Creative Learning Experiences via The Electric Maze

Posted on Sunday, January 16, 2011 in Creative Teambuilding

electric mazeFifteen mayors and council members are gathered around a 6-foot-by-9-foot, checkerboard-patterned carpet. No one is talking. The men and women use hand signals to communicate to a team member who tentatively steps from a square in the carpet’s first row to an adjacent square, looking at his teammates for direction and support. His team members gesture and point. What is going on here?

The group is searching for a path through the Electric Maze, an experience-based training and development (EBTD) activity. As with most EBTD activities, the Electric Maze can be adapted to different goals. In this case, the Electric Maze is being used to address the New Mexico Municipal League’s values of teamwork, trust, openness, strategic thinking, and support. After the Electric Maze, the team members will evaluate their performance by reflecting on how their behaviors aligned with the Municipal League’s values.

But for now the group is challenged to find a path through the Electric Maze. The facilitator has told the group that while there is one continuous path, the Electric Maze also has squares that beep, signaling that the team is off the path. After five minutes of planning, strategic thinking, and an open exchange of ideas, the team is no longer allowed to communicate verbally, except during three minutes of meeting time.

Although from different municipalities, the mayors and council members’ role is to act as one governing body. The team’s goal is to get everyone to the other end of the Electric Maze in 20 minutes or less. An on-time completion is rewarded with a “million dollar” increase to their municipal budget.

One at a time, team members step out onto the carpet and seek to extend the group’s forward progress through the Electric Maze. Since the territory is unknown when the activity begins, first-time beeps are essential and valuable information. The entire team (governing body) loses money off the budget increase anytime anyone steps on a beep that has previously been discovered. The team’s success depends upon quickly assimilating the emerging information into a collective intelligence of the whole system. Similar to any maze, the Electric Maze challenge has diagonal moves, sideways moves, forward moves, and backward moves. Similar to municipal governing, the Electric Maze has box canyons, dead ends, and confusion points.

Three minutes into the activity and despite the five minutes of planning, the team is rattled. Its original strategy is not working. Some individuals hesitate at the end of the discovered, safe path, afraid to take the next step and hit a beep, even though to do so quickly would be new, valuable information. This costs the group precious time. Some group members cannot understand the group’s communication signals and hit beeps that have been previously discovered. This too costs the group money. Losing time and money, the group is struggling. The facilitator had told the group that once they start the activity, they may talk only during meetings which are agreed upon by everybody raising their hands.

Everyone raises his or her hand. The participants form a circle and talk about what is not working. Some group members speak with frustration about the confusing meaning of the hand signals. Everyone shares ideas about how to improve their communication system. Everyone listens attentively and respectfully and behaves in alignment with the Municipal League’s values. The group revises their system so it is simple to understand: one clap means step on the square, two claps mean do not.

While the group is having its meeting, it would be instructive to examine briefly the research which addresses the importance of organizational values and the use of EBTD as a potential means to support those values at the individual and team levels. Certainly since the publication of Kotter and Heskett’s Corporate Culture and Performance (1992), Collins and Porras’ Built to Last (2002), and Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge (2002), there has been considerable interest in the importance of values to organizational success. Kotter and Heskett’s research found a significant relationship between culture and performance when the organization emphasized the “right” values—values that were critical to success in a particular industry. Collins and Porras’ research indicated that all enduring great companies have a core ideology, which is comprised of core organizational values. Kouzes and Posner’s research indicated that firms with a strong corporate culture based on a foundation of shared values outperform other firms. Therefore, having and behaving in alignment with strong, clear values can become a source of an organization’s competitive advantage. A key question then is as follows: How can an organization create and sustain organizational values? In response to this question, there are at least two prominent camps of thought, represented by Collins and Porras who appear to advocate a “top-down” approach and by Kouzes and Posner who appear to advocate a “bottom-up” approach. Collins and Porras proposed that the organization’s leaders determine three to six core organizational values and get people in the organization who will abide by those values. Kouzes and Posner proposed that the employees must participate in the process of creating shared values. “Unity is forged, not forced” (Kouzes & Posner, 2002, p. 83).

Regardless of the approach, EBTD has the potential to support top-down, bottom-up, core, or shared values. In the example given, the mayors and council members voluntarily chose to attend the Municipal League’s program. Presumably they knew what they were getting into by signing up for it and by exposing themselves to the Municipal League’s values. The EBTD activities, which were included in the three-day program, were all adapted to support the Municipal League’s values.  Later in this blog, to demonstrate the flexibility of EBTD, I will give an example of using the Electric Maze with a team of employees whose leadership required that they attend a program to address a change in their organization’s values.

One basic concept in the field of EBTD is to nurture opportunities for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values (Luckman, 1997). People are naturally inclined to want to become more aware of and act on their values. Sometimes, opportunities do not take place in the domain of the familiar. Sometimes, people must step into the unknown. It requires something novel and stepping off the end of what one knows, just like in the Electric Maze.

Back in the room, the group is progressing through the activity. After the meeting, the group is working more smoothly. Occasionally a beep in known territory costs the group money, but increasingly, setbacks are rare. After 15 minutes, the first person is through the Electric Maze amid wild applause. The rest of the team follows the known path and crosses the Electric Maze. The last participant, who has bad knees and a bad hip, struggles to walk across the Electric Maze’s small squares. A teammate reaches out a hand for him to hold and supportively helps him across.

Following the genuine celebration after the last participant crosses, as much for the spontaneous display of support as for completing the task, the group surrounds the Electric Maze to analyze their results according to the criteria of values. What was it like to be part of this team? What difference did support make? What behaviors did you demonstrate that you can apply to your day-to-day running of municipal government?

Unlike a classroom discussion about values, the participants in the Electric Maze have just practiced these values. Their behaviors aligned with them. Rather than reading a book, watching a video, or listening to a presentation on the importance of values, the participants have just experienced them. Unlike traditional learning, the participants have had a direct experience, which has been a shared experience of the values. These are the participants’ and the team’s lessons, not the facilitator’s. The facilitator’s job has been to provide activities that address the values and ask the questions that get the participants to think about their values and behaviors.

As mentioned previously, EBTD activities have a flexibility that gives them enormous potential as a tool to support organizational values at the individual and team levels. In a second example, the Electric Maze was adapted to address an insurance company’s value of collaboration. Senior management wanted to double the company’s sales in five years. To do so, their insurance salespeople could not just sell more insurance to either new or existing customers. They would have to collaborate with their peers, leverage their internal human resources and knowledge, and offer new services such as consulting.

The salespeople were initially resistant. They were used to working independently and were financially well rewarded for their independent productivity. The senior leaders decided to hold a retreat at which the salespeople would participate in EBTD activities that focused on collaboration.

In the room at the retreat, the atmosphere of resistance was palpable. Many of the salespeople were “prisoners,” people who did not want to be there. During the first activity, the Electric Maze, the facilitator asked the 16 salespeople to divide into two equal sub-groups (teams) and to stand at opposite ends of the Electric Maze. The major difference between this variation of the Electric Maze and the one that the municipal officials did is that each team worked from its own end to solve the Electric Maze and had to get across to the other end. The facilitator left it open so that the two teams could either attempt to collaborate or work against each other as opposing forces going in opposite directions.

The facilitator assumed a hands-off persona in the first round, which lasted 15 minutes. The two teams repelled from collaborating in the activity. A not-so-subtle competitive dynamic kept each team separated during the strategic planning and discussion time and in exploring the path through the Electric Maze. The teams literally bumped up against each other and impeded each other’s progress. Additionally, they ran out of time to complete the activity. In between rounds the facilitator held a discussion with the entire group and had them think through the behaviors that got in the way of successfully completing the activity. The facilitator challenged the group to discover the assumptions and accompanying behaviors that created the results that were achieved. The discussion focused on how the two sub-groups interpreted the situation as competitive, rather than looking for ways to work together, to leverage resources, and achieve a common goal. During a second round of 15 minutes, the facilitator was a more active and supportive coach of the teams and openly encouraged collaborative behaviors. The two sub-groups successfully completed the activity with a new path in 10 minutes.

Electric Maze Image: Interel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *