Earlier this year I faced a challenge in our company. Using both parts of my brain I challenged myself to figure out a way to convey what I was seeing to the employees. In short, we had experience extremely rapid growth in the last couple years. All the new faces, services, and processes challenged us. How do you take someone working their butt off, tell them to put down the project or client for 10 minutes, step back, and think about the big picture. It’s not easy.
Of significant note, was the average project size, which had grown substantially, and this was an even bigger challenge than you would expect. It meant revisiting processes to ensure they still worked, helping employees realize they may need to reevaluate every step of the ‘standards’ we had created. Perhaps even altering how customer service was delivered. Working remotely with other team members and even clients. Evaluating risk and return with a new perspective. Needless to say, it wasn’t just one thing.
I did what any business leader would do – I went to Toys ‘R Us. I needed a playful; yet clear exercise to illustrate what we had been experiencing. Roaming the aisles of princesses, Star Wars weapons, Spiderman costumes, and Skateboards from the future, I finally had an epiphany. Keep it simple, right? So, I went right for the balls.
While standing there, I noticed that there were a ton of balls – big, small, heavy, light, colors, styles – round, football, etc. Perfect, this represented our projects – the variety in type and size. Now what?
I decided the exercise could be as simple as throwing balls around the room with our employees to show the difference between projects – size and type again.
The next morning I gathered everyone in our conference room. It’s a good thing we have an extremely large room. I started my message…. “We’ve had tremendous growth and with that growth has come the need for quick realizations and identification of challenges, and a strong voice for implementing changes.”
I tossed four slightly larger than baseball size balls to four different individuals. I told them that I wanted them to pretend that was a project that they were working on. They would need to collaborate with others on the team per usual course of business. Thus, toss the ball to another in the group. I asked them to clearly identify the person, make eye contact and ensure they knew the ball was coming their way. They did this. Easy enough. We had 4 balls being tossed amount 30 or so team members. Not to hard. I gave them some time so everyone could become familiar with the size, weight and distance the ball would travel when thrown. They thought the exercise was easy and fun, but not really illustrating anything special.
Then I changed the project they were working on, I mean, ball characteristics. I reached in my big Toys ‘R Us bag and pulled out some new projects (balls). I threw in 2 balls of the same size, but different color (I was being a bit nice). However, these two balls were much heavier than the others (I wasn’t that nice). Of course, people holding the ball felt that, but when they threw them, they either over shot or under shot the person they were aiming for.
“They dropped the ball.”
The group was laughing at each other and having fun. Soon enough they got accustomed to the new balls. We now had six balls (two different varieties) tossing around the room. All was good. We had a control on our projects and how to handle them.
Then the onslaught of disaster began. I introduced mini-footballs, tennis balls, racquetballs, super bounce balls, large kick balls, and I let the games begin. I was defining the balls as I tossed them in – “Here’s a TV commercial, a web project, a digital ad campaign, mobile app…” – all projects applicable to our office.
We never had more than 12 balls being tossed around the 30+ people, and the rule still was that you needed to identify and make eye contact with the receiver, but that didn’t matter. The variety of balls caused mayhem. Just like the variety of projects and growing size had created issues in the office.
In the end, everyone got it. They understood that what looked like a standard project to us was actually different. In some way, shape or form, they were all still balls, but the differences caused issues.
We used expressions like – falling short or expectations, being over someone’s head, colliding with another project…. The exercise was a great experience. It opened our eyes to challenges many didn’t even know we had.
If you walk in our conference room and see tons of balls on the tables and floor – you will know why.