Over the past 18 years I have conducted a team building event called the Electronic Maze® with hundreds of companies and thousands of participants. Sometimes called the “Magic Carpet” the Electronic Maze is extraordinary, not because it is magic, but because of the team behaviors and emotional responses it elicits.
Those behaviors and emotional responses are surprising similar across a wide variety of groups: senior managers, line workers, middle management, cohesive teams, strangers, international audiences, men, women, and every group that we’ve ever done this with.
Those behaviors are also very insightful as to how we perceive the world, work with each other, and get things done.
The Maze works like this – between 10 and 25 participants gather around an 8 x 6 checkered carpet that is broken into 48 black and gray squares (like a checker board). Some of these squares “beep” when stepped on while others do not. The facilitator begins by arbitrarily splitting the group into two subgroups, one on each end of the carpet. The objective is then given:
Objective: To get everyone across the “maze” as quickly as possible via a non-beeping path with as few penalties as possible.
However there are some rules. For every rule broken, the facilitator will assess a penalty.
- Can move only to an adjacent square– forward, backwards, sideways, and diagonal
- Only one person on carpet at a time from each side
- Must keep path in your head – No marking the carpet or drawing it out
- No touching people on carpet
- After a person steps on a beeping square, they must retrace their exact path off of the carpet
- No talking – after a 2 minute strategy session to start the event
- Each side must determine a rotation for people to go across the maze
Over the years, five key learning’s that have surfaced from this (there are others, but these five are pretty universal). Here they are:
We have a compulsion to compete
When we begin the event, we separate the team into two halves and put them at opposite ends of the maze. We NEVER say that they are individual teams – yet 99% of the time, the two halves feel that they are competitors on different teams!
Obviously the drive to compete is very strong if this happens within seconds of being separated. There is a strong “in-group” vs. “out-group” make-up in our social being. Even when one or more of the team members ask “Hey can work together?” to which our reply is always “the objective is to get everyone across the maze” – teams still don’t work together – the rest of the group won’t buy-in to the cooperation argument!
This competitiveness is highlighted when team members meet up on the maze. One of the rules is that you cannot touch someone on the maze, so when they meet up, it usually results in a stare down. Similar to the old western shootouts, the two people stare at each other, waiting for the other one to blink.
My favorite story is doing this outside with a group of international managers in Orlando in 2002. When the two men met up in the middle of the maze, they looked at each other for a long time. Then one, in a defiant act, took out a cigarette, lit it, and stared down the other man, basically screaming “I WILL outlast you!” They stood there for about 4 minutes in a stand off – neither person moving.
Obviously, beating the competition was more important than achieving the objective.
How often do we end up competing with others in our organization (e.g., different departments, areas) or even in our own team (i.e., cliques) because we somehow assume that they are the competition or the “outgroup?” We need to be aware of our own tendency to group people into us and them and the issues that can cause.
We have an obsession with moving forward
The path through the maze requires that at a specific point people are required to take a step backwards in order to proceed. At this point in the maze, EVERY TEAM I’ve ever worked with has repeatedly stepped on one or more of the “beeping” squares that are in front of them.
Many teams, even after repeated failed attempts, cannot fathom that if they just step backwards they will ultimately move forward. They step on the same beeping squares over and over and over again. Sometimes this goes on for over 10 minutes – stepping on the same three or four squares, somehow thinking that they will magically not “beep” this time.
In fact, I’ve had teams get so frustrated that they throw away the path they already know works up to that point, and attempt to find a new way, convinced that the path they were on was a decoy path and that the true path forward must be elsewhere – and they try a different starting point. I’ve had some groups where I’ve literally had to tell them to step backwards – or we might have been standing there all day or the people just give up.
We too often get caught up in reaching the desired goal or outcome as quickly and as easily as possible. Sometimes, we need to step back and take a look at the big picture and realize, that the way to achieve our goal, might be a more roundabout way than we first imagined.
How easily we get discouraged or we are not rationale beings
People going through the maze definitely do not follow the mantra of Thomas Edison who said, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” In fact, they are very easily discouraged.
Rationally, there are 48 squares on the maze. Each square, beeping or non-beeping, gives you information. So if we were 100% rational beings, stepping on a beeping square just gives you more information to help you find the correct path.
The typical scenario is one in which the team is very helpful (i.e., pointing at squares, gathered around the maze in support) while the person on the maze is moving forward. However, once that person steps on a beeping square, the team members throw their hands up, give a collective sigh, and leave that person to retrace their path off of the maze on their own. The person on the maze looks dejected and feels like they have let the team down.
Now a team only gets a penalty when they don’t retrace their exact path off of the maze – there is no penalty for stepping on a beeping square while they are figuring out the path. Therefore you would think that people helping would focus on the path back after the first beeping square – but that doesn’t normally happen.
Do we respond to adversity with emotion or rational thought? Are there times when we face resistance and we “throw our hands up” and give in or do we rationally look at what happened and try to figure out how to learn from it? Lots of leadership authors talk about how we need to encourage people learn from their mistakes, but this requires that we think about things rationally, and we are emotional beings. To learn from our mistakes requires a lot of work and dedication.
The facilitator gives the participants their two minute strategy session and then calls for quiet. The teams begin the process of trying to figure out how to get across the maze. Typically, they start by assigning individual team members to rows. These row leaders are supposed to remember the “good” and “bad” squares for that row and lead people through.
Here is what happens.
They team sends the first person through. That person keeps going until they do step on a beeping square (which always happens relatively quickly) and then the next person goes. This strategy typically falls apart as soon as one of the people assigned to keep track of a row needs to take his or her turn on the maze. After they take their turn, they usually don’t return to their row. They get caught up in the game. People on the maze end up getting directions from everybody as they all point to different squares.
And then individuals, without prompting, take ownership of a part of the maze (not just a row). They become the “experts” for that section of the carpet and lead people through. Then somebody else takes over for their section of the maze. Thus, by the end, the strategy is to depend on a series of self-appointed experts that lead the team through.
Are their “experts” in your organization that lead, even though they are not in a leadership position? Do you tap into those experts and use them? Do you recognize those experts and try to build more of them?
Trust is delicate
At a point about 5 minutes into the event, I will start to help out a person on the maze. I will point to a non-beeping square. Often they are hesitant to trust me but often they trust me right away. However, once I gain their trust, pointing them to two or three correct squares, I point them to a beeping square. From that moment onward they never trust me again.
Here is the fun part…
From that point onward, I always give them the correct path. So now, the information that I give them would be beneficial and help them out immensely, but they don’t trust me and never use it. In fact, they go out of their way to not use it. I can almost guarantee that once I’ve broken trust, if I point to a good square, the team will not step there.
What are the things that you do that destroy trust? Do you not deliver on your promises? Do you find excuses for why things didn’t work? Do you say one thing and do another? While these may seem small, they are things that destroy trust. Once trust is destroyed, as seen above, it is very difficult to get it back.
These are just a few of the insights that this even provides. There are many more. The insights are also much more meaningful, because in the debrief of this event, the people who participated are the ones who make the insights and the connections.
It is amazing how powerful these personal insights can be.
During the debrief, groups start talking about how these concepts apply to their business. I’ve seen people address issues that they’ve had because they now had a language and shared experience to discuss it in a safe, non-confrontational manner. I’ve gone back to companies the next year and heard them use the analogies which have become embedded into their culture. It truly is a great event.