Team Building: A Need That Crosses Borders

I met recently with the executive director of a U.S. association that works with CEOs of Chinese companies as they seek to become listed on U.S. stock exchanges.

We discussed my law practice and my time in China teaching law at Tsinghua University, but he was most interested in my experience with Desert Survival, the classic teambuilding exercise. He said that a real need for this type of skill existed within Chinese companies.

Desert Survival is a simulation that involves survivors of a plane crash in the Sonoran Desert, in the southwestern U.S. The survivors (who are, of course, the attendees of the exercise) must rank, in order of importance to their survival, 15 items retrieved from the plane. The survivors each develop an individual ranking, and then a group ranking. Next, they learn the correct answers and rationale from an expert in this subject, score themselves based on their rankings and compare individual scores to the group score.

In theory, because of group interactions, communication and negotiation, the group should achieve a “better” score than any of its individual members. In discussing the scores and the process of achieving the group’s ranking, participants learn and are reminded of the synergies that teamwork can bring. In reality, however, and in extreme cases, the group score can actually be worse than the individual scores. In any event, a group still can learn from such an outcome.

I was happy to tell the director that in fact the program materials for Desert Survival are available in Chinese, but only in traditional Chinese. I was even happier, though, in connection with the meeting, to be able to reread the classic 1993 Harvard Business Review article, “The Discipline of Teams,” by Katzenbach and Smith.

Their most important point? Not every group is a “team.” They maintain that the hallmark of a team is both individual and mutual accountability—in other words, a common commitment. True teams, in their view, share a common purpose and a common commitment, unlike a mere work group, where the focus is more on individual results and individual work products.

Chinese companies need strong teams, particularly when those teams are multicultural. Nonetheless, no matter what the company’s nationality, teams will play an important role in their success. For this reason, learning how to get teams to function at their maximum effectiveness will be critical for all of us.

  • RACooke

    The Desert Survival Situation is available in English and many other languages through Human Synergistics (www.humansynergistics.com).

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