A simple exercise to help get any team unstuck

Mar 14, 2017 /

Business consultant Jim Crupi helps companies figure out how to change and innovate. What he often finds when he meets clients is a tried-and-true pattern of doing things the same way. He shares an easy game to shake things up.

It’s the job of a leader to get a team to see, feel and understand their common mission, vision or task. But what I’ve noticed throughout my career is, people on a team tend to focus on the familiar and on their previous experience with how they operate. They bring these memories into how they frame solutions to any new task. As a leader who wants to inspire creativity in your team, you must keep reminding them to focus on their new task — and that accomplishing it might involve their trying different approaches and strategies.

Here’s one exercise I like to use to get people to understand the benefits of task clarity. I put 10 people in a circle, and I tell them, “I’m going to throw one ball across to one of the people in the circle. That person will throw the ball across to another person, and so on. Once you touch it, you cannot touch it again. The final person will throw the ball back to me.” Everyone has to pay attention to who they got the ball from and who they threw it to. After they do it once, I ask them to repeat the sequence they created so they can memorize it.

After they do, I’ll toss in a second ball, and then a third ball, so three balls are going around at one time. Sooner or later, someone in the circle drops one or two of the balls.

I’ll say, “From this moment, the task is to pass these three balls, 1, 2, 3, through the sequence we created as quickly and effectively as possible. How long do you think it will take us to do that?”

People tend to guess anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds, and I write down their estimate. Then I repeat what I previously said, “The task is to pass these three balls, 1, 2, 3, through the sequence we created as quickly and effectively as possible.” And I’ll ask the people in the group what they want to do now.

Most will begin throwing the balls around the group, and it usually takes them around 8 seconds to complete the sequence. As you can imagine, they’re always happy and surprised by that! But I ask them to focus on the task itself, and I say one more time, “The task is to pass these three balls, 1, 2, 3, through the sequence we created as quickly and effectively as possible.”

Someone, at some point, usually figures it out: “Instead of throwing the ball across, across, across, why don’t we move ourselves into the sequence we created and pass the balls to the right, 1, 2, 3?” Of course, that brings their time down. They pass the balls again, and it usually takes them around 4 seconds.

One more time, I tell them they need to focus on the task. Someone inevitably says, “Why don’t we put all three balls back in the can, and just pass the can?” Their time usually drops to around 2 seconds. We record that time. Again, I remind them to focus on the task. And I repeat what the task is again.

Someone will get the idea: “Jim, why don’t you pass the can through the sequence yourself, since it starts with you and ends with you?” I do. That brings the time to 1.5 seconds.

Then I tell them, “A previous group did it in 0.4 seconds. We still have a distance problem. How are you going to solve it?” They realize they can jam the tips of their fingers together in the middle of the circle and rotate the can around on their fingertips. Their time usually goes down to 0.19 seconds. By now, they’re really excited, they yell and they give each other high-fives.

Finally, I ask the group, “What would happen if I had told you at the beginning that you could do this in 0.19 seconds?” And they all say they would’ve told me it was impossible.

So, here’s the point: Even though this particular group I’m working with has been together for only three minutes, they’re already set in their ways and they have difficulty seeing other ways that this task could be accomplished. Now, imagine playing this game with a group of coworkers that has been together for a year, three years or five years. When you give them a task, they’re even more likely to focus on their past experiences — not on developing new ways to work together. I hope this exercise can help you and your colleagues break through old habits and explore better ways to get things done.