APHRC Teams Do the "Impossible"
By Peterrock Muriuki, Research Assistant
How many times have we heard those words or even uttered them in response to a request made to us by someone. It could be a supervisor asking you to deliver some outcome by a certain date, or even write a proposal or perform some other duties that you think cannot be achieved by the given timelines. I have heard these words often but the most notable was on July 4th , 2012 when the Health Challenges and Systems Program of the African Population & Health Research Center held its annual team building event at the serene and tranquil gardens of Oak Place Conference Center in Kiambu.
The retreat facilitators from MMC Africa, came prepared to help the team members have fun and combine the fun with lessons we could apply to the workplace. To get to the context of when I heard the words, “I swear it is not possible”, two teams of equal number and Intelligent Quotient (IQ) were given a small square board measuring about 5” by 5” with a nail hammered at the middle and twelve 5-inch nails, which were meant to be balanced on the one nail standing in the middle of the board. Immediately some of the team members saw the task at hand and exclaimed out loud, “it’s not possible”, “it can’t be done” but the most hilarious was “I swear, it can’t be done!”.
It is at that moment I realized that some people have a rather simple way of classifying tasks, either it can be done, or it can’t be done at the first instance of being presented with the challenge. As it turned out, it was not just impossible but very doable. One team managed to balance the 12 nails on the one nail and the other team learned from the first team how to do it and bingo! They did it! I don’t have to tell you that most of the team members who had thought that it was not possible were members of the second team. Another interesting thing I observed was that it takes one person to point out the weaknesses or rather shortcomings of another person. It is very hard for one to admit their weaknesses and that’s why it takes another person to point it out to them. Psychologists have pointed out this phenomenon as a character of human beings who desire consistency in their actions and who would want to justify everything they do, not on the terms of their weaknesses per se, but as failures of other people. Most times driven by this desire for consistency we blame other people for our failures.
In another exercise, we were each given a platform to talk briefly about ourselves, highlighting what we like about ourselves and what we don’t like about ourselves. Needless to say, the majority had more to say about what they like about themselves than what they don’t like about themselves. I am sure the facilitators expected this and therefore they armed each person with a writing pad and one was supposed to write draw three columns on the pad. One column one was to write the names of each participant, the second column their strengths and on the third column, their weaknesses. It is here that the river burst its banks. After the analysis was complete the facilitators took the pads and meticulously went through all of them reading what had been written about each person. One was then supposed to note his/her strengths and weaknesses as presented by those who work most closely with them, since they spend up to forty hours together each week.
One more notable feature of the team building event was how colleagues can utilize team work to deliver results. The team was again divided into two and given a task of balancing a 500ml bottle full of water upright on a bucket lid with about six strings attached and move the two items balanced in the air to a distance of about 50 meters without dropping the bottle. Once on the other end they were meant to pick another package largely similar to the first one and transport it the same distance without dropping it. To say this was challenging is an understatement may be perplexing or thought-provoking might be more like it, however in the end team work prevailed and the tasks were accomplished despite several failed start-ups.
Finally there are some key lessons that I picked out:
1. Everything is possible! Isn’t it Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa who said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done?” Sample this; Walt Disney said, “it’s kind of fun to do the impossible” and Napoleon Bonaparte capped it all when he said, “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools” If you believe you can, you can, if you believe you can’t you’re probably right.
2. Team Work is key! In work place interactions working together is a vital ingredient at achieving the preferred outcomes. Unity is strength.
3. Improve on your strengths as you work on your weaknesses: It is universal, no human being is perfect. The best way to develop an all-rounded individual is to improve on the areas where we score highly while working on reducing our short comings. Who better to point out our weaknesses than with those people who we spend most of our time interacting with?
4. Fun and lessons are not mutually exclusive: As demonstrated during the team building event, fun and lessons are not mutually exclusive. It is kind of funny to have fun and learn at the same time but as No. 1 lesson attests, everything is possible.
5. A conducive environment is a pre-requisite: if one is planning to hold a retreat or a team building event the place you choose can make the difference between success of the event, near success or utter failure. Ensure that the venue is spacious based on the number of expected participants, a balanced diet should be provided and enough water for replenishment.
6. “All work with no play makes Jack and Jill dull kids”: Working all year in and all year out can guarantee an employer consistent dismal outcomes from his/her employees. It is vitally important to allow the employees time out on retreats, team building events, end of year parties just to have fun and bond. This will result into a more vibrant workforce that is motivated to achieve the highest potential!
7. Retreats and Team Building events have immense health benefits: Due to the exercises and challenging events involved, team members in these kinds of events, harvest several physical and mental health benefits including better blood sugar control, weight reduction, and avoidance of obesity and to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Mental health benefits include being able to think critically and evaluate situations and search for quick solutions. In fact, this is a cost efficient way of ensuring that as an employer, you reduce the sick-off days of your employees and thereby increasing productivity.