When does the puppet-master become the puppet?   Not that often, probably, but that’s exactly what happened to me last month at the annual NASAGA conference.  (NASAGA, by the way, stands for the North American Simulation and Gaming Association — a “network of professionals dedicated to the design, implementation, and evaluation of games and simulations to improve learning results”.)

As a kick off to the conference, the organizers had an exciting surprise for us: an evening of treasure hunting around downtown Seattle.   Needless to say, I was psyched!  As a person who makes his living, at least in part, by creating and organizing team alignment treasure hunts, I never get to be a player on my events.   Surely, with 20 years’ experience as a hunt master, I would have the inside track on solving whatever tricky clues NASAGA might throw at me and my team.  We’re going to crush it!  It’ll be epic!

Not so fast.

For one thing, this hunt turns out to be set up as more of a “scavenger hunt” than a “treasure hunt” – less solving puzzles and clues, more visiting designated locations and navigating around with a GPS device.   As a paper-and-pen puzzle guy, technology isn’t necessarily my bailiwick.   Moreover, a lifetime Bay Area resident, I have VERY limited knowledge of Seattle geography.   Luckily (or unluckily) for us, we have a Seattleite on our team – Sophia – and this is where it gets interesting.

Our first clue leads us to a downtown plaza smack in the heart of the city. It’s 7:30 pm – dark, cold, but thankfully dry.   We take out our GPS trackers and follow directions in search of a fountain.   100 feet…90 feet…80 feet…70 feet… We know we’re getting close. Cathey informs us that her device is pointing to the top of some stairs.   My tracker agrees with her, but when we get to the top, our devices are now suggesting that we go in the opposite direction. And there’s no fountain in sight!     Argh!   But wait. Sophia says she knows where there’s a fountain. She used to have lunch in this plaza all the time. It’s just across the street.   The heck with the GPS; let’s go check it out.

Well, as it turns out, there’s no fountain across the street, although it looks like there might have been one at some point.   It’s dark; we’re freezing; and the clock is ticking. My teammate Jeannie argues that we should jump on over to Clue 10, two blocks to the north. Rick thinks we should head back to Clue 5, two blocks to the south. Cathey and I are lobbying for sticking with the GPS devices, which say we’re close to Clue 1. Sophia, after all, is sure the clue location must be somewhere around here, close to her fountain.   Boy are we in trouble!

Have you ever been in a situation like this, where everyone on your team has a different idea about what to do next, but there’s no process for arriving at a decision?   That is definitely what’s going on with my scavenger hunt team. We’ve blindly jumped into our project without taking the time to clarify roles and determine ground rules. No wonder we’ve gridlocked!

In his insightful book, Helping (2009), Edgar Schein urges teammates to take their time in answering 4 key questions, namely:

  • Who am I to be? What is my role in this group?
  • How much control/influence will I have in this group?
  • Will my goals/needs be met in this group?
  • What will be the level of intimacy in this group?

Fantastic questions – and yet, how seldom do we take time to explore these issues before jumping into fray?!!

Schein suggests that all team trust relationships are essentially about equity.   If you ask for help, you are essentially “one down” in the equation and it’s up to the helper to respect his/her temporary status rise and not take advantage of it.   Schein defines effective teamwork as follows:

A condition in which “each member helps the others by performing his or her role appropriately so that equity is felt by all and mutual trust remains high even when performance pressures are great.”

As it turns out for our Seattle treasure hunt, we actually COULD have taken the time to explore roles and mutual needs before the activity – we had 40 whole minutes of togetherness on the light rail, traveling into town from our hotel.   Did we use it wisely?   Nope. Like many work teams, we leapt right into strategy and tactics without giving nary a thought to even the most practical considerations, such as:   What jobs should we each take on?   Should we lean on the GPS or on local knowledge?   How will we make our decisions when there’s a difference of opinion?   How long should we spend on a clue before giving up and moving on?   How fast should we walk?   Etc.

So how did the hunt eventually play out?  Well, we didn’t win, okay. We came in last. So be it. But we did experience “success” in the form of an intervention.   During our gridlock at the plaza, I finally pulled my team together and said, with no little exasperation, “Look, we have people pushing for this and people pushing for that, and it’s pulling us apart at the seams.   Can we PLEASE just decide on a process, whether it’s based on using the tech or ignoring it.   What can we all agree on that will get us to the final location on time with at least SOME points?!!”

Was it an elegant process discussion? Hardly.  But it did the trick. We all agreed to ditch the GPS trackers and draw on Sophia’s local knowledge.   And we decided, as a team, to point ourselves in the direction of the Irish Bar which was hosting the after-party.   If we couldn’t be winners, at least we wouldn’t be late.

Equity was preserved and we were left ready to hunt another day.