Sunday, December 21, 2008

Orientation Week & Team Building - Part I

Most MBA programs are centered around a team-based curriculum.  The thinking being that you learn from others experience, help each other through new concepts, have a part-time support group, and learn how to make decisions in group settings.  In theory this is an excellent model, since the days of benevolent dictators running companies are long gone (even at Apple). 

In the WFU MBA program, you are assigned to a team at the beginning of the program and you stay with that team for the duration.  The teams are usually five to six people, and the administration does it's best to group people with a mix of skills, background, geographic location (for meetings) and any sense of personalities they could interpret from the interview process.  It's definitely not an exact science, and it leads to one of the biggest fears any MBA student has going into the program...What if I get a terrible team, or terrible teammate?  Unlike Fantasy Football, there are no trades allowed.  The team could go "Survivor" and vote a member off the island, but that is extremely rare and involves approval from the administration.  So let's just say, you're keeping your fingers crossed that the stars are aligned, because this group will become your second family for the next 18 months.  

I was assigned to Team 5, which is made up of myself, Matt Kirk, Matt Johnson, Marty Jones, Vish Manickam and Portia Mount.  Geographically were were evenly split between Raleigh and Winston-Salem, and had a decent mix of backgrounds (IT, Marketing, Operations, Healthcare, Banking, High-Tech).  I can say now that I believe we have an outstanding team and a great group of people.  But when we first started, I wasn't completely convinced that we were aligned enough in our goals and motivations to be a great team.  But as the week progressed, and we worked our way through several exploratory activities, it became clearer that we had a strong foundation and great potential for success.  

Prior to Orientation Week, WFU MBA administration sends out a personality survey called "The Big Five", and we got our results back (individual & team) during the week.  As you go through work and life, we all take a number of these surveys and it's always interesting to me to see if you change and how you change.  It's even more interesting to get your results back and have to review them within your team, a group of people that you've never met.  Here is your personality laid out in front of you, and everyone else is trying to slot you into a category or similarity to a previous co-worker.  As we made our way through the 5 traits, we found that we had a reasonable mix of Passive and Aggressive, Introverts and Extroverts, Type-A and Type-A(-), Leaders and Bridge-Builders.  This lead to the next stage in our discovery process...initial peer evaluation.

Instead of asking people to tell us about themselves, the program asked us to give everyone our initial assessment of each other.  What were their strengths, their weaknesses, and what suggestions did we have for each other to improve a strength or weakness.?  This was an interesting process, because not only did we need to read other people, but we also had to determine how we wanted to present this information.  Was it best to be cordial and friendly (maybe sugar-coating), or was it better to be direct?  Do we emphasis the strengths, or try and improve the weaknesses (see Prospect Theory in a much later post)?  Not knowing how anybody would react, there was a real possibility that you could be setting yourself up for a 18month nightmare if you burned a bridge at this stage in the process.   

Throughout the Orientation Week activities, we were alternating between team activities (5-6 people) and entire group activities (32 people).  The next phase was to determine how we prioritized work, life and school.  With the simple question of, "Which is the most important for you?", we broke up into three groups.  The goals here became obvious once we were asked "Why did you choose that priority?"  It wasn't a clear-cut decision, but it was important and would need to be balanced (or sacrificed) against the others.  It also showed us that not everyone had the same priorities, within our team or across the program.  I'll get into this in more detail later, but it was important to understand that we'd have to find a way to work with a group that didn't have consistent priorities, but would ultimately have to have consistent goals and deliverables.   

At this point, we were beginning to understand something about ourselves, a little about the people on our team, and the idea that one of the great challenges of this program was learning how to work well across the broader set of people.  The good news was that this is an incredible set of people, with diverse backgrounds, goals and experiences to share.  Figuring out the best way to blend that with individual learning will be one of the most interesting aspects of this entire experience.