Kindergarten graduate versus Biz School graduate

Last week we had interesting program looking at creating a matrix team strategy and synergy.  Since it was a PCL program it got strong reviews, not as high as some of our recent PCL programs but well above the cut-off to measure success and failure.

We took an unconventional approach to synergy the second day by focusing on beliefs that limit individuals from working their best in any team environment.  Since finishing my NLP cert a few years ago there is a stronger presence of belief and limiting belief material in my training and facilitation material.  I like to think this sets us apart from other trainers and consultants, but truthfully there are a number of us out their who focus a lot of their intellectual power on beliefs.  One prime example of this Chris Barclay over at who prolifically covers beliefs and their impact.

We kicked off the synergy/beliefs session with one of my favorite new activities, the Marshmallow Challenge.  If you want to learn more about the Marshmallow Challenge check it out over at  To be fair Sino Associates Partner Ben Massen turned my onto this one and it has quickly become a staple of workshops.  So thanks Ben!

I decided to try something a little different with the front-load this time around.  Prior to the activity I had everyone work out some basic beliefs:

  1. Will your team succeed or fail?  Why?  How do you know this is true?
  2. Of the groups listed below which group usually performs poorly?  Why?  If this is true what else would you expect to be true?
  3. Which group usually performs well?  Why?  If this is true what else would you expect to be true?

List – Recent Business School Students Grads, Lawyers, Recent Kindergarten School Grads, CEOs, CEOs with Admin/HR Executives

For those of you who are Marshmallow Challenge purists you will notice that I left architects/engineers of the list.  Seems a little too easy on the “who will perform well” list for the sake of this thinking activity.

For those of you new to the Marshmallow Challenge I’ll give you the overview.  Teams of 4 have 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure possible with one marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, one meter of masking tape, and one meter of string.  I am a bit liberal with supplies as the US instructions are designed for 1 yard rather than meter, but no one here knows what the hell a yard is.  The Marshmallow must be on top and the structure must be standing without assistance at 18 minutes.

Sounds easy enough right?  After all the success rate is around 50% globally (anecdotally in China I have done this with now with about 300 people and the success rate is probably about 40%)  and the average height is about 20 inches (51 centimeters for you non-Americans).  So the odds of success are pretty good right?

Here is where things get tricky.  PCL is hands down one of the best operating companies I have seen in China.  Their success rate for this activity with four teams participating was only 25%  Their highest structure (I let two team make quick fixes and break their towers to manageable heights giving them a post-project success rate of 75%) about 18 inches.  So what went wrong?

Let’s back up a step and see who PCL teams thought would perform best and why.  Teams were split among three group of potential under-performers, Lawyers, CEOs, and Kindergarten Students.  CEOs were thought to be too egotistical to perform well.  Lawyers were suggested to be too verbose and wordy.  The arguments against the Kindergarten kids were a laundry list long including, poor team skills, poor focus, a tendency to play too much, and that Chinese Kindergarten students would be too passive to succeed at a western designed activity.  I can’t vouch for the difference between US and Chinese kindergarten student but all my instincts scream to me that the last argument is inherently faulty.

Among the teams that they identified as successful the Biz School Students and Kindergarten Kids got the two highest groups.  Kindergarten kids this time got high marks for creativity and low egos.  Biz school students were praised for planning style, team skills, (surely this is taught biz school right?)  and of course creative problem solving.

So what group do you think does best?

According to the official website the top performers are thankfully Architects and Engineers.  For all the right reasons, they generally have the specialized skills to make it work and understand the physics of the challenge.  After that… CEOs with their Executive Admins who are credited with smoothing over egos and having superb facilitation skills.  It’s nice to see that facilitation skills count for something.

Here, of course, it were it gets interesting.  Somehow Kindergarten student snuck into third place with an average height of nearly 30 inches!  Surprised?  Judging by the exclamations from a couple people in the workshop they were and they weren’t ready to buy-into the data I was sharing.

Who performs poorly?  Well at the bottom of the heap are the Biz School students who average a paltry 10 inches and the lawyers who come in about 15 inches.

So what is it that separates B-School grads and Kindergarten students?  If you said that it boils down to planning, or more appropriately the lack of you would be right.  On the other side if you said Kindergarten students were  better at execution you would probably also be right.

B-School graduates (and many companies in China who seek their best and brightest with B-school backgrounds) love making one masterfully crafted plan that leads to one big pay off moment.  In MC terms this is waiting until the last minute to put the Marshmallow on top and not having time fix the tower or at best knocking down half its height before time runs out and the tower breaks apart.  When it works people celebrate when it fails (and it does 60% of the time if not more) people talk about they didn’t have the skills to pull it off.

Ironically information shows us that people do have these skills but between going to work in B-school theory dominated workplaces and when they were 5 or 6 years old they forgot them.  Kindergarten students inherently prototype.  They put the marshmallow on top at 3 or 4 minutes in and  see if it works.  They then build up from bellow to get it as high as possible, continuously testing for success.

Who knew kids were so damn clever?

What struck me here was that the feedback I gave them was based on data collected.  No theory involved.  I had one person basically shout out that this simply wasn’t possible.  It isn’t and won’t be the first time that data and beliefs clash.

We went through the rest of the day exploring how our beliefs and values create rules for us to be successful or unsuccessful.  The human brain is economical and our basic beliefs keep us from being paralyzed by indecision and make sure we get through the list of tasks we have to face from day to day.

For this group the challenge is and will continue to be how their beliefs will impact their success as a team that is basically extra credit work at this point.  It will be interesting to see what they do with the tools we shared with them.  I’ll keep the results updated here periodically.

A Flash of Inspiration

I am arriving to the party late, again.  Figuratively this time, as I have returned to blogging after nearly a 6 year hiatus that started with all of the difficulty using my livejournal account in China.

So what brought me back to this medium of communication?  I had accepted that it would be a smart brand building move for some time to write down my thinking on work for some time, but I had a certain inertia that I found difficult to overcome.  Then today I stumbled upon a link quiet accidentally on a google search request that took me to my former colleague Freeman’s blog.

In this particular post Freeman had copied and pasted an e-mail exchange between him and our former employer.  That was my flash of inspiration.  The gist of the e-mail was that our former “leader” wanted Freeman, who had quit some months before, to come back in and work for free since a problem was his “responsibility.”

As I read about the ludicrous request to have Freeman take the time to come back to  the office and reinstall windows XP on his former computer which Freeman had installed a now expired trial windows 7 on I was struck by similarities with my own experience.  Here was my former General Manager telling him how “you broke it, you need to fix it” and insinuating that if he didn’t take time out of his schedule to come across Shanghai to insert the CD to reinstall xp he would not be a positive reference for Freeman in the future.

I was instantly taken back in time to 2008 and my falling out with the same “leader.”  I was being told how I owed him and the company two case studies after I had left the company five months or he wouldn’t finish payment for the nearly 10,000 USD the company still owed me and hadn’t begun payment on 18 months after it was due.  He went on further to insinuate I was selfish and possible unethical to ask for the money owed to me by contract.

In no uncertain terms I told him where he could stick his money and his case studies.

As I started to re-center my work focus on employee engagement since my departure from that company in 2008 I began to focus particularly creating engaging cultures and leaders. I have often been tempted to anecdotally return to my previous employer.  Part of me though felt that my own e-mail dust up turned particularly ugly and shouldn’t be included in any civilized discussion on appropriate interpersonal behavior.

But here again in Freeman’s case I saw what I had come to identify with some of the inherent problems that beset the training and HR consulting industry in China.  That is when a senior established part of the community uses their power to profit from young talent, leverage work hours, and in some cases seek emotional dominance over younger employees rather than constructively coach and develop their subordinates.

This in turn got me anxious to write about what I was seeing and inspired to start this blog.

From a business point of view Freeman’s story echoes back to what I firmly believe, that the key to success in this industry (HR services) is by building empowered trainers and consultant who have their own brand worth in the market place.  I know that the counter argument is that these people will leave your company and start their own as soon as they feel they have their own clients and opportunity to jump ship.

There is something to this argument because history clearly sides with this case.  Just look at how many training companies have spun off from China market leaders such as IWNC, ALTEC, and recently ClarkMorgan and are attempting to simulate their material (going so far as in the case of TW Allison to directly put old CM content on new slide backgrounds) and make a profit.  To some degree you cannot control personal ego, if some people feel like they need to own their own company and be their own boss there is not much that can be done about it.  Other than not to give these people a leg to begin with I suppose.

My opinion though is that two things are happening to the majority of these disengaged HR services employees.  The first is that they don’t see a way for them to develop significantly with an ego-centric company that largely revolves and grows around the branding of a central figure(s) and rather than be paid less for work they have learned to do on their own is to “go rogue.” The other is that they have the freedom to deliver product and create their own materials but receive a fraction of the value for their work while the company shareholders take the lion’s share.  I think some guy named Marx wrote about the existential angst that comes from making peanuts while someone else laughs all the way to the bank.

Interestingly the HR industry is often working to create engagement, but suffers from some of the worst engagement I have observed.  So this incident dragged me out of my shell to write about some of my experiences as I try to create a new model for creating an engaged “community” of HR practitioners.  In a sense working to set up Sino Associates is a giant social experiment that appeals to the social scientist in me.

I will also chronicle some of my experiences with developing leaders in China and the barriers and opportunities the companies I work with are facing.  This year and next year I also promise a few stories about companies building engagement cultures as I work on corporate culture programs.  This year I am currently involved in two such projects and about to start a third.  Hopefully some of these stories will resonate with readers of this little blog.

Here is looking forward to an interesting future of stories and anecdotes from my work here in China!

On! Cool…

As I started blogging yesterday I simultaneously started a account.  They were gracious enough to send me a message saying that my slides for Think Like a Leader from my November NLP sharing session had been posted on their home page.

There are a couple things to be said about this.  I am testing out Slide Share as a step to look at their services as a way of promoting ideas and developing a web identity with their services.  As a trainer I design a lot of slides some of which are not limited by non-disclosure agreements with clients particularly marketing and sharing session slides.

So far I have 130 hits on the slide set with only 4 hours on the front page.  I really wish I had left my contact information in those slides and will make a note to do so in the future…

The other thing to add there is the content of the slides.  The Action Logic material is clearly derived from my LDF certification in England in 2006 and represents a bit of a my spin on spiral development.  Sadly I didn’t put the transcript up for the slides and the animations don’t shine through as a result of their formatting.  There is a bit more humor to the slides that is missing as result.

Overall though it is exciting to see the additional publicity.  I would as an independent trainer recommend Slide Share with the caveat to keep your contact information that you want shared in any slide show you put on their service.