it is not about the strategy. It's all about teamwork. Strategies fail not because teams fail to come up with a good one but because of several reasons. Here they are:
Failure to communicate clearly - when teams plan, they tend to just hear out the one with the idea and often fail to clarify some details like what is expected of each member, and what the performance parameters are. During execution they end up disconnected, un-synchronized and misaligned. When this happens, a group would throw away an idea that we have seen work and come up with one that we have seen both fail and work.
Failure to trust - when communication isn't clear, it is difficult to trust the effectiveness of the strategy. When this happens team members disown the entire goal and just focus on what they as individuals have to do which is to keep their fingers attached to the stick. This causes the stick to move to the opposite direction, thereby further frustrating the team.

Fear of being blamed - when trust is not there and communication is unclear people mistake the attachment of the finger as more important than bringing the stick down. Bringing the finger down too far is risking detaching the finger from the stick, thereby causing the team to be punished into going back to starting point. Those who are bold enough take the risk of being blamed. Not a lot of people is willing to do it, hence the team as a whole fail to improve their performance because not all of them are willing to try out the strategy.

Obviously, what makes great ideas work is communication. Communication builds trust, clarifies issues, resolves conflicts, establishes accountability and clarifies what is important. Communication is not one way. No amount of memos or PowerPoint presentations can do it. Only when you see people asking questions, posing a challenge, stepping up to suggest better ideas can you say that there is indeed communication going on in the team.

only those who are able to figure out that they need to improve the way they communicate and the start trusting the process and each other can they win this game.

Many of us managers forget this and this is why too often our own helium sticks go up instead of down. Let's all learn from this lesson and work towards improving communication in our teams.

Let your team learn the powerful lessons of this game through the way we process them by inviting us to facilitate your next team building workshop. Click here to know more.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

  2. Anonymous8:29 PM

    Where can We buy this Helium Stick?


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