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.

Career Strategy Advice from Harvard…Sort of

In today’s Management Tip of the Day: 3 Classic Strategy Mistakes to Avoid published by the fine folks at Harvard Business Review, the cautionary words advise against:

  1. Keeping underperforming businesses.
  2. Pushing growth.
  3. Cutting back on cost-cutting

The same can be said regarding career advice albeit slightly modified.  Beware of:

  1. Keeping underperforming or outdated habits. What are you doing today that you should stop doing?  Some behaviors and habits may have served you well earlier in your career but may no longer be getting you the results you desire. Some may be downright derailers.  Identify these and move away from doing them so you can focus on the activities that will provide you the most benefit and help you catapult your career forward.
  2. Pushing for growth. Haranguing your boss to give you new responsibilities and varied projects won’t lead to advancement unless you are knocking it out of the park with your current responsibilities.  What can you do to make sure you excel at your existing responsibilities?  Are you building strong, solid relationships with your peers before looking to schmooze with those above you.
  3. Cutting back on cost-cutting. When things improve, remain focused on the bottom line and on accomplishing your goals.  Even as times improve, organizations are likely to be leery of expenditures and quick to make cuts in underperforming areas.  Keep building your skills, be judicious in what you ask for, continue to prioritize needs and build strong business cases for major expenditures or investments including salary increases.

Know. Live. Grow.

In today’s KnowHR post Living Your Mission, Vision and Values, Frank Roche writes that organizations need to do just that. Articulating statements is pointless garbage if an organization doesn’t demonstrate its beliefs in everything that it does.
Personal brands work the same way. Identifying and articulating what you stand for only gets you part way there (and not such a big part at that). It’s what you do that matters. Step one is twofold: first figure out what you are known for now. Second know what you want to be known for in the future. Are you moving in the right direction?

Step two is about expression: What are you doing day in and day out to be consistent with your vision, values and mission? How are you living your brand? If you value clear communication and feedback are you sharing important information on your business with your team? Have you sat down with your abrasive and sometimes off-putting employee to let him know how his style is getting in the way of effectiveness?

And step three is knowing where you want to get to and implementing the plan to get there.

Know. Live. Grow. That’s the brand life cycle.

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).

Career Stewardship

Career Stewardship: kə-ˈrir, stü-ərd-ˌship: the conducting, supervising, or managing of one’s work or calling; especially : the careful and responsible management of one’s professional activities and direction.

What would it look like for you to move your career forward intentionally on your own — knowing what you know, what you are currently known for and what you want to be known for in the future?