01 Oct 2018 18:48 IST

When two plus two equals 10 or more

If organisations provide the right ingredients to their employees, their ability to work as a team improves

A few year ago, designer and engineer Peter Skillman organised a competition where he assembled a series of four-person groups at Stanford, University of California, University of Tokyo and several other leading institutes. He tasked each group to build the tallest possible structure with the following items he provided them: 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, a yard of transparent tape, a yard of string, and one standard-size marshmallow.

There was just one rule to the contest: the marshmallow had to end up on top of the structure. Interestingly, he formed some groups with business school students and others with kindergartners.

Different approaches

The business school students got right down to constructing the tallest tower. They began discussing and devising a strategy to achieve the goal. They examined the materials, tossed ideas back and forth, and asked thought-provoking and savvy questions. They generated several options and honed in on the most promising ideas. Their approach, by any yardstick, seemed very professional, rational and intelligent. Then, they divided up the tasks and started to build the structure.

The kindergarteners, on the other hand, took a different approach. They did not strategise, for they did not know what is strategic thinking. They did not analyse or share experiences. They were not trained in analytical skills either, given that they were kindergartners. They barely talked at all, let alone indulge in intellectually stimulating discussions. They stood close to one another. Their interactions were not smooth or organised. They abruptly grabbed the materials at their disposal and started to build. Whenever they spoke, it was in short bursts: “Hey here, not there”.

Smart ways to work

If you had to bet on which of the teams would win, it would not be a difficult choice. You would probably put your money on the bright B-school students with high intellectual skills, strategic thinking and the ability to distribute labour. But you would be wrong! In dozens of trials, the kindergartners built structures that averaged 26 inches, while the business school students built structures that averaged less than 10 inches.

The result is hard to stomach for many of us because it almost feels like an illusion. We see smart, experienced B-school students and we have a hard time imagining that they would produce such poor output. On the other hand, we see unsophisticated, inexperienced kindergartners and we can help but wonder how they outperformed the B-school smarts.

Let us get to the bottom of the issue. The B-school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in a process psychologists call ‘status management’. They figure out where they fit into the larger picture. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem (the marshmallow is relatively heavy and the spaghetti is hard to secure). As a result, their efforts often collapse and they run out of time.

On the other hand, the kindergartners appear disorganised, but, when you see them as a single entity, their behaviour is efficient and effective. They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They are not competing for status. They succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way.

This is the power of group culture. If organisations and leaders responsible for groups/teams can promote the right ingredients, the synergy can make two plus two 10, or even more. We shall see more of this in the forthcoming articles.