Lessons From The Cook-Off Challenge

One of the biggest challenges facing leaders who head Senior Management Teams (SMT) is on how to make them more cohesive – and into a high performing one. This challenge is all the more accentuated when either there is a new team being formed or there is churn in the existing team, leading to new members joining in.

From our experience of having worked with a varied spectrum of industries – and hence a varied mix of leaders, the journey is always unique for every team. However, there are some similarities and stages that are common to all such teams.

Performing Team

Here is the story of one such team – a senior management team of a US based retail giant. The company in recent times has been on a strong growth path – leading to new people being added, also at a frenetic pace. The workshop we were engaged for was for a group of 14 senior leaders, 5 of whom were new to the team. Each one of them was responsible for very large teams, running to hundreds of individuals.

The offsite was conceived as an opportunity for these 14 Titans to know and understand each other better, in the hope that this in turn would help the organization to work more smoothly. Through the course of two days, the team was taken through a series of experiential activities and experiences – all designed to help them in this journey.

We take our lens to one of the many such activities that was staged – The Cooking Challenge – and look at it through the eyes of Bruce Tuckman, the famous sports psychologist and his model for Team development. The Challenge was laid out early one morning – when the team was asked to cook a full course meal which had to include – a Starter, a Main dish and a Dessert.

The challenge was kicked off with the group of 14 being divided into 3 smaller teams. Each team was given a limited budget. All the resources available (which included a GPS with the location of the cooking site marked in it) were put through an auction process. The first job for the newly formed smaller teams was to prioritize their budgets, to procure an optimum amount of resources.

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As it happens generally during The Forming stage, this stage was marked by a lot of easy banter, fun and harmony between all the members. There was a lot of light hearted needling of each other and laughter too. One team ended up buying most of the cooking essentials, one ended up with most of the garnishing items and one team ended up buying the only available GPS.

Now that the stage was set for the team to move to the next stage, the hunky dory situation slowly began to change. While few members were quite open in sharing their resources & ideas, some chose to hide their plans, purchases & intentions. The “fun” activity was slowly metamorphosing into a competition with the resulting change in team dynamics too. The tension in the air was slowly increasing. Some challenging statements like, “We have all the salt available. How would you cook your meal?”, “Guys let us hide the sugar packet we’ve bought. We’ll use it later.”, “Sorry, don’t ask us for anything”, “ok, we will also see how you can complete your cooking without the oil”, began to be heard. The Storming stage was truly on.

But it was not for nothing that these people were now leading such large teams. In a very short while, the teams figured out that unless they collaborated with each other, none of them could be completely successful. The stage was set for The Norming. The teams broadly agreed to pool in all the resources they had. Then some perfect examples of the Norming process were displayed. “You give us some rice and take two eggs from us.” And reached at a level where you could hear statements like “Guys we’ve cooked some extra rice. You can use it if you want.”, “Guys if you want you can cook your food on our fire till we prepare ingredients for our next dish”, etc.

With all the limitations of time and resources there were a few apprehensions of success, when they got started. However, with the norming having happened, the teams seemed to be injected with a new found energy again. All teams perceived an equal chance of success – which ensured that all team members put their heart & soul to cook the delicacies. The result was: lip-smacking meals and yummy desserts. The icing on the cake was the Innovative ideas that the teams came up with to present the dishes to the judge – The Head chef of the resort. The team had completed the full circle of reaching The Performing Stage.

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Soon the scoring was completed – and a winning team was announced, with resulting celebrations too. But there was something very interesting happening at this stage. It was not just the winning team celebrating but the rest of the group too. Through this small journey of half a day, what started as 3 small teams had coalesced into One large Team. The experience of working through an ambiguous challenge and negotiating all the small differences, through setting norms by clear & open communication, seemed to infuse the team with a sense of freshness & happiness. Amidst lot of laughter, back slapping and sharing of experiences – the team reveled in its joint efforts and enjoyed the yummy food together.

Somewhere hidden amidst all that laughter, we hope the team learnt a few lessons too, which it would take back in its journey of becoming a High Performing Team at the workplace – which was:

  • Understanding that in any project – differences between individuals are bound to happen. Great teams find a way to work through these differences.
  • Differences can either deteriorate into squabbling or be resolved through a mature process of norming. Great teams exercise that choice.
  • As important as the cook is – so is the one tending the fire. Every member in a performing team is appreciated.
  • Success breeds success. The celebration, camaraderie and high that one success gives a team – feeds into its following challenges.

Becoming a great performing team is always a journey  – and never the result of a one-off experience like this one. However, pit stops like this one, help the team take a breather from their day-to-day pressures, to introspect on this important journey.

Have you thought of giving YOUR team an experience like this one? Do share your experience with us!

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