Want to know how your team really works? Set them a playful brief.

Bea Karol Burks
May 23, 2018 · 3 min read

Teams are living breathing beasts. They have their own traits and characteristics. A while ago I wanted to better understand how a team I worked in worked so I invited them over for dinner, with a twist.

Of all the team building, Myers-Briggs analysing, preference sharing exercises I’ve ever done (and I’ve done a fair few) this was the most revealing. It was enlightening and funny to see the latent characteristics that would often come through in work assignments borne out so clearly in a comedy brief.

We had cubes of aubergine, radishes and potatoes. There were ready-made cheese slices, a square block of cheddar and crackers. There were homemade vegan brownies and not homemade flapjacks. There were tiny square sandwiches. There was soup with homemade squares of pasta in it and there was stew — technically not square but we’ll get to that later.

We had plenty of delicious food, but more importantly, we had the chance to see how we all interpreted and approached the problem differently.

  • One of us got really into the detail, sticking rigidly to the brief and chopping food into tiny, square pieces
  • One had an immediate, great idea, then panicked it was too simple, and needed to be reassured and talked into bringing cheddar and crackers by the rest of the team
  • One really wanted to organise everyone to make sure we had all the bases covered — starters, mains and dessert
  • One stuck tightly to the brief and achieved maximum efficiency with shop-bought flapjacks cut into squares
  • Several of us interpreted the brief loosely — our newest member took photographic evidence of the square packaging for the ingredients she’d used to make a stew…
  • …And one ignored it altogether (no judgement there — as a senior manager it was her job to challenge and translate contracts)
  • We all massively over-delivered

As a design team, this playful challenge helped us to understand how we approach a brief together and gave us a way to talk about the instinctive reactions we had to interpreting and meeting the requirements.

It helped us to see that not only did we all approach the problem in different ways, we understood it differently to begin with.

I’ve since learnt that this is something systems coaching calls ‘revealing the system’ — a technique that helps people and teams see how they work together and understand not just the people in the team but the different roles that will always exist within a team.

Take for example my colleague who abandoned the brief. On the face of it that’s ‘dangerous’ or unruly behaviour. In reality, creative teams need someone to test and challenge constraints. If she hadn’t played that role, it would have been important that someone else in the team did. If several people in the team had played that role, I would have started to worry about creative discipline.

I’d recommend this kind of experiment as a way to interrogate behaviour in a playful and low-risk way. It doesn’t have to be over dinner, which doesn’t work for everyone. It could be some sort of poster or a brief to tell a (non-work related) story. As long as it’s loose enough to be interpreted in a range of ways, it should work.