A Stupid Game and the Ingenious Lesson It Taught Me about Teamwork

· · project-management

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There was a team game called Faraway Kingdom that we played on one conference, designed to teach us the importance of teamwork. Everyone hated the game. They just couldn’t see the point. But after working on many projects, the ingenuity of the game revealed itself.

The Setup

We were divided into two groups — Task Group and Waiting Group — but we all were one team. The groups were in different rooms and there was a facilitator in each one to answer questions and guide the players.

The Waiting Group was instructed to stand in particular places on the floor and not move, at all. That’s all they had to do. Just stand and wait. No other information was provided except to wait their team from the other group to come.

The Task Group was given a logical problem that they needed to solve. The puzzle was about moving pieces so some sort of goal was accomplished. The positions of those pieces corresponded to the positions of members in the Waiting Group. After the problem was solved, they were instructed to come to the room where the Waiting Group was and move them in the right place. No other instruction was given.

The Development of Events

So the Task Group started solving the puzzle. They tried many different paths and were good at collaborating among themselves. They spent all the time in their room trying to solve the puzzle and the time flew. After 45 minutes, they managed to solve it. Everyone was proud and excited.

And so they waltzed out of their room to arrange their fellow team mates who waited in the other room. When they entered the room, they found the other half of the team frustrated and bored out of their minds. Task Group members rearranged Waiting Group members, the game ended, and everyone could go on a break.

The Faraway Kingdom session was among the worst rated sessions ever. Everyone complained, even the Task Group: it was stupid, pointless, the time could be used much better, and the person who designed the game should be shot.

All they did was sit and wait or solve some weird puzzle — hardly anything to do with teamwork.

The Ingenious Lesson

But the game had an excellent point. The whole purpose of the game wasn’t in solving the puzzle but communicating progress. The group who was solving the puzzle could tell facilitator to tell the other group what they were doing and keep them updated. But they didn’t. They were focused on solving the problem. So the silence reigned and frustration set in.

The Task Group completely ignored the value of keeping the other group in the loop. What was most frustrating for the Waiting Group wasn’t so much waiting as being in the dark. If they at least knew why they were waiting, they would bear it easier.

Imagine you’re at a doctor’s appointment and you have no idea when your turn is — it’s easier to wait an hour knowing it will take an hour than wait less but being oblivious. Even phone operators have a pre-recorded voice saying which number in a queue you are, or at least “Please hold, your call is important to us”.

This happens constantly on projects. One group can’t progress while the other doesn’t do its job. That’s normal.

But what’s frustrating is not posting updates on progress. You can’t just isolate yourself and work — communication is very important, even if it doesn’t contribute to the work directly.

All sorts of things go on in people’s minds, starting from sanity checks to elaborate fantasies how the other team twiddles their thumbs with a “suckers” bubble above their head. If all they saw were photos of them goofing off during breaks but not the hard work, they would form a wrong conclusion. That’s why it’s important to communicate progress.

Human relationships are not like cactuses that don’t need watering, but more like delicate orchids. It doesn’t matter that you were genuinely busy, the orchid will wither away. Once it passes certain threshold, the damage is irreparable.

So next time you work on some big task: find some time to pick up a phone or send an email or IM.

After all, most projects fail not because of the technology, but sociology.

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