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24 January 2014

The 'Alien Army and the Earthling' syndrome.

When I was working in Oracle, I attended a training provided by a company called ‘Crestcom’. The trainer was a brilliant and passionate person named Naresh Purushottam.

I still remember one of the team exercises that we underwent.

Our team of about 25 was divided into 5 equal groups. Each of the group was an Alien army comprising of a Commander and 4 associates. Our task ostensible objective was to complete a set of tasks in a given amount of time to save the earthlings. Each team was measured on how quickly we completed our set of tasks. We were promised rewards on quick completion of the tasks.

We were given fancy titles. Each team was led by a ‘Commander’.  Then we had an ‘Architect’, a ‘Destroyer’, a ‘Strategist’ and an ‘Executioner’  that completed the team. I was the commander of my team.

There were 10 tasks to be completed with 3 minutes for each task. The tasks were given by the trainer. The tasks were in the form of messages that we had to decode and take action on. If you were not able to decode a given task, you can go on doing tasks that were incomplete.

There were good messages like ‘I need a plan’ or ‘Complete the strategy’ which were easily comprehensible and the team went about the tasks with gusto. Each team was trying to beat the other team. Every member was engaged. We felt important that we are progressing smoothly. Each team was sure that they will be the ultimate winner.

At the beginning of the exercise, one of the players asked the trainer ‘if one team can interact with the other team’. The trainer effectively shouted him down without giving him a clear answer. From the tone of the trainer spoke, it was clear that each team cannot interact with another.

Every third message stumped all the teams. It was a message from the ‘Earthlings’, whom we were to save, and the message simply read, ‘Please help. Extreme danger approaching’.

First time the message appeared, we were all eager to resolve. Each team racked its brain trying to understand what the earthlings were telling us. We spend the entire three minutes trying to figure out the relevance of this message. But the same message started appearing again (6th  and 9th minutes) we simply ignored.

We were all busy trying to win.

Ultimately one team realized that, even though the trainer had shouted when asked about teams working  together, he never told that we should not do that. They co-ordinated with another team and were quickly able to solve the problem !

Apparently, the game was designed in such a way that one team cannot win on its own without cooperating with another team !. The rules were designed to give the impression that the teams cannot work together, without any explicit rule preventing the teams from working together.

I remember that all the teams blamed the ‘Earthlings’ during the exercise. ‘Why can’t they give us some clues?’ we wondered. Without any clues how do they expect us to save them?

The similarities to the actual Organizational Scenario was uncanny. Our organization was divided into 'Competencies' like SCM Competency, Finance Competency, HR Competency etc. Each competency had its own team, its own objectives and goals and its own processes and even its own culture !

Whenever we get a customer project, we were to form Project Team comprising of members from different competencies. Most of the time the Project team worked as Silos, without any integration. 

Since we did some of the projects for American Customers from Bangalore, we were the Alien Army and the customer was the 'Earthling'. 

How we used to blame the customer for his arbitrary and unstructured requirements? How we used to laugh at the contents of some of the mails? How we used to fume at his tendency to disturb the processes by his unfair demands?

As I have moved on from Oracle and started working in another company, I come across multiple instances of what I call the 'Alien Army and the Earthling Syndrome'. 

Take it from me, it is more common than you think...

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