I could not believe it. A prestigious program in the city that is the financial capital of the world. A class in the respected MBA program at NYU Stern. About 40 students, working in teams of five or six people, huddling over… an egg!
The objective? Build a device using an assortment of objects that will keep the egg from breaking when it falls from the ceiling. Besides the objects there were only a few rules to the competition. A time constraint. The criteria by which the device is going to be measured (does it work? Is it creative? Is it beautiful?). And that’s about it. The results? Five totally different designs that worked in totally different ways.
The idea behind this exercise was to learn about teams and teamwork. I was assigned as an observer of one of the teams and noticed subtle issues of communications, roles and how ideas are developed. Yet, with all the issues relating to teams in the exercise, I feel the real lesson I learned is totally different. It is about rules.
I believe in the concept of outcome management. Not telling people how to do things and instead telling them what the desired outcome is and allowing them to find their own way to reach it. A manger, instead of trying to dictate to people how to do things and creating lists of rules, should concentrate instead on other, more important activities. Concentrating on the purpose, the process, taking hurdles out-of-the-way and on people’s need for autonomy and mastery seems to me as a better choice. Surrounding employees with rules is not a recipe for phenomenal results.
When I think about the “eggs class” this is exactly the lesson that comes out of it. Our professor could have come to class, with a recipe, a cookbook or a script of how to create the device, and we would still see the teams struggling and notice different ways in which they worked together to follow the rules in order to create the device. But instead, she came only with a limited number of rules pertaining to the process, not to the content. And what was the result? Five different device, each ingenious in its own way, that a single person could not have thought about. Granted, some of the devices were better, some were worse, but I am confident that if you take the best part of each device, you could create a super device.
We think we know what the best way to do things is. However, we are never smarter than a group of people. We might know the best way for us, but we can never know what the best way for others is. We can help, we can suggest, but ultimately, it’s about giving them the freedom to find their own ways.
What is the equivalent of this idea in your organization? Do you have rules about content or rules about process?
BTW, if you are interested to see some of the pictures from the event, here you go.