By Michael Holland

Picture this real life competition with a goal to build the tallest structure that can support a soft, fluffy, lightweight marshmallow using spaghetti, twine and tape within 18 minutes. First, there’s a ballroom full of 100 co-workers.  They are broken out into random teams of 4 to 5 and are busy at work attempting to build the tallest solid structure of that will support a marshmallow.  In another room, there are 6 groups of kindergartners broken into small teams of 5.  They have the exact same challenge and time limit.  Who was the most successful?

The kindergartners by a long shot!

The exercise reveals so much about what limits our adult teams: we have hidden assumptions that limit our ability to listen, work collaboratively, creatively solve problems and be successful.  Limitations such as . . .

  • Recognizing the Real Problem – The kids saw the problem for what it was:  how can a structure support that marshmallow.  They pick it up and feel it.  Adults too quickly assume the marshmallow is light as air and ignore its weight as compared to the materials involved.
  • Enabling Innovation – Adults want to solve problems; kids like to innovate so they tried all sorts of combinations of materials.  Successful teams enable an environment for innovation of ideas and thoughts by encouraging healthy debate, trials and practice runs.  Innovation encourages small wins as well as adjustments in courses of action.
  • Lack of Improv – All great improv teams have the same common language:  “yes and”.  They know that to encourage broad thinking and creativity they must take what has been given them and add to it to allow ideas to grow.  The kids with their open minds built upon each others attempts at combining materials.
  • Listening – Kids listen.  Adults listen to hear an opening in the conversation to allow them to say what they want to say.
  • Feigning Trust – Kids naturally trust what their counterparts are saying and doing.   Members of teams feign interest and trust with each other, with the boss, with life, with the new blah, blah, blah initiative.  Trust encourages open, supportive debate.
  • Creativity – The season of life in which kids find themselves proves highly successful for being creative.  Adults have been trained to limit their creative thinking.  They narrow the “problem” as quickly as possible to find the easiest, fastest solution.

You may not be able to influence the team meetings in which you perceive yourself as just a lowly participant but you can influence those team meetings where you are in the driver’s seat.  Will you choose to lead well?

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • How often does your team use “yes and” in their conversations? How often do you use the phrase with your employees?
  • Which two of the limitations listed resonate most for you in your current organization?  Which two might your boss pick?
  • Grab a peer leader and watch this short video on trust by Patrick Lencioni and then discuss.