Tom Cruise, You Got Nothing on Gym Class

Posted by Aubrey Krekeler, HCI on 13 October 2011

In many elementary schools, they play a game during gym class called Mission Impossible. After a class is divided in half and put on opposite sides of the gym, the point is to get everyone on each team safely to the opposite side without touching the floor. To help with this task is a variety of tools: hula hoops, pieces of rope, tires, gymnastics mats, and those beloved scooter boards, among other things. But there are two catches — if someone touches the floor, they have to go right back to the beginning, and in order to be the winning team, every single member has to successfully make it to the opposite side.

Now, I was not an athletic child and I’m not an athletic adult, either. I can’t even catch car keys. But I loved that game. It quickly became obvious that Mission Impossible is about more than being physically skilled. It is about finding your niche and figuring out how to apply those skills to the problem at hand, and, most importantly, it’s fun. For instance, the basketball players were great at leap-frogging from one gym mat to the next, while the football players were strong enough to pull many people from one spot to another on scooter boards. I resembled a small green bean, so it was quickly determined that I could squeeze into the inside of tire and be rolled (hopefully straight) by a stronger kid to the other side.

Memories of elementary school gym games don’t normally occupy my mind, but I was talking with a former colleague of mine who is now an executive at Ernst & Young. Recently, he was asked to participate in a leadership team-building exercise, and as he was explaining it, the stirrings of childhood gymnasiums came rushing back to me. He joined a team with six other executives who were tasked with completing an obstacle course. The obstacles ranged from rope climbing to balancing across a board forty feet up in the air. The purpose was to build camaraderie and collaboration skills with your fellow executives. Did it work? I asked him. “When you share a challenge with someone, you share a unique relationship with that person. Yes, we were strapped in with safety harnesses, but this experience felt like the real deal, and to some extent, it was real. And, it reinforced what we need to do to be successful: bring our unique skill sets to the table and work together.”

In a world constantly punctuated by time zones and varying geographies, it can be challenging to get everyone on the same page at the same time. Remote workers, virtual teams, and low levels of engagement are issues that plague businesses big and small. And yet, as my friend reminded me with his experience, sometimes realigning people and executives is about bringing it back to the basics: get from point A to point B using the skill and wit you’ve got. Developing strong internal cultures and driving employee engagement is a constant task that incorporates many different elements, but it starts with passion and ingenuity. Perhaps this is why Mission Impossible meant so much to me back then — it was fun and consuming, constantly pushing us to become quicker, smarter, and more effective as a group than what we could ever be individually.

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