Earlier this year I attended a class called Synergistic Decision Making.  We learned how groups that work effectively together make better decisions than even the most qualified individual.  We also learned how different views, when combined, lead to better solutions.  And we learned all of this by performing a single exercise.  It was fascinating.

There were roughly 60 people in the class, split into groups of 7 or 8, we participated in a survival scenario exercise.  We all listened to the same scenario, which involved a plane crashing over some arctic region and the sole survivors being the people in your group.  We were given a list of 15 items that survived with us in the crash (e.g., a small axe, one quart of 100-proof whiskey, a compass, etc.). Our task was to rank the various items from 1 to 15 in order of importance.  First we did the exercise individually.  Then we did it with our groups. Finally, the class facilitator read the correct order as determined by an expert in the field.

My particular group included mostly attorneys (please – no jokes about a bunch of attorneys going down in a plane together!), but some clearly had more expertise in survival situations than others. I remember one person was a member of a Canadian search and rescue team.  Another was ex-military.  Me? Let’s just say that if I had gone down on that plane alone, I would have been dead within an hour after ranking my one quart of 100-proof whiskey as the most important item of survival!

Here were some interesting observations from the exercise:

  • The most vocal people influenced the decisions (although we are talking about attorneys here, so we were all pretty vocal).
  • Some people adopted the role of simply agreeing with the others, without voicing their opinions on any item.
  • Many never would have guessed the importance of an item if not for the varying experiences and viewpoints brought to the table. (Who would have thought that a can of Crisco could have so many uses?!?)
  • Our group ranked nearly half the items before we had to scratch our list and start over once we realized we did not have the same goals (some wanted to stay warm and wait for rescue, others wanted to leave and prepare themselves for travel).  We struggled getting to the same goal.
  • Some people just wanted to finish the exercise, so they adopted a “whatever, let’s just write down some scores” attitude.

And two of the most interesting results:

  • In every single group, the members’ scores improved by at least 20% (some a lot more) when tallied as a group rather than as an individual.
  • That even the most qualified person in my group improved her score when she made decisions with the group.

So why am I writing about this? Because the observations I made, and the lessons I learned, could have been easily applied to a myriad of other group settings such as, well let’s see…board decision-making!  What if all members of the board routinely provided input, rather than just the most qualified and/or vocal director?  How better would your board’s decisions be if all directors brought their experiences and views to the table? Probably at least 20% better!

After the class, I decided to try out the exercise on two of my associations.  Since 2006, 2 of my communities have spent at least two hours together, on an annual basis, outside of the typical business meetings.  This was in an effort to enhance the relationship between the communities, and they had asked me to help with some team-building exercises.  Although in my opinion they are already truly ahead of the game by the mere fact that they engage in these get-togethers, the boards’ participation in the exercise reinforced my own observations and results.  Here are some comments from a Board member:

“… I hope everyone was aware of how low my individual score was on the “Lost at Sea Ranking Chart”.  It reminded me of how much I depend on the rest of the board members to keep me in check when I have a crazy idea!  I think this exercise showed us all that we can work together for the better good of our two associations, and we just need to keep that uppermost in our minds!”

Bottom line: A group of people who pool their knowledge and work together effectively will likely arrive at better decisions than a person thinking alone.

If you’re interested in trying a survival exercise, check out these sample survival scenario exercises.

Melissa M. Garcia
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