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Creating Accountable Teams, a Demonstrable Exercise

Was shown a fantastic exercise to try with teams that demonstrates simple and effective methods for self-motivating them and giving them the structure to excel. I run through it and the key lessons learned.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a class at UW-Milwaukee about creating accountable teams. The session by far exceeded my expectations, and the number of useful, and actionable things, that I got out of it was great. But over the course of the day, there is one part of the class that stands out in my mind that for me encapsulated the ideas all within a short exercise. And for fun, I’m going to run through what the teacher did, why it worked so well, and what was learned from it.


The teacher, let’s call him Bob, asked for 7 volunteers from the group, and since I knew it had tennis balls involved (the name kind of gave it away…and just maybe the fact he was holding 4 tennis balls), I jumped up to do it. Bob asked us to gather in a circle, not including him, and gave one of the tennis balls to someone in the circle. Kicking it off he said, “Ok, what we’re going to do here is make a process, pass the ball to someone in the circle.” The woman tossed it over to someone else, “Great, now remember who you passed it to,” he continued, turning to the person now holding the ball to add, “pass it to someone who hasn’t had it yet and keep doing that, each remember who passed it to you and who you’re passing it to. The last person in the chain should be the one who started it.” Great, we did it, passing the ball to each person, always seeming to pass directly across the circle. Now that we passed the ball to everyone, it back in the first person’s hands, Bob told everyone, “Great – now try to remember that sequence and do it again.”

Unsurprisingly, with only one ball we pulled it off, albeit a few people dropped a pass here or there. Just to confirm we had it down, Bob had us go once more. Next, he turned to the starting girl, “That was good guys,” and reaching over to grab the remaining three balls, “now let’s do four at once.” Before we started he added, “Just to set some ground rules you must follow the order, and each person must touch each ball.”


This time it was a bit harder, balls were crisscrossing in the middle constantly, and a lot of us weren’t sure where to be looking. Do we pay attention to the person who is throwing to us, or pay attention to the person we’re throwing to in order to make a great pass? Our first attempt ended with a lot of drops, but we eventually got through it – no pressure. For fun, Bob had us go through it one more time; inevitably this time we pulled it off a little better. “Look at you guys, handling all four,” Bob said. Taking a quick look at his phone, he added, “I timed that last one, you guys got 18.76 seconds, not bad.” He went over and wrote it up on the board, “Ok, let’s go again, remember, you must follow the order, and each person must touch every ball”

We kept at this for a few times, continuing the cycle: we’d follow the process we set up, trying to get faster each time for fun, Bob would write the time up on the board, and remind us that we must follow the order and need to touch every ball. People were visibly tensing in preparation trying to go faster, focusing on the person who was passing it to them so they wouldn’t miss the catch and throwing the ball a little faster. After about 7 tries of this our board looked as so:

  • 18.76
  • 17.12
  • 15.64
  • 14.89
  • 14.76
  • 15.54
  • 16.23

Hmmm, it looks like we go pretty good, but then we were slowly starting to get worse, not able to hit our top mark again. Bob kept having us try it, but then one of the other volunteers asked, “Do we need to stand this far apart? Can we move closer?” He looked over towards Bob for approval, Bob smiled and responded, “Remember, you must follow the order, and each person must touch each ball.”

Taking that as all clear, we moved in closer and passed the balls around again. 12.24 seconds, we beat our record and without taking a break we jumped in to try again, this time 11.10 seconds. We were improving, but the world had just opened up to us, we could improve this a lot. Someone spoke up, “Why don’t we just arrange ourselves in order instead of staying all scattered?” Oh…duh, ok, let’s move and go again…5.67 seconds. Damn, that was good, but we could do better than that. We gave it another shot, 4.89 seconds. One more time then…4.56 seconds. At that point, it seemed like we’d already maxed out our current method. Another person jumped in, “What if we just touched them all simultaneously?” People nodded and we stacked our hands on top of the balls in order. On go, each person subsequently pulled their hand out. Our result: 2.75 seconds. Just for good measure, we tried again: 2.65 seconds.

At this point Bob was smiling, “Want to know what the best time I ever got was?” We all nodded and he continued, “quarter of a second.” We didn’t believe it, people were saying, “No way”, “That’s not possible”, etc. But in the back of our minds we all were wondering, not if it was possible, but how they did it. There had to be a secret, and we started throwing ideas out. Each one being countered by logic within the team, “No, if we did that it just wouldn’t move fast enough to get to a quarter of a second.” We kept talking through ideas, considering our options on what might work out, ultimately we were stumped. Bob jumped in, “Ok, ok, I’ll give you guys a hint,” and he grabbed all four balls and held them in a line. It got us thinking, but none of our ideas were making sense to get down to a quarter of a second. We could get it to a second or so, but a quarter of a second? No way.

Eventually Bob presented the solution to us: he told us to line up in order, each with a hand stretched out and thumbs pointed up. He grabbed all four balls, held them in a line, and swept them across our thumbs. Duh…it was so fast, no wonder they got 0.25 seconds, it was so fast that it’d be hard to accurately measure as a human. With the exercise finished, and the secrets revealed, we went back to discuss what just happened.

Let’s step through what happened in the exercise and reveal the brilliance of it then I’ll summarize the main lessons this exercise gave us:

In the beginning, the 7 of us were set up as a team, and given the ability to create a process to hand the balls off to each person. We had the chance to try it out a couple times before Bob, our ‘team leader’, loaded us up with things to go through the process (the extra balls). After a couple times we got the numerous pieces down and we began working as a team. Silently, and without telling us, Bob began to measure our performance in one of the runs, only telling us afterward what the results were. He never judged us on the results, just gave the metrics to us. Once we had the times in mind, we quickly started to see whether we could improve, each time getting more focused and doing the same method a little bit better each time. Bob never once acted differently when we had a run that ended worse than the previous. Even when we had three successive runs, each worse than the previous, Bob just kept reminding us of the rules. To us on the team, we didn’t need somebody there to tell us we were under performing, it was right there on the board, we knew we could do better.

(I find this a bit funny, but it’s worth noting that passing the ball presented an obvious and perfect metaphor, inevitably someone would drop the ball using the method we were, and that slowed our times down.)

Then, when one of the members spoke up to ask about moving closer, it revealed a hidden lesson with the exercise. Remember what Bob was saying to us? “Each person must touch every ball, and you must follow the order.” That was it, and yet the whole group assumed the structure presented to us in the beginning were the rules. Yet still, there’s one more layer here; Bob didn’t get upset that we altered the method. He didn’t jump back and say, “No.” Bob had already established all of his needs, and they were simple: everyone must touch each ball, and we must follow the order. By not getting upset, our team had the realization that the game was whatever we make it to be, the invisible bonds were non-existent.

Bob watched us alter this process, and quickly improve our times in large strides. After we got the process to the point where we were doing it nearly 10x faster than our first attempt, he presented us with some new information: someone had been able to get it down to 0.25 seconds. That gap seemed insurmountable, and as a team, we froze to consider our options. Anything that wouldn’t guarantee us that milestone wasn’t worth trying. The team’s performance completely stopped rather than continue to improve.

There’s one last hidden lesson to be learned here (I know right? Another one?!). Once the team had the metrics in front of them, everyone started to participate. Social boundaries dissolved, no one didn’t want to be the one guy who wasn’t a team player. Everyone said yes to any suggestion, because no matter what, it was worth trying.

So what are the takeaways here?

  • As a team leader, if you want your team to take ownership over an issue, give the team some basic needs and let them establish a process. Make sure you’re clear about those needs, because the team is inevitably going to think there are some hidden boundaries (as evidenced by our team not altering the process). When the team eventually runs into those boundaries and tries to overstep them, in other words, plays the game differently then you initially set them up with, let them – keep in mind your needs (everyone touches each ball and it follows the order)! If you need to step in and shut down something the team was doing, you didn’t realize you had other needs.
  • Provide the team some metrics, but don’t force it down their throat. Pick a metric the team actually can influence, and just present it to them. They’ll work out the implications of it and motivate themselves, pushing to make that metric the best it can. Bob made a great point of not acting on individual data points; they’re worthless by themselves. Even three or four metrics weren’t valuable. Keep in mind that a trend only truly emerges over a period of time, which means you need lots of data points! By not reacting to points, we felt comfortable experimenting with ideas, knowing that a step in the wrong direction would be a lesson learned that would lead us down a better path.
  • Don’t set goals! Weirdly enough a goal only leads to let down and ends up freezing the team from acting. Remember, when Bob said someone had gotten to 0.25 seconds, everyone on the team stopped trying things and started talking. The response to everything was, “no that won’t work,” and the atmosphere became one of obstruction. As a team leader, if you want your team to actively improve, give them the freedom and information to try knew things and iterate. (Note: Imagine you told your staff who has consistently sold 250 units/month that you wanted them to hit 500/month. What happens in the next month when they don’t hit that? Even worse is if they eventually did hit it. What now? New goal – 750 units! How would that feel for them?)

Keep these thoughts in mind when you’re trying to build a team. If you want them to truly take ownership over the problem, let them take control over the situation and provide them the tools to act on it! Also, if you want to try this exercise out with your own team, I’d highly recommend it, it’s a lot of fun and the lessons become so obvious when you partake in it.

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