Crash course in team dynamics

Prospective MBA students put through their paces and taught the value of working as a group.

The Saturday Star, 5th Jan 2019

Prospective MBA students put through their paces and taught the value of working as a group


YOU’VE just crash landed in the middle of a desert in south-west USA. The pilot and co-pilot are dead. You and your group have been able to salvage 15 items from the wreckage before everything caught fire.

What are the most important out of the torch, large pocket knife, map of the area, plastic raincoats, magnetic compass, first aid kit, .45 calibre pistol, parachute, bottle of 1 000 salt tablets, litre of water for each of you, book entitled Edible Plants of the Desert, pair of sunglasses per person, 2 litres of vodka, overcoat and cosmetic mirror?

Rate them from top to bottom, with 1 being the most important and 15 the least.

You would be excused if you thought that you’re in the middle of an outdoor adventure experience – instead it’s an MBA taster lecture for prospective students at Henley Business School Africa.

They’ve got 10 minutes to do the assignment. When they’re finished, Professor Kevin Money asks them to work in a group around the table and come to a conclusion about what the group decides is their list of items.

Money is a psychologist by training. South African born and British bred he is the director of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation at Henley Business School at the University of Reading. He has been out in South Africa working with potential Henley Business School Africa clients on marketing and reputation management, his speciality. Today though, he’s running aspirant students through the kind of interactive learning they could expect if they sign up at the business school in 2019.

Today’s lesson is about team dynamics – the immersive way.

When they are finished, Money walks them through some concepts; basic kinds of decision making; consensus and compromise, the upsides and the downsides. Tip: Voting is the quickest way to get a decision, but it’s the most dangerous too in a life and death situation like this because it creates factions, those whose view won the vote and those who had to go along with it. Compromising creates expectations of paybacks.

He uses the example of a teenager going out for the night. His mother wants him back at 10, the teen opens the bidding at 2am and eventually they each yield until they compromise on midnight.

But what if the boy asks why? His mother tells him she’s concerned for his safety if he stays out late. The boy answers, saying he’ll keep his phone on throughout and be available for her, thereby answering her fears and ensuring his own needs are met.

“Often in teams, thinking about how we make decisions is as important as the decisions themselves,” he tells the class, “far too often we presume how the person thinks.”

Voting, so beloved in democracies, is the best of all evils, yet in the US and the UK, it has led to incredible conflict and polarisation. “It’s great for doing things quickly,’ says Money, “not for explaining why you’re doing it.”

Money introduces the thesis of Meredith Belbin, one of Henley’s most famous academics, “Management Teams”, where eight specific roles have been identified.

He starts with the two types of leader: there’s the shaper, the person who pushes and is very task orientated, the CEO type and then there’s coordinator or enabler, who is often likely to be the chair of the board. Often the two will find themselves in conflict but this is not necessarily bad for the functioning of the team.

What of the others? You need the ideas people, he says; there are two types: the plant who can be quite annoying coming up with ideas that are a little left field but some of them can be very powerful and the very good and then there is the resource investigator. This is a person who is able to admit they don’t know the answer, but who adds value to the team by looking elsewhere for the solution.

“This is the person who’s not afraid to phone a friend,” Money says alluding to the well-known TV game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

“Once you have leaders and ideas you have to do something with them,” he says, this is where the implementer executes them or, in the case of the monitor/ evaluator, shoots them down.

“At one level this person is annoying but at another level very useful to spot important things.

“It’s important,” he says, “to know when to take them seriously and when now – and to make sure you don’t demonise them in the team in the process.”

Then there’s the team worker very people focussed, the glue that holds the tam together. The final role is the completer or finisher.

“They’re fantastic,” he says, “they’re the ones who deliver.”

The point behind this entire exercise is to find out what kind of team member each of the prospective students are, explains Money. The Henley MBA process will show this to students as well as enable them to be able to build a team around themselves.

“I remember someone saying as a prospective CEO that he intended building a team around himself of exactly the same kind of people, it’s the worst possible thing,” says Money.

“Perhaps the best thing I ever heard, although I didn’t think so at the time, was someone admitting they weren’t an ideas person in a job that was all about coming up with ideas, until that person said, ‘but I’m very good at spotting a good idea!’

“You don’t need to be a shaper to be a great CEO,” he says, “you just need to know who you are and to ensure your team has the right people in it – that’s the Belbin theory.”

So, what was the most important item in the list? It was the cosmetic mirror according to the expert survivalist’s opinion, because the key thing was to be able to signal. The next important was the overcoat to protect the body from sunburn and to prevent evaporation, then a litre of water per person, followed by a torch – not to see at night, but to signal at night, then a parachute – for shade and for signalling. These were followed by the pocket knife, the plastic raincoat, the pistol – not to shoot but to signal by noise when you start to dehydrate and can’t make as much sound – then a pair of sunglasses for everyone, the first aid kit, the compass, the map and the book on edible plants.

Finally, in a mad rush for last place, the vodka and the salt tablets for the simple reason that if you were in the desert for that length of time, eating salt would have killed you probably as fast as the vodka would have by dehydrating you. The vodka though might have dulled the pain and the desperation.

The aspirant students marked their answers against the survivalist’s using negative marking. Most of them were in the high 60s or even 70s, but when they aggregated their marks as a team, they came down dramatically.

“The team score is around 40, it’s far lower than any individual,” notes Money, “the point is that the team decision can always be better than any individual and as you get to know each other better, the results get even better too.”


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