Chapter 1: Thinking out of the Box

Updated: Mar 10, 2021


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The arcade was crowded with teenagers and families. Anna walked closely to her colleague, trying to dodge the horde. “So how is this going to work?" she screamed. Her colleague formed a devious grin and spoke, "we told all of the participants to gather in the private dining room below where we'll have a light dinner. Then the games begin.” This was Anna's first-time being part of the instructors welcoming committee and the team building was kept hush-hush for only the two senior instructors of the group.

Her only thought was, “this is going to be interesting. Pitting type-A personalities that have not met in a team building exercise. How is this going to work without them killing each other? You know we are asking a lot having them to go through the four stages of team development in one night.”

Dude, her trusting conscious, peeped up “what would you do if you were a participant in the program instead of an instructor?”

Anna thought about it as she made her way to the dining area and then responded, “I would do what I always do, study the other participants, listen to the rules of the game and attempt to bring my team together by facilitating the situation. Of course, it really depends on the characters on the team. Maybe that will not work, and I will need to improvise.”

A proud Dude answered, “that's a great start. It is all about listening, observing, and making decisions on the fly, Anna. I am glad you did not think of simply taking over the team and disguising your bully behavior as leadership. You are right about the four stages of team development. They are going to be forced into forming a team, then hopefully they will not waste too much time storming about who does what, which will only lead them to adopt comfortable well-known methods. If they mesh well together, then they may actually perform closing out the fourth stage.”

As she entered the dining room, she looked around at the groups verbally interacting. Her colleague bent over and whispered in her ear, “this is going to be fun; you'll see. Let the games begin!”

Then her colleague left to join a group and introduced himself. Anna decided it was a good idea and did the same. She recalled one of her past mentors telling her that networking was paramount in a career regardless of the venue. So, she approached a group to her left, smiled and introduced herself,

“Hi, I'm Anna and will be one of your advisors during your rotation here." Each of the four introduced themselves and tagged on where they were from. It was one of the things Anna loved about working for a Global corporation, meeting people from different parts of the world.

One participant asked, "do you know if the team building is going to be the arcades? Because I rule when it comes to playing these games. I know I'm going to win if that is the case." Another participant gave him an annoying look and said, "I'm sure you aren't the only one here that wastes time in the arcade and bars."

"Yeah, this is going to be interesting." Thought Anna and Dude simply snorted.

Everyone was told to sit for dinner. Anna's colleague called her over to the instructors' table and the meal was served. Another instructor at the table chimed up, "so can you tell us more on how the team building is going to work tonight?" Finally, the organizer of the event at the table said in a quiet voice, "we are going to have a facilitator from this establishment to lead the groups through a series of four arcade games. Even though we are the instructors, we are going to be part of the game as well. Our job is to follow the instructions from the facilitator, play and at the same time observe the participants to see how they react. Tomorrow morning after breakfast we will debrief as a group in the training center."

At the end of the dinner, a facilitator wearing a black and white striped shirt and black pants blew a whistle. The room was silenced. She spoke, "I want to welcome you all to the arcades. My name is Amy and I will be your facilitator this evening. This means your instructors will also be participating in the games. We are going to start by forming the teams."

Anna looked around and saw lots of happy faces and a couple of high-fives. "Poor saps", Dude said, "they think they'll be in the team with the ones they are sitting with."

Amy blew the whistle again to get everyone's attention. “I see you believe you will be paired with whom you are sitting with. That is the wrong assumption and you all know what happens when you assume! So, let me clarify it for you. There will be a post-it under your chair with a number. Please grab it now.”

With that the room became noisy with all the chairs moving. Anna started backing up her chair from the table to do the same, but the organizer stopped her.

"We don't have a number because we are instructors and so we are automatically paired together." Thank God, Anna thought, though she was still in the dark. It is wiser to go with the flow and follow the organizer’s lead.

When each person had their number in their hands, Amy spoke out again along with hand gestures, “You have a number from one to five. All the ones go to that corner. The twos there, threes please move to the back, fours to the back corner there and fives in the center. The only group without a number are the instructors. They will form the sixth group. This is your opportunity to compete and beat them if you can.”

With that last note all the teams started talking, screaming, and whistling their approvals. Since the instructors were all older, even though they could be wiser than the participants in arcades, they appeared weak. Therefore, they were not seen as competition. The instructors, including Anna, remained poised with grins and smirks.

Amy blew her whistle and continued, “you are going to be given this piece of paper describing the four arcade games in which you will be competing tonight. Jim, my assistant, will be handing them out. I will be blowing this whistle to start each game and to end the game. Jim tallies the scores and we move to the next game. The only rule to follow tonight is are you all ready and listening?”

Everyone yelled "Yes, and Amy completed her statement, “there are no rules! You have five minutes to get ready.”

At this point, Anna's first thought was chaos and looked at her colleague who just smiled wickedly. That was all she needed to realize that the test was to see how each of the teams prepared themselves for the games given there were no limitations.

“Talk about thinking out of the box”, Dude said. Anna could see that each team reacted differently. They were excited and began to huddle when they were given the carte blanche to proceed.

A senior instructor piped up, “let's go see what each of the teams are talking about and then we will get back together again.”

Another instructor looked amazed and said, “aren't we going to make a plan as well to win?”

The two senior instructors and the organizer laughed. Then the organizer spoke up “didn't you hear what the facilitator said? There are no rules! Now let us divide and conquer.”

Anna went to one of the back teams to listen in. Hearing all she needed to know, she moved to the next team close by to see how they were making out. From behind her she heard a participant scream out “HEY! stop ease-dropping, you're our competition!”

The team members turned around with dirty stares. Quick on her feet, Anna said “I just want to make sure you guys are good and have a plan. We really are just going to play alongside you guys. It is more important you all gel as a team since you do not know each other. And it's our job as instructors to make sure that harmony is maintained.”

Most of the group found the explanation plausible but one chimed up “we're doing simply fine, no need to help here. You can go.”

Anna went back to the instructor’s table. The other instructors approached the table as well and started sharing their observations of the teams. Her colleagues decided it would be easier if they named the teams instead of numbering them.

This is what they observed:

1 The first team began strategizing, selecting the team players that were best suited for the various games or the next best person to do so. We call this team “Strategists

2 The second team decided that they were going to have fun and not stress out during the competition. Each team member selected the game they wanted to play, regardless of whether they were any good at it. We call this team "Stress-Free"

3 The third team decided that they were not all going to play the game. Only their best three members were going to play while the others cheered. We call this team "Top Guns"

4 The fourth team could not agree on a plan; they were too busy figuring out what to do and some of the characters were clashing. Finally, one of them suggested they steps up to the game they chose to play and toss a coin between players, if necessary. We call this team "Leaderless"

5 The fifth team did not really have much to say. One of the members took over the group fairly quickly and was making all the decisions for the other team members. The members did not mind because he was asking questions, inviting them to represent the team. We call this team "Management"

6 The trainers were fascinated on how this event was turning out. Each team was diverse with members from all around the world and displaying their own dynamics. Yet all the teams did the same thing. They all went right into creating a set of rules for themselves. Being instructors and knowing that the only rule of this team competition was that there were no rules, they decided to have fun instead of constructing an action plan. One instructor's famous words were "I don't care what the other teams are doing as long as we win" with another responding, “we probably will since we are going to do whatever we want to do”. We decided to call ourselves the "Chaos" team.

At the first game, the goal was to use a rifle and shoot a moving target. There were 7 rifles set up. The Strategists, Stress-Free, Management, and Top Guns were the first to mobilize getting their player set up. The Leaderless team had two of its members fighting for one rifle and the other members trying to defuse the situation. Of course, at the end, it was Amy who gave them the ultimatum to get with the program. The Chaos team waited for the facilitator to get the Leaderless team sorted out.

Then seeing the remaining two rifles, quickly looked at one another and the organizer spoke, “Who wants to go first?”

Dude yelled in Anna's head, “go-go-go”. But Anna had no love for arms and decided to sit it out.

The other instructors all showed interest. One of them took one rifle to show that the team was ready. As soon as the facilitator gave the go to start shooting, another instructor picked up the remaining rifle and started shooting as well.

The Chaos members got a lot of dirty stares and some screamed “not fair” and “your disqualified”.

The instructor looked at them, smiled and said, “you're right, I need to share so everyone in my team can play.” He passed his rifle to another instructor. The other instructor shooting did the same. Anna was the only one that just shook her head to be passed over.

After it was over, Jim went to each of the seven machines to collect the scores.

The "Strategist" leader walked over to the Chaos team to tell them they were playing dirty and to stop.

The Top Guns and Leaderless teams went directly to the facilitator to tell her that the Chaos team was to be eliminated from the team building.

The Stress-Free team was laughing at the scene. A couple of them went off to grab some beers for the group.

The Management team was looking puzzled on what was going on and could not believe trainers would be so disrespectful. Yet they did nothing.

The facilitator calmed the players down by telling them she was going to accumulating the points and offenses. All would be revealed at the end of the games.

The next game was driving a virtual speed car. This game only had six booths, so “no cheating” echoed from the groups.

The Chaos team just smiled and started talking amongst themselves. One member from each team got into the booth and the game started. Each team was cheering their own teammate.

As soon as the instructor in the booth crashed, he got up and Anna took his place to play. “You should be good at this, Anna. You drove in Italy for five years!”

Anna was in the zone.

Leaderless was the first team to be finished, crashing three times.

Stress-Free and Management followed.

Then Anna crashed. Without wasting another second, she got out of the booth and another instructor went in saying, “great job, I'm going to finish this!”

The Strategists were next at ending their game. It was head-to-head the Top Guns and the Chaos teams.

All the other teams were cheering the Top Guns. They were saying that the instructors were cheating and did not deserve to win.

The Chaos team found a way to cheat and the other teams were bubbling up with anger.

They knew they had to respect the Chaos team because they were the trainers but lots of bad language was being murmured. At the end of the game, the facilitator quickly moved them to the next game.

If looks could kill, the Chaos team would be all ashes. The Stress-Free team was visibly irritated. The teams started talking amongst themselves, trying to see who had the courage to approach the Chaos team and put them in their place.

Anna had to smile. The participants were all highly intelligent and performance driven people. Yet they demonstrated the wrong way of looking at things. Instead of being inquisitive and asking why we were doing what we were doing or realizing that the game was all about not having rules set up, they expressed their caveman emotions. They were not learners yet.

The next game was bowling. The consensus of the teams was that no one could cheat here.

The Chaos team had to study this situation and one of them smiled, saying “I got it!”

Each member of a team had a lane. The Chaos team selected the corner lane strategically, but the other teams did not notice the move. They were simply happy having the Chaos team in a corner.

The game begun, a Chaos member went to the side of the lane and told his colleague to aim for the center or left-hand side. As soon as a ball was edging close to the gutter, the member would use their hands to redirect it to the pins.

It was the Top Guns cheer leaders who saw this and told the other teams.

The Management leader went to the facilitator to have her stop the Chaos team from playing because of their cheating.

The Stress-Free team saw their player not doing well and feeling badly, replaced the player during the game. After all, if the Chaos team could do it, so could they, and it became their motto.

The teams were getting fed-up of the Chaos team.

The last game was basketball hoops. Each player stood in front of a hoop and when Amy blew her whistle, they started picking up basketballs from the bin in front of them and trying to throw them in the hoop.

This time, the Chaos team decided to strategize right before the whistle. They placed the shortest person in the team in front of the hoop: Anna.

Then two of her taller colleagues got behind her at a 30-degree angle so they could grab the basketballs with their long arms without harming Anna and throwing them in the hoop. It was a coordinated approach so that all three were not throwing the basketballs at the same time.

Anna was loving it because all she had to do was throw the ball. It was her colleagues that timed themselves after her yelling “me” right before throwing. This way balls would not collide.

Well that was it for the Top Guns and Leaderless teams, they stopped playing in protest.

The Stress-Free team decided to play along and had some of the other members join in similar to the Chaos team.

The Management team continued playing as if nothing around them mattered.

And the Strategists decided to send over a couple of their members to sabotage the Chaos team by holding the extra players back. They tackled the instructors pulling them back.

Anna did not miss a beat. Dude spoke up “go-go-go, those guys can take care of themselves!”

The instructors did not complain or cry out but tried to break free. When the game has no rules, you can't really stop anything from happening; provided there was no danger.

There was a great deal of confusion and Amy stepped in telling each team to stay within their lanes so as to keep the game non-violent and everyone safe. As Amy blew the whistle to stop, most of the participants were in an uproar.

In their defense, the participants just wanted the trainers to stop doing what they were doing and follow the rules.

At this point, one of the trainers said “we are the only team following the rules! Don’t you remember what the rule is? There are no rules to play the game!”

At the end of the team building, most of the participants felt frustrated.

A couple of the participants looked as if a light bulb just lit up on top of their heads. One of them said “Darn, why didn't we think of having everyone participate in the games? We got duped!”

How each team created their own "Box"

"Strategists" team were the ones that created strict rules for themselves. Which skill fit best with the game and player. Without looking at the games' layout, they went off with the piece of paper given to them from the facilitator. Once they identified who was playing which game, they stopped there without looking into any plan for contingency or flexibility.

"Stress-Free" team were the ones that just wanted to have fun. If they won or lost did not really matter. What was important to them was making sure everyone participated and tried out a game. Making assumptions that each game had a player and designating one for each was the extent of their rules. This created lots of flexibility while they played but they still kept themselves limited by following the rules of the game they believed in.

"Top Guns" team were the aggressive ones who established their box with "the strong will survive" approach and thus eliminating two of their team members right off the bat. They were not here to build a team but to win at all costs. Yet they did the same mistake as the Strategists making decisions based on a piece of paper and their instincts. Intimidating the other members demonstrated that they did not operate as a team. And as the game progressed you had the players in an uproar and the silent players rejoicing that the bullies did not win.

"Leaderless" team are the ones that cannot make a decision. This happens to everyone at one point in their careers where you are forced into a team where all want to be leaders and not one is leading. When you have the "know it all's" in a team, you know you are not a team. In fact, this group was more chaotic that the trainers who were named Chaos. Not listening respectfully to your teammates is a recipe for disaster. Think of the analogy of Dragonboat racing where the synchrony of the rowers is required to move the boat forward.

"Management" team were the ones that set themselves up exactly the way they do at work. Some members decide it is not worth the stress of winning so they will listen to the one who automatically seems to take the weight on his shoulders for the team. Though the member who took the lead did listen to the team and would make a decision when consensus was not reached, they also put themselves in a box. In fact, it is more of a safe box. They played by the same rules they would in a workplace environment where change is not always welcome and a proven recipe, inflexible as it may be, is adopted.

The Instructors “Box”

"Chaos" team: Let us start by seeing if cheating during the games was the right thing to do. The first question to ask is whether the instructors were ethical in this situation. If we think of ethics being simply determining what is right and wrong, then was it right to play as long as it was safe and not cruel?

The next question to ask is whether the instructors demonstrate moral conduct in this situation. If morality is a product of what conforms as behavior within a community, the instructors would be perceived from the participants to be in the wrong because they all decided to create similar rules. Yet the instructors believed they were working as a team. It was not considered a viable strategy for only one player at a time, with no help from his or her team, to be selected to play the game. In other words, they were thinking inside the box.

The goal for the instructors was not to win but to show the participants that in life if you have no rules you will automatically start making them yourself. They decided to figure out each situation as they faced it, giving them the time to assess the other groups.

When they started the event, each instructor brought their strengths to the game. They applied creative thinking, looking at each situation as a group. Instead of limiting their problem-solving with the rules of the game, they thought of new and different ways of playing to win. This flexibility broadened the possibilities in ways of playing the game.

Now in real life, we do not have the " no rules" in the workplace. What we tend to do is limit our creativity to think within the box or adopt the norm. Many of us fall in this trap where we define boundaries in our minds instead of opening up to consider all possibilities.

Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is about using creative thinking along with active listening.

1. If they only listened and thought it through! Active or authentic listening means you hear, receive, and assimilate the information. Some participants heard the message as noise because they were already making their rules with the piece of paper dictating the games. Others heard the message and received it but did not pause to assimilate this information.

2. Even when the rule given to each of the teams was “there are no rules”, they made their own, meaning, they were thinking within a box that they created themselves. Instead of going with the flow and adapting to each game with the goal being to win, they stuck to their team-made rules. What seemed like cheating was actually following their rules.

The instructors, well the senior ones, heard, received, and assimilated the information. They knew they could think out of the box when strategizing the games. They decided to problem-solve on the spot right before every game. This way they could study the situation and find the best way to win. As long as no one got hurt physically or emotionally, they could play amongst themselves as a unit.

Lessons Learned

1. Listen, receive, and assimilate the information properly, without thinking up things to say or do while you should be listening for the message.

2. Thinking creatively is harder than perceived because it requires open-mindedness to consider something new instead of the status quo. Analyze the situation, brainstorm all possible solutions with outcomes, select the best one that will satisfy your goal. Planning does not mean putting together a list of rules on what to do. It means compiling as much information as possible before defining the best way of handling the situation.

3. A lesson learned from the perspective of the participants was to gain awareness of your surroundings. When someone does something differently, do not write it off as being wrong or cheating. Stop the judgement and perception side of your brain from switching on. Be non-biased and look at what the others are doing. Watching others open-mindedly will always give you more information than what you have formulated in your head. In some cases, you may change your way of thinking by observing their ways of working. From this story, you could see that the most open-minded team was the Stress-Free. The Top Guns and Leaderless instead took the aggressive approach, confronting their competition. This path taken will lead to burning bridges, becoming stressed and high strung all the time.

We hope you have enjoyed this story and it has made you think of how simple yet difficult it is in today’s world to think out of the box. Let us know what you think with your comments….

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