Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Leadership experiential learning exercises

Building leadership teams

Martha McCormick from the RPI Archer Student Leadership Development Center coordinated these interactive team-building experiences:

  • small group ice-breaking exercise in which each group member shares the unique story behind one's name.

  • activity on creating a virtual human map of the United States based on where each person considers home.

  • a "helium hoop" exercise involving teams of 10 or more people lowering a hula hoop to the ground while only touching it with one index finger. An astute participant used this activity as a metaphor to teamwork, expressing that "progress is slow and incremental but mistakes have a huge impact."

  • "teams by any other name metaphors" activity expressing ways in which common nouns, like river, orchestra and garden, can be analogous to teamwork.

Collectively, the exercises helped workshop participants to better appreciate the power of teams, especially when practicing clear communication and active listening.

This session was designed from PKAL's previous experience with experiential learning for leaders.

Zin Obelisk task exercise

The Zin Obelisk exercise emphasizes how small groups can work together in "utilizing available resources:"

  • Each group is assigned the same task (although the groups don't know it at the time).

  • The groups are then given an envelope with instructions and multiple pieces of paper, which are distributed to the members, being careful that no one sees the information on another's papers.

  • Each group tries to determine which day of the week an obelisk was built - given only the information on the pieces of paper, one writing implement, and one piece of writing paper - in a 20-minute period of time. (The information on the pieces of paper include useful and unimportant pieces of information. The units of measure are "made-up" words, such as "ponks" and "slibs" for units of time related to days, and "mermaid day" and "daydoldrum" for days of the week.)

  • After the 20 minutes, each group reports on how they reached their answer and what occurred during the process. (For answers to the exercise, click here.)

  • Then, each group reflects on the meaning of the exercise in response to the "workings of teams."

At RPI, most of the groups approached the task in similar ways, sorting out irrelevant information on the one hand and gathering common information on the other to determine the made-up units and then to piece together the information. In response, one group nonchalantly mentioned the use of a calculator, which was considered unfair (in a joking manner) by the other groups. Another group tried to use Excel, and one group got confused, primarily due to the loud consumption of an apple, claimed a group member. Most of the groups arrived at the correct answer.

Someone commented that all members of a team were needed to arrive at the solution. Everyone had something pertinent to contribute. If someone withheld information, even if they didn't realize it (by deeming it irrelevant), the team wouldn't be able to solve the problem. Someone pointed out the importance of listening, even when you are fixated on your own information. Most people felt that the language used was not an impediment, as everyone sorted the meaning of the words together and then all had the same understanding.

This, however, is not often the case in a team, especially when it is interdisciplinary. In fact, when people hear familiar words often used by a colleague, they may dismiss them. Someone commented that we need to try to avoid the filtering of others' opinions.