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January 20, 2015

Tie ‘em up: How to get a Team of Strangers Started

Bruce Murray


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Have you ever been assigned to a team whose members barely know one another? Everyone’s looking askance, careful not to make too much eye contact. Minds flash from “Who’s going to make my life miserable?” to “Where’s a friendly face that I’ll come to rely on, and maybe even like?”

If you were the manager of this team, what would you do to get them started? How about tying them all up until they get their work done?!? It sounds unfair, and probably illegal, but, when it’s part of a team-building exercise to kick-start their productivity, it can actually be the best thing you can do!

Emily Segel of the Idea Learning Group gave me an activity for new teams, “… to start interacting with each other and experience the stages of team building in a short amount of time.” If you use it with your team, they’ll discover the common ingredients that lead to working well together, being efficient, and enjoying the benefits of being a team.

Show them a spool of yarn. Tell them to wrap themselves up, forming a “web” strong enough to hold a full can of soda upright for 30 seconds. Give them these guidelines:

  • Only team members can be used as “anchors” for the yarn.

  • The web must be at least four feet in diameter.

  • All team members must be included in the web.

  • The web’s strength needs to be demonstrated successfully within 15 minutes.

It’s a fun exercise to watch. You’ll see someone come forward to take the spool… a leader in the making? People start to think, and some teams strategize before they begin weaving their webs. Soon, one or two collaborators offer to be the first anchors, then another and another. You’re also sure to see some reluctance – perhaps a person is withdrawn, or maybe quietly assessing alternatives to the early steps.

Utter chaos begins to die away as team members assume roles – the winder, perhaps one who ties knots, some who reposition the yarn attaching themselves to others – and they learn something. Some of the quiet ones, now tied to others, begin to express observations or ideas. Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier but, ideally, you should make this a competition between different teams: this increases the task’s urgency and creates another role – that of spying on the others’ techniques.

Eventually the web is dense enough for the team to try balancing the soda can on it. When the can tips over, more ideas are sparked about how to reconfigure the web. When success finally arrives, participants briefly celebrate and almost immediately reflect upon how they could have reached the goal more quickly. After congratulating them and providing a reward (you did do that, right?), hold a debriefing that will help your team take the next steps in becoming productive.

In just 15 minutes, the team has experienced the full impact of "Tuckman’s Model." The names of the model’s stages – forming, storming, norming, and performing – cleverly identify what your team has just done.

A few thoughts to guide your debriefing:

  1. Ask how the team got started after you gave them the rules for the activity. Who got them started and how? Did that person continue to lead throughout the exercise?

  2. With almost no time to formalize individual responsibilities, how did members of the team determine their roles? How many people felt they had a key role? How many weren’t clear about what to do? How did that make them feel?

  3. How well did the team communicate during this exercise? Did anyone feel they were not listened to? Did anyone feel their ideas were shut down? What effect did that have on their future interactions?

  4. What impact, if any, did time have on how the team completed the exercise?

So, the next time you need to form a team out of a group of strangers, try tying them up! The interaction will break down barriers and give them a picture of what’s ahead. And, as you move from games to real work, give them some relatively easy, short-term goals. This will help build their confidence and reinforce their trust in one another.

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2 comments on “Tie ‘em up: How to get a Team of Strangers Started”

  1. The article is very interesting and educational, however for things did not get their meaning as follows: spool of yarn, balancing the soda can

    1. Please excuse my American vernacular. "Yarn" is a spun thread (usually cotton or wool) that is used for knitting, weaving, or sewing. It is usually purchased in the form of a "spool" - with the thread tightly wrapped around and around itself like one might wrap up a long electrical cord.

      A soda can is a metal beverage container of Coca Cola, Calypso, or Nestle. Typical size is 330 ml.

      Hope this helped.

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