A Tale of Two Sessions

I attended this years excellent AYE conference in Phoenix. Powerpoint style presentations are not allowed at AYE; many session are instead based on simulation and role-playing led by an experienced facilitator. The two sessions I attended on the Wednesday remain in my thoughts. Don Gray led the morning session and Steve Smith led the afternoon session. The task in both sessions was broadly similar (sorting decks of cards), but the contrast between the two sessions could hardly have been greater.

Don added arbitrary time pressure as part of the game and the participants accepted it. Steve's exercise had no time pressure. Well actually that's not quite true. I think there was time pressure but Obie who played the role of Steve's project manager shielded the workers from it very effectively. The feeling of being rushed was palpable in Don's session, whereas a feeling of general calm pervaded Steve's. There was a noticeable difference in the noise levels!

Don's exercise was initially more or less impossible to complete because of some confusion and contradiction in the requirements (quite possibly deliberate). The requirements seemed to be in much greater state of flux and quite a few participants (me included) sensed this and asked the customers various questions. This didn't help. In Steve's exercise Obie again did an excellent job of keeping things simple for the customer and the workers by being the only point of contact between them.

In Steve's session Obie explicitly said to the workers that if they didn't have anything to do at some point that was ok, they should just step back, observe and try to see where they could help. They should try not to interfere. This helped to emphasize the primary importance of the team and the overall goal.

In Don's session some people sensed the chaos building up and tried to intervene individually to help. It didn't help. All it served to emphasize was individual action rather than team co-operation. In Steve's session there was never a sense of chaos and any time any problems arose the participants were generally much more willing to follow a direction for the good of the team. They may not have agreed with the direction but you don't have to agree with a direction to support it as if it were your own. Following can often be a powerful act of leadership.

There were roughly the same number of people participating in both sessions. However, in Don's session several people disengaged from the exercise precisely because it was so chaotic. They were experiencing real discomfort. In its own way this too was an act of leadership - by removing themselves from the game they created a much better chance for the smaller team to overcome the chaos.