Collaborative Activity # 1: The Group Juggle

Posted by jlubans on August 10, 2010

(This is the first of an occasional posting on group activities I have used in my workshops and in teaching. I hope that you will give them a try – maybe at your next staff development day - and let me know how it went.)

A game, the group juggle, can be played to show individuals how well they and a group can problem solve, among other learnings. The challenge is for them to “juggle” as a group with no balls - or other, perhaps more easily grasped, objects like stuffed soft toy animals - dropped and everyone touching the ball at least once. First comes the establishment of an “order” or “process” by which to accomplish the task. Usually this means setting up the routes for the ball (or “Beanie Baby” cat) to travel around the circle. For many groups not used to playing, this first step is characterized by confusion and uncertainty; occasionally some question the activity itself – what’s the point? Rarely does any group, small or large, immediately fire the ball back and forth and achieve an immediate solution. Obviously, in a game like this the traditional individual roles of department head or expert are obscured, even suspended. Indirectly, new relationships will develop, ones that may extend beyond the game. And, this activity serves as a forum for observing how ideas are brought up, treated and respected; who says what and how the group experiments to reach a solution.

As the second step I add the concept of “quality” by asking the group to define the term and its cost. Often the participants settle on quality as not dropping the ball or “Beanie Baby” in its course around the circle. The cost is usually starting over whenever the ball is dropped. The third step is “capacity.” How many balls or stuffed toys can the group handle within its quality and process definitions? When the group has reached 3 or 4 balls, I time the process and announce the time to the group.

With the announcement comes the fourth segment, the challenge for them to juggle productively. Usually the group elects to reduce the time they take in sending the balls around the group. Soon the balls are flying rapidly across and around the circle and; yes, the group does become more productive, often reducing by 25% to 50% the time they take. At this point, to the group’s disbelief, I ask them to improve their time by another 50%. Some would prefer to stop the game, believing that whatever they’ve achieved is good enough; that management (me) is once again asking for the impossible. Others accept the challenge – after all, it’s just a game, right? – and begin to innovate. After a few minutes to discuss ideas the group looks about for available resources (including gravity), exerts its creativity, and/or adjusts its shape or configuration within the limits of the game. More often than not, the group dramatically reduces its time, sometimes exceeding the stated goal and by working smarter does do more with existing resources than any in the group previously thought would be possible.

As the above should suggest, productivity in groups of people is a complicated notion that involves among other things the individual values of the participants, process, cost, quality and creative problem solving. When we are productive in the true sense of the word as I use it, we are being the best we can be.
For the debrief – the part when you ask the group to describe what juggling cats has to do with work – you might ask them to evaluate their group in writing, anonymously. I assure you will be surprised at the difference between a verbal debrief and the written. Use the written evaluations in some way, perhaps read them out loud after shuffling the anonymous pieces of paper to keep anonymity. Do not display the evaluations so the writing shows.

Ask the group to talk about what might have gone better in their group. What transfers are there to the work place. How did the quickest team get to be the quickest team? Did anyone dominate a group? Did anyone opt out of the game? Who collaborated and helped the group achieve a collective goal? Is one group’s copying another group’s best practice ethical?

In brief:
Juggle Challenge

Objective: “Juggle” the ball around circle as quickly as possible, the faster the better.
Directions:
All circle up.
First person (#1) throws the ball to someone across from them (person #2). Do not toss the ball to a person next to you. (See drawing).

Number 2 throws to someone across from them, person #3. Etc. Call out the name of the person to whom you are throwing. That may help set the routine.

Keep doing this until everyone in circle has caught and thrown the ball. Keep this pattern for all the challenges. You can reorganize or regroup, but not change the pattern. 1 throws to 2, 2 throws to 3, etc.

You’ll have a minute in between challenges to talk about new ways to do the juggle. Remember, everyone has to touch the ball in the sequence established in the first round.

Four challenges:
1. Set a baseline speed.
2. Improve on the baseline – Reorganize.
3. Faster?
4. Fastest?

BONUS: Balloon Juggle & Sort:
Balloons are invariably fun, so try out this balloon version of the group. I’d expect to learn quite a bit about the group and its dynamics, particularly when the group attempts to sort balloons by color while keeping all balloons aloft. Raise the level of difficulty: “no hands” and see what happens. Was the group’s behavior ethical? How about quality and productivity?

Each person blows up a balloon and tosses it into the air. The group must then keep all balloons in the air. Once they've got the hang of it, ask them to keep juggling the balloons, but to sort them into colors. To make it harder, add a rule or two: no hands. Depending on the fitness level of the group, tweak the rules: knees only, feet only, elbows only, all the while stressing safety, of course.




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