Improving Collaboration: All you need is a marshmallow

I’ve just finished watching this brief TED Talk with Tom Wujec about the “marshmallow challenge.”   It’s a collaboration and innovation challenge that asks participant teams to build the tallest structure they can in 18 minutes.  Their building tools?

  • 20 sticks of spaghetti
  • A yard each of string and masking tape
  • A marshmallow that must be placed on top

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Typical goofy but fun management training & teambuilding exercise, right?

Are you surprised that newly-minted MBAs suck at the task (too much focus on devising the perfect plan and no backup)? Or that recent kindergarten graduates excel (their view: lead, schmead…Let’s start with the marshmallow and keep going ’til something works)?  Bet it’s no shocker that CEO groups do slightly better than average (it’s their job to solve sticky ambiguous problems).

For me, the magnificent moments of Wujec’s talk surround the  addition of executive admins and the limitations of incentives.

  1. Executive Admins: CEO teams that include executive assistants are among the highest performers.  Wujec suggests this is because they have group process and facilitation skills.  The teams that have people with special skills and who pay attention to the work and the process get more done.  Um, yeah.  Sounds pretty basic right?  But do most organizations or even workgroups have that?   What would it look like if for every meeting and every project we had someone who took on the role of paying attention to the process of how we achieve our work?  And if we slowed down enough at the beginning and the end and just checked in?

  2. Limitation of Incentives. This won’t be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with Daniel Pink’s work on motivation. When Wujec offered a $10,000 prize to the team who created the tallest structure, all teams failed to build something viable.  Four months later after the same teams had studied innovation and learned about the importance of prototypes, their results were among the best.Wujec offers this formula:
    • Incentives + Low Skills ≠ Success
    • Incentives + High Skills = Success

Newsflash: Sounds like, “Success = Flow.”  Hey, maybe we should strive to find ways to get our teams, work groups and emerging leaders to achieve this state that encompasses single-minded motivation, and a mindset in which all members are completely engaged, engrossed and fully immersed in the task at hand. What might that look like?  And while we’re at it, how about we create and continuously promote environments that balance challenge and skill (the former slightly exceeding the latter), consistently provide clear goals and timely feedback, and pay attention to how we’re getting the job done?

Seems like a sensible way to build successful, sustainable, collaborative structures.   And ones where sticky stuff doesn’t topple down from the top.

Wine Steward v. Career Steward

A wine steward provides suggestions on wine.  He or she is intimately familiar with the wines on offer — the intricacies of their composition, how they sit on the palate, what they pair well with and so on. A key difference between a wine steward and a career steward (aside from, uh, the wine) is that you can rely on someone else to provide you with guidance on your selection.   You must be your own career steward.  You know yourself best and are in the best position to identify how different career choices and options will sit on your palate (and with the life choices you are most interested in making).

Climbing Back On The Wagon

So I fell off the blogging wagon…after only two days!!  Last week I had some fabulous ideas and then when I could grab a few minutes to write, only drivel spewed painfully forth.  My entire week was like that.  Every goal I set took inexplicable hours to complete instead of the mere minutes I had allotted to them.  My list grew ominously large and dark…my personal demons raged: How can you be successful if you cannot keep your own goals moving forward???? Look at your list…you are way behind on so many items and you still have the pile of paperwork to wend through to get your accountant going on your taxes…you call yourself a businesswoman?
And then I stopped them.

I breathed.

I reevaluated.

I asked how else I might look at my week and what I could learn from it.

And I did.  I followed the path Marilee Adams calls the learner path.  She suggests that in considering how something impacts us we have the choice between the learner path and the judger path.   The learner asks questions like:

–        How else can I think of this?

–        What else is possible?

–        What can I learn from this?

–        What are the next action steps I should take?

So I did.

I acknowledged that I had been productive and prolific in my client work early in the week.  I listed the things I did get done.  I realized that perhaps my time goals on some of my objectives were perhaps a bit unrealistic.

I noticed that those days I had identified very specific goals went more smoothly than those for which I more or less winged it with a vague idea of on what I wanted to make progress. I determined that the next action steps should include planning in my every day.  Making sure I follow the sensible path of Ready…Aim…Fire.  Because when I get trigger happy and just fire, much of what comes out is drivel.

Taking a page from Covey

This morning as I was pondering my day, this thought popped into my head: Begin with the end in mind.  I recognized that this pithy and perfectly formed mandate was unlikely to have come from my brain first.   In fact, I was sure it had come from one of my standard go-to books, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People yet a quick review of Dale Carnegie’s Golden Book proved me wrong.  Google gently reminded me that it is one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. Number two in fact.

In transitions, beginning with the end in mind can have a profound effect.  As a filter, a planning tool and a driver of everything you need to do.

Here are some thought questions to identify the end you have in mind, or to consider while determining just what that end should be:

  • What am I known for?/What do I want to be known for?
  • What do I know about what I’m looking for?
  • Can I articulate what I’m looking for in 30 seconds or less?  (think: positioning statement, value proposition, brand articulation)
  • Do I have the time and resources to hold out for my ideal or do I need a two-pronged strategy?

Don’t fret too much if you don’t have all the answers.  If you start to worry, take a suggestion from my friend Dale: Fill your mind with thoughts of peace, courage, health and hope.