Bowling a Turkey — The power of supportive teams
I’m not a great bowler, pretty average actually. But recently something strange, almost magical, happened when I was out bowling with a group of very supportive friends.
Let me tell you the tale of the Turkeys.
A group of friends are at a bowling alley celebrating my friend Lydias birthday. We were having beers and goofing around, I was pretty content with knocking a few pins down each time I threw the bowling ball down the lane. We were having a good time. The four bowlers on my lane got into the habit of cheering after each throw of the bowling ball, regardless of wether it was a good or bad score. As we did a lot of cheering and high-fives the atmosphere on our lane started to shift and weird things started to occur.
I, the below average bowler, managed to knock down all the bowling pins! STRIKE!!
Apparently, in bowling the points are based on two consecutive throws, so I got up to bowl again, I take aim, breath, and send the bowling ball down the lane. I see how it’s trajectory is all lined up with the little arrows marking the middle of the lane. It hits the pins…STRIKE! Again! Two in a row! I am beside myself! What is going on!? My points still arn’t tallied, I need to give it another shot. I aim, I breath, my arm swings back and the bowling ball is shooting straight down the alley. And to my utter amazement I have scored THREE STRIKES IN A ROW! We all cheer! The birthday girl informed me that three strikes in a row is called bowling a Turkey. I was thrilled!
You won’t be able to guess what happened next, Lydia who is part of the supportive cheering bowling team also bowls a Turkey! Then Vu gets up and bowls a goddamn Turkey! The forth member on our team, Jonny, is playing the best game of his life scoring several strikes. What is going on!? Three amateur bowlers got a Turkey each in the same game!? What was in those beers?
How we created a supportive team environment
When Google did their in depth study of how successful teams work the researchers found that psychological safety was the utmost important factor.
“Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”
When we feel that we are safe within a group we have more mental bandwidth to spend on creative problem solving rather than worrying what people think of us. We also don’t apply censorship to our ideas. So in any business environment we should strive for it, but how do we go about creating it?
When Harvard Business professor Amy Edmondson lists what everyone can do to create psychological safety she mentions three key behaviours:
- Frame the work as a learning problem rather than a execution problem.
- Acknowledge your fallibility, because everyone makes mistakes.
(Yes, even you)
- Be curious, ask a lot of questions.
So why did excessive cheering improve our bowling results?
The reason it worked is because we were acknowledging our fallibility. A bowling ball in the gutter got the same amount of cheering and high fives as a strike. By cheering for both success and failure everyone started to feel that it was ok and inevitable to fail sometimes, it wasn’t a big deal. This took away the need to spend energy trying to manage your social impression, because failure was ok and not something that would trigger teasing or insults. Thus enforcing a culture where trying is more important than great results. When you combine psychological safety with motivation great things really start to happen.
Applying Psychological Safety to your Design Workshop
Most meetings or workshops can (and will!) benefit from an injection of failure acknowledgement. This can be made into a great warm up exercise as a precursor to ideation. At Doberman we sometimes do a warmup called Woosh Boink, it’s a non-intuivive game where you get ample opportunity to practice failing.
- Woosh — Have the workshop participants standing in a circle, you will now start throwing an imaginary ball from person to person going clockwise. Whenever you pass the imaginary ball to the person standing next to you, you say WOOSH and mime throwing a ball.
- Boink — If you don’t want to accept the imaginary ball you can Boink it. This will change the direction of the ball and send it counter-clockwise. You Boink by balling your fists and raising them like a boxer in front of your face while exclaiming BOINK!
- Hey — To further complicate things you may also send the ball to anyone in the circle by calling out HEY and pointing at them. They will catch the ball and proceed with Wooshing.
- Cheer — Whenever somebody hesitates for too long or messes up everyone shouts HOORAY and gives them a second or two of heartfelt cheering. Thus enforcing that it’s ok to fail.
Make sure to keep a high pace so that you actually have a hard time remembering what to do, the purpose of the game is to practice failing in a safe environment.
I can guarantee that when you’ve done this for a few minutes the atmosphere in the room will be completely different. The ideas you come up with will most likely be brave, creative and leave you with the feeling of having bowled a turkey.
Bonus trivia: A list of consecutive strikes