Organizational Development Consultant

Seven Techniques to Boost Creativity and Teamwork: #3 Incrediballs

April 4, 2014

“More than ever before, our group needs to start making some radical improvements in the way we do our business.  We haven’t worked particularly well together in the past and I need to get these people together and jolted fast.  Do you have any suggestions?”

#3:  INCREDIBALLS

What is INCREDIBALLS?

INCREDIBALLS is a technique that motivates people to work together as a team and challenges them to think about ways to work together differently and more efficiently.  The INCREDIBALLS exercise presents participants with increasingly difficult and seemingly impossible deadlines, which stimulates creative thinking and solutions.  By using the INCREDIBALLS technique, the power and importance of teamwork and creative thinking will both be graphically displayed.

When Do I Use INCREDIBALLS?

  • When your group is about to begin a process improvement or reengineering project.
  • When your group is stuck in the way they think and work together.

How Do I Use INCREDIBALLS?

BEFORE THE MEETING:

1. Put INCREDIBALLS (or team exercise) on your agenda.  Allow 30-40 minutes.

NOTE: Your group must have more than five and less than thirty participants.  If your group is very large, ask for smaller group of volunteers.  The rest of the group can act as observers.

2. Purchase three tennis balls and number the balls 1, 2, and 3 with a marker.

DURING THE MEETING:

1. Set up the exercise:

a. Explain the purpose of INCREDIBALLS.  For example: “This exercise is designed to help us look at how we work together, how we might want or need to work together in the future, and have some fun besides.”

b. Ask the INCREDIBALLS participants to move from their seats to stand in a circle.

NOTE: This may mean moving tables and chairs aside, or moving to a different space large enough for the group to form a circle.

Then you might say, “For the next 10 minutes you are no longer members of (the name of your organization here), but of a newly formed organization.  What should be the name of your new organization?” … (Use the group’s chosen new name for the rest of the exercise.) “Usually an organization would define its vision, mission, goal and objectives before its organizational processes are created.  But for purposes of this exercise we’ll presume that the essential, preliminary work is completed, and you’re ready to design your organizational processes.”

NOTE:  Ask participants who are already familiar with INCREDIBALLS to be the timekeeper and observer for you.

OPTION: If your group is larger than 30 people, ask for 15-20 volunteers to participate in INCREDIBALLS and for the others to be observers.  30 is the preferred maximum number for INCREDIBALLS.

2. Give the ball to someone (Mr. or Ms. X) in your group who doesn’t usually take a leadership role.  Ask Mr. or Ms. X to throw the ball to someone else, who then throws it to someone else, in turn to someone else, etc.  Ask the participants to remember who throws the ball to them and who they throw it to.  The last person to receive the ball returns it to Mr. or Ms. X.  Give the group a practice run with one ball.

NOTE: Groups usually make mistakes the first time, so let them get the sequence down with another practice session before going on.

3. Once they have completed the practice run without error, explain to the group that increased production requires that they triple their output and their efforts will now be timed.  Explain the 3 requirements of the exercise.  Tell the group, for example, “Your organization is doing so well that demand for your product has tripled, but you have decided that your staffing levels will remain the same.  So from now on you must work with all three balls.”   Hold up the balls which you have pre-numbered 1, 2 and 3.  “Not only that, but from now on, your customers will time your work.  And finally, your customers have given you three simple requirements:

  • You must maintain the same person to person sequence.
  • The balls must be contacted in the order they are put into play.
  • The process begins and ends with Mr. or Ms. X.”

NOTE: These requirements can also be posted.

NOTE: These requirements are designed to create perceived walls around what can and cannot be done.  In reality, they are to be taken as three separate requirements and to be observed very creatively.  In fact, they must be observed very creatively for the group to achieve their goal.

If your group asks you for clarification or approval, tell them “Your customers are not available at this time.  They left only these three instructions, and felt sure that your group would understand the requirements correctly.”  As they complete the exercise with three balls, time them.

NOTE: Ask Mr. or Ms. X to say “start” and “stop” to assist you in timing the group correctly.

NOTE: Use either your phones stopwatch feature or a watch with a second hand.

4. Begin the exercise and record the time.  Write the time on a nearby chart or board, and share the time verbally with the group.  Then explain that because competitors have cut their production time in half, it is necessary for the group to do the same.  For example, “Your customers have just found a competitor who can produce the same product in half the time. They’d like to continue to work with you, but you must produce your product in at least the same time as your competitors.  The customer requirements remain the same.  You are allowed as much time as you need to discuss how you plan to accomplish this goal.  Let me know when you are ready, and I will time your process again.”  After the group completes its task, communicate and record the time.

5. Repeat Step 4 a few times, each time requiring that the time be cut in half until the time is down to under one second (one second is not a misprint).

NOTE: If the group needs prodding during this part of the exercise, tell them that another group you worked with recently did the exercise in less than one second.

6. When the group achieves the goal of one second, ask them to give themselves a round of applause and go back to their seats.

7. Debrief the experience as a group.  Customize questions based on your situation.  Here are sample debriefing questions:  “How did you work together as a team?”  “How well did you listen to all the ideas presented?”  “What made reaching the goal difficult?”  “What were your perceptions/assumptions about the customer requirements?”  “How did those perceptions/assumptions hamper your ability to be successful?”  “What allowed you to be successful in the end?”  “How can we use this experience to improve our ability to work as a team in the future?”

NOTE: If you had neutral observers, ask them what they observed about the way the group worked together.  For example:  “How well did the exercise participants listen to everyone’s ideas?”  “Did everyone offer ideas?”  “How did the group decide what to do next?”

In Summary:

INCREDIBALLS is a technique that challenges a group’s paradigms and stimulates teamwork and creative thinking.

BEFORE THE MEETING:

1. Allow 30-40 minutes on your agenda for INCREDIBALLS.

2. Purchase three tennis balls and number them 1, 2, and 3 with markers.

DURING THE MEETING:

1. Set up the INCREDIBALLS exercise.  Explain the purpose and details to participants.

2. Give one ball to Mr. or Ms. X, preferably someone who is not a leader within the organization.  This person begins and ends the exercise.

3. After a practice run with one ball, explain that increased production requires that they triple their output by using three balls and that their efforts will be timed.  Also explain the three requirements of the exercise.

  • You must maintain the same person to person sequence.
  • The balls must be contacted in the order they are put into play.
  • The process begins and ends with Mr. or Ms. X.

4. Explain that because the competition has cut their production time in half, it is now necessary for this group to at least cut their time in half.

5. Repeat Step 4 a few times, each time requiring the time to be cut in half.  This continues until the group has cut its time to under one second.

6. When the group achieves the goal, have them take their seats.

7. Debrief the INCREDIBALLS experience as a group.

Source:

Organizational Development Department, Boeing Commercial Airplane Group.

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