It was one of the biggest groups we’d worked with at the time. Twenty four people, representing the entire workforce of small local business, wanted to explore and improve how they functioned as a team.
This was their first time attending any kind of training together, and the reactions ranged from curiosity to terror. Some were apprehensive about spending the day with ‘management’ and the company directors. Many were nervous about the prospect of being close to horses. Others were looking forward to the experience. None had any previous horse experience.
After a couple of introductory exercises, we randomly dividing them in four teams of six, and set each team a Secret Task. Their instructions were to carry out their task without letting any other group know what they were trying to achieve.
Because this was an established, tight-knit group, well used to working together under pressure towards a common goal, it didn’t take them too long to discover that each team had been given the same task; move the group of horses that represented their customers into the area they had designated as their business.
Everyone was equally out of their comfort zones so the people who generally gave directions and made sure everyone was playing their part were of little or no help. The management team and directors tried all their usual means of getting things done, but nothing worked. The horses went everywhere except where the group wanted them to go. They sensed the lack of direction and rising frustration within the group and reacted accordingly. It was an incoherent mess.
That’s when it got really interesting!
One young man, who was part of support team and had no management or leadership experience, could see what needed to change and began to issue instructions to the rest of the group. He was helped by the person who was most afraid of the horses, but was willing to put aside her fear for the good of team. She also happened to be least senior person in the whole organisation. She reminded everyone that their task was not simply to move horses. It was to encourage their customers, as represented by the horses, towards their business; because without customers, there would be no business.
Under the careful guidance of these two unlikely and unexpected leaders, the group set about bringing their customers where they needed to be. The ‘bosses’ looked at each other then dutifully followed orders because they could immediately see that the pair who had stepped up and taken charge of the situation were getting results. People willingly responded to their instructions and everything came together. In a few minutes, the group successfully completed their task without any more drama.
That session brought a lot of learning moments – for the group and the individuals – but the one that stood out for everyone was the importance of clarity. As soon as the vision was clear, and both humans and horses had basic directions to follow, everything flowed.
The job titles of the people giving those directions were irrelevant. Their positions within the company didn’t matter. The horses had no idea who was earning the least, held the most responsibility, signed the cheques or swept the floors. They responded to confusion and lack of direction by scattering all around the arena, and they responded to vision and clarity by moving calmly as a herd in the direction they were guided.
As for the company directors, they learned a bit about giving people autonomy and helping them to work to their strengths.