The Benefit of Stupid Games

Stupid Games give groups a practice field where they can learn, plan, practice, develop skills, work together, and improve performance.

By Bruce Hodes, Founder, CMI

Before I start, let’s define what a “Stupid Game” is. A Stupid Game is a teambuilding activity used to teach business principles and ideas. In corporate training and development, the games are called “experiential education.” Wow, does that sound fancy.

Groups need to practice to successfully perform and execute tasks. The military gets it and calls 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 do not get it and, for the most part, do not practice. Typically, business groups have low group performance. Do we see a correlation?

That is where Stupid 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 office. The major difference between these contexts 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 Stupid Game, it is a big-time learning opportunity. There are no consequences for failing at the Stupid Game except learning, having fun, and perhaps even laughing.

For the last 20 years, I have used Stupid Games as a modality for teaching and training our clients. I do not like admitting this, but I am not good at these games, nor do I particularly like them. Stupid Games are invaluable; they give groups a practice field where they can learn, plan, practice, develop skills, work together, and improve performance.

Listening and Learning

So, what do groups learn? One of most common excuses I hear is that no one was appointed the leader. But is that true? Hogwash, I say. Lack of leadership does not drive failure; rather the inability of the group to listen to and hear each other does.

Listening makes the difference. Once members of a group listen to one another, anyone can lead; understanding and problem-solving occur, people focus and work together. This is one of the lessons groups learn from Stupid Games.

Practicing

Another lesson is the value of practice. When people realize that practice is necessary, drama ends and people relax. Participants understand that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them. That is what happens when you practice. With my longstanding clients, I use the same Stupid Games repeatedly. Although the games might exasperate the leadership groups, the participants recognize their value. Over time, groups that play these games are better at listening, executing, and performing tasks with together. In this case, practice does make perfect.

Planning

Planning and great execution make the difference both in Stupid Games and in the real business world. Dwight Eisenhower said something to the effect of “during the battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but prior to the battle, planning is indispensable.” Stupid Games teach groups this lesson.

In some of the games, as in life, you can wing it and still be successful. In the business world, there are definite times when winging it can work. However, this method also can lead to failure. This is what happens in the stupid game called “The Cube” (see complete instructions on materials needed and how to play at the end of this article).

Picture, if you will, a giant cube made of white PVC pipes. The cube is perched on top of a bucket. It looks like it belongs in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The objective is for participants to move through the cube to earn points without knocking the cube over. The consequence for knocking the cube out of place is that you lose all your points and the group must begin all 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. Even if the group does not follow the exact plan, the planning supports the group’s success. Making time to plan is an invaluable lesson that, when utilized back at work, will support improved team performance.

Satisfying the Customer

I worked with a client that was focused on improving its customer service. This company hired a firm to survey its customers. The survey results indicated that the company’s customer service was below average. The company decided to focus on improving its service and its relationships with customers. I was brought in to help the company leadership group develop action plans for improving customer service and customer relationships.

To start the session, the group played one of CMI’s classic games: Lower the Tent Pole to the Ground (see the end of this article for a full description of this game). The participants had played this Stupid Game in the past 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. I want you to lower this tent pole to the ground while balancing it on your index fingers. 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. The faster you can get the tent pole to the floor, the better.”

The activity started. The pole went up instead of down. Fingers lost contact with the pole. People yelled and blamed each other. (That is how this activity typically goes.) Then the groups calmed down. Everyone focused on completing the task. The participants started listening to each other and eventually lowered that darn pole to the ground. They felt good about it and gave each other high fives. They had collaborated and worked as a team. Good stuff. However, throughout the exercise, no one talked to me, the customer. This was very sad. How did this happen? Why was I so…neglected?

After the game, we discussed the task of lowering the pole and defined good customer service. We agreed that the team worked together. Then we talked about how the neglected customer in this Stupid Game actually mirrored what was happening to customers “back at the ranch.” The group completed the task, but they did not make me a raving fan customer. They did not update me or give me attention of any kind. If I used them again, I would want to talk about price. I asked the group whether they displayed good customer service during the exercise. The answer: No.

“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.

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 looks of realization. Their looks also communicated that they were finding me quite annoying.

I said, “Fixing the communication problem and keeping the customer in the loop during this game will help you find ways to keep your customers better informed once you are back at your business.”

Therein lies the method to my madness. There are similarities between what happens during Stupid Games and what happens in the participants’ businesses. Playing Stupid Games provides the group a practice field and allows them to discover obstacles to successful work. They can take what they learn from our discussions back to work and use to implement solutions to problems.

Teamwork

I worked with a manufacturing company that suffered from declining profits due to production and quality problems. To get to the bottom of the issue, we played the “Plank Game.” Picture interlocking Lincoln Log like wooden planks that must be assembled in a particular way. I divided the group into three teams. Each team of nine was given a diagram from which to assemble its set of planks. Each set was similar but not interchangeable. 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, the first group to finish overlooked the idea that they could invite the other teams to build their designs on top of the already-completed set. This technique would have allowed them to avoid “re-inventing the wheel.” If they had done this, they could 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 being more interactive and communicative at work. They then were able to design a process to enhance communication and performance during shift handoffs. Production quality 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 Stupid Games. It’s like this: Don’t plan, and pay the price. Don’t listen, and pay the price. On the other hand, collaborate, and move the ball. Solve the problem, and be successful. If you put quality into the preparation and planning of the Stupid Game, you will get quality results. Stupid 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 also can be trained to facilitate.

One last thought: Picture me in a large field by a hotel. We are not talking Kansas here; the day before, I cavorted on the Great Wall of China. 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 Stupid Games! These are good games!” Yes, indeed.

The Cube

Materials

1 Can (element stand)

12 Tubes

8 Three-Way Corner Brackets

Set-Up

Assemble the cube using all of the pipes and brackets. One assembled, balance the cube onto the paint can (one of the corners gets set into the opening of the can). Be patient and hold the cube very still and let go slowly. If the cube pivots, adjust the cube and try again.

Objective

The team must earn as many points as possible before time runs out. A point is earned when a team member travels through the Cube (in one hole and out another). Different points are allotted for using different hole sequences:

Lower hole to lower hole = 1 point

Lower hole to upper hole or upper hole to lower hole = 2 points

Upper hole to upper hole = 3 points

Rules

  • A team member may only travel though the Cube one time (i.e., a team member can earn points for the team one time).
  • If the Cube tips over, the entire group must start over (points are nullified).
  • No member of the team may attempt to stabilize the Cube or otherwise prevent it from falling over.
  • Jumping through the Cube pathways is not permitted, nor may you launch teammates through the Cube’s pathways.
  • Spotters must be used at all times, paying special attention to the head and neck of people being lifted. Violation of this rule will result in a hefty penalty.
  • The Cube may not be altered
  • Violation of a rule may result in a penalty.

Tent Pole

Materials

1 tent pole for each group

Objective

Lower to the tent pole to the ground without any participants’ finger losing contact with the tent pole.

Rules

  • All group members balance a tent pole on their fingers.
  • Lower the balanced tent pole to the ground without any participants’ finger losing contact with the tent pole.
  • No other body parts can touch the tent pole, only one finger.
  • Do not lose contact with the tent pole.

Since growing up in his family’s boating business to founding his company CMI, Bruce Hodes has dedicated himself to helping companies grow by developing executive leadership teams, business leaders and executives into powerful performers. Hodes’ adaptable Breakthrough Strategic Business Planning methodology has been specifically designed for small to mid-sized companies and is especially valuable for family company challenges. In February 2012 Hodes published his first book, “Front-Line Heroes: How to Battle the Business Tsunami by Developing Performance-Oriented Cultures.” With a background in psychotherapy, Hodes also has an MBA from Northwestern University and a Masters in Clinical Social Work. For more information, e-mail bhodes@cmiteamwork.com, call 800.883.7995, or visit www.cmiteamwork.com

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