Front Line Heroes -Chapter Ten….Why Stoopid Games?

Before I answer this question, let’s define what a “Stoopid Game” is.  First of all, the “stoopid” part is spelled the way it should be, like it sounds.  Secondly, a Stoopid Game is any physical team-building activity that can be used to teach business principles and ideas.  I don’t want to admit this, but I am not good at these games, nor do I particularly like them.  (I want to be truthful given our relationship.  How is that for being vulnerable?  Can I have a hug?)

Stoopid Games are invaluable in producing results for business groups that are interested in improving performance.  For the past 20 years, I have used Stoopid Games as a modality for teaching and developing our clients.  In corporate training and development, the games are typically called “experiential education”.  Wow, does that sound highfalutin and fancy.  These activities are useful because they give groups a practice field where they can develop their skills and improve their performance.  (There’s more on this idea of a practice field for business groups in Chapter 6, “High-Performance Work Teams.”)

Time for Tent Poles

Here’s an example of the usefulness of Stoopid Games.  I was working with a client that was focused on improving its customer service.  This company has hired a firm to survey its customers.  What the firm’s research found was that the company’s customer service was below their industry average.  This was unacceptable, so the company put focus and attention on improving its service and its relationships with customers.  Three task forces were formed, and I joined them in their training room to help develop actions for improving customer service and customer relationships.

To start this session, I engaged the groups in the classic lower-the-tent-pole-to-the-ground exercise.  In attendance were 18 people.  We split into two groups of nine.  The participants had played this Stoopid Game and were confident they would be successful.

As a precursor to the exercise, I said, “The marketplace has changed, so don’t be fooled by these tent poles.  They’re super duper and way different than before.”  After pausing for effect, I added the instructions:  “I’m the customer.  What you have to do for me is lower this tent pole to the ground while balancing it on your index finger.  None of your fingers can ever lose contact with it.  All fingers must be under and perpendicular to pole.  No other body parts can touch the pole.  You have three minutes to do this.”  I then informed them that from the customer’s point of view, faster was better.

The activity started.  The pole went up instead of down.  Fingers lost contact with the pole.  People yelled, and blame was attributed to someone.  That is how this activity typically goes.  Then the groups calmed down.  Organization occurred as everyone focused on completing the task.  The groups listened to each other and eventually lowered that darn pole to the ground.  They felt good about it and gave each other high fives.  Collaboration and teamwork had definitely occurred.  Good stuff.

Here is the learning opportunity.  Throughout the exercise, no one talked to me, the customer.  This was every sad.  At that point, I, the ignored customer, was sobbing quietly in the corner while sucking my thumb.  How could this be happening?  How could I be so…neglected?

This was a teachable moment and where the learning began.  After the game, we talked about the task of lowering the pole.  We agreed that teamwork was present.  We then discussed good customer service and paying attention to customer needs; attention to detail is how you create loyalty in customers.  As a group, we inquired whether customer service had been present during the exercise.  The answer:  no.  We then asked ourselves what it takes for customers to become raving fans of a service.

“How could the customer have been more involved in the process?”  I asked.  “Did you clarify his expectations prior to undertaking the task?  Did you ask for any feedback during the task?  And after completing the task, did you thank this customer for his business or explore with him what other services he might need?”

The answer to these questions, too, was no.  Then we talked about how the neglect in this Stoopid Game actually mirrored what was happening to customers “back at the ranch”.  Therein, beloved reader, lies the method to my madness.  There are similarities between what happens during Stoopid Games and what happens in the participants’ businesses.  As a result of playing Stoopid Games, groups suddenly discover what is preventing them from being more successful at work.

To this group, I asked, “When you saw that you were going to be late, did you tell the customer?”  “No”, they said.

“Does that ever happen at the office?” I asked.  “Is the customer always notified of late arrivals and deliveries?”  “No”, they said.

“How does the customer feel about this?” I asked.  “It’s been a complaint”, they admitted, shooting one another those looks that said realization was dawning.

I said “If you can fix that problem here and keep the customer in the loop, our experience is that once you are back at your business, you will also find ways to keep your customers better informed.”

This is the point of Stoopid Games:  the group has realizations on the practice field they can take back to work and use to implement solutions to problems.

Why do Any of This?

To successfully perform and execute, groups need to practice.  That is obvious.  As we’ve discussed, the Army and Marines get it and call it “boot camp”.  Theater and dance groups get it and call it “rehearsal”.  Sports teams get it and call it “practice”.  Often, however, business groups don’t get it and, for the most part, don’t engage in any practice activity.  Typically, business groups have low group performance.  Do we see a correlation?

That is where Stoopid Games come in.  These games allow groups to examine their own behavior in order to discover how they can improve their performance.  The notion is simple:  a group solves problems during games the way it does back at the ranch.  The major difference is if the group does not perform well at work, there are consequences internally and with customers.  If the group does not perform well at the Stoopid Game, it is a big-time learning opportunity.  There are no consequences for failing at the Stoopid Game except learning, having fun, and perhaps even laughing at yourself.

So, what do groups learn?  One of the most common excuses I hear for lack of performance in a Stoopid Game is that no one was appointed the leader.  According to the group, this is why chaos ensued.  But is that true?  Hogwash, I say.  In reality, people are blind to what is really missing:  the ability to listen to and hear each other.

Can You Hear Me?

Listening is what makes the difference. This insight is the breakthrough for groups.  Once members of a group are listening to one another, anyone can lead.  When listening is present, understanding and problem solving naturally occur.  People who are listening can focus and work together.  This is one of the more profound lessons I have seen groups learn from utilizing Stoopid Games.

Another lesson is the value of planning and practice.  For many groups, it is a revelation to discover that improving performance will take conversations, learning, planning and practice.  When people realize that practice is necessary during a Stoopid Game, drama suddenly ends.  People relax.  Participants understand that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them.  That is what happens when your practice.

Plan to Plan

Planning the great execution make the difference both in Stoopid Games and in the real business world.  Dwight Eisenhower said, “During the battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but prior to the battle, planning is indispensable.”  Stoopid Games give us direct access to this lesson.  In some of the games, as in life, you can run and gun and still be successful.  But if you run at “The Cube”, it will eat you up and spit you out.

Picture, if you will, a PVC cube that stares at your group, daring you all to charge through it and accumulate 26 points.  The Cube is perched on top of a bucket, and is big, white, and made of gleaming PVC pipe.  It looks like something from Chicago’s Millennium Park.  Any slight push or graze as your group attempts to pass through sends it tumbling to the ground.  The consequence for that failure is that you lose all your points and the group must begin over.

Groups must plan in order to be successful at the Cube.  Everyone needs to know when he or she is making the pass and exactly what technique will be used.  Who is involved in holding and passing must be outlined.  Even if the group does not follow the exact plan, the planning supports the group’s success.  Group planning works.  This is an invaluable lesson that, when utilized back at work, will support improved team performance.

The Night Shift Did It

I am working with a manufacturing company that has been experiencing record sales.  It is also suffering from production and quality problems that are significantly impacting profits.  There is a high level of rework and scrap, and most of this seems to be occurring because of a lack of communication between shifts.

To get to the bottom of this, we played the “Plank Game”, in which three teams are formed.  Picture interlocking lego-type planks that must be put together in a particular way.  Each team of nine was given a diagram from which to assemble its set of planks.  Each set was similar but not interchangeable.  As a company, the groups had to construct all three sets of planks in less than 20 minutes.

The game started strong, with one team finishing the set-up in 14 minutes.  The members of that team immediately rose to help the other teams.  Together, they assembled the remaining sets in four more minutes for a total setup time of 18 minutes. This is also a fine time. However, what the first finishers did not do was invite the other team to build its design on top of the already completed set.  This was a possibility they did not see, and they did not see that they did not see it.  It was a blind spot for the group.  If they had done this, it would have saved significant time.

In the post-game debrief, we looked at applying the principle of “sharing between groups” and what could be gained by the shifts being more interactive and communicative at work.  They were then able to design a process that could be taken back to the ranch to enhance communication and performance during shift hand-offs.  Rework and relationships between the shifts have improved markedly since the session.

There are No Mistakes

A principal I live by is that everything happening in an organization happens by design.  The same applies in Stoopid Games.  It’s like this:  don’t plan, and pay the price.  Don’t listen, and pay the price.  Engage in destructive conversations, and pay the price.  On the other hand, collaborate, and move the ball.  Solve the problem, and be successful.  The axiom of “garbage in, garbage out” is abundantly clear in the land of Stoopid Games.  If you put quality into the preparation and planning of the Stoopid Game, you will get quality results.  Stoopid Games can be used frequently to make points and bring a group together.  Typically, businesses will utilize outside facilitators and resources to facilitate the games, but internal people can also be trained to facilitate.

One last thought:  picture me in a large field by a hotel, having the day before cavorted on the Great Wall of — we are not talking Kansas here.  My company was working with a major cellular communications firm with the goal of enhancing teamwork between various groups of engineers.  During the session in the field, an excited Chinese engineer in Beijing emotionally exclaimed, “These are not Stoopid Games!  They are good games!”

Yes. indeed.