Everest- a virtual game designed by Harvard Business School
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Date: 17th May 2010
Write a report reflecting on your experiences of the Everest group simulation exercise this semester with reference to
concepts and theories encountered in this course.
Everest, a virtual game designed by Harvard Business School and Forio Business Simulations, forces players to challenge problems that arise and conquer them as a team. After viewing a frightening video that portrays the mountain climbing experience, students are arranged in groups of five and assigned different roles with varying description and goals, ranging from ambitious athletes to preservative environmentalists. Confronting numerous challenges such as oxygen scarcity, unpredictable weather and volatile health conditions, teams progress up the mountain, with the ultimate goal of reaching the summit.
The game is intelligent in its simplistic design – it gives different goals and information to each player. The physician has knowledge on numerous diseases, but is unable to use it if the marathoner fails to announce her critical health condition – a probable situation as the game encourages players to hide the information. In hindsight, our team was given two attempts to complete the simulation. The first simulation was conducted with little experience and understanding of group members and roles. Formation of conspiracies led to discomfort due to conflicting personal goals, limited resources, differing opinions and ambiguity governed the functionality of our team. As a result, process loss occurred as our teamed failed to share information, instigating relationship conflicts and a pattern of groupthink. Poor results from our first experience forced our group to look for ways to improve within the areas of leadership style, roles adapted, information sharing, decision making, and conflict management. As the two simulations were spaced approximately one month apart, we were able to discuss and analyse the organisational concepts and elements that reflect the positives and negatives of our first experience. This norming stage was conducted through a series of group meetings and internet communication, as well as the formation of the team contract, which defined our objectives and strategies for improvement.
Such improvements led to a successful second simulation. New strategies, such as shared leadership and a directive decision making process, assigning task and maintenance orientated roles, breaking down communication barriers, transforming groupthink and process loss into wisdom of crowds and lateral communication approaches were adopted. As a result, the team structure was enhanced by effective communication, complemented by efficient decision making processes and conflict management. The atmosphere also transformed into a less intense environment, as I became more comfortable with my group members. Thus as evident from the difference in team scores, where my personal achievements doubled to 89% and team score increased to 83%, such methods are extremely useful in improving simulation results.
Ultimately, Everest is a elegant simplification of organisational models, teaching the principles of effective teamwork. Thus, from both experiences, I learnt that success can only be accomplished by grasping the essence of effective work teams.
As per the „Management 1001‟ course requirements, students were placed in groups of five to undertake two attempts of „Everest Simulation‟, an experience where students climb a virtual mount Everest, replicating a team and organizational environment. Through the confrontation of numerous challenges, both simulations enabled students to experience organisational dynamics and teamwork challenges. In retrospect, different strategic approaches were used in the two Everest simulations. A conservative approach in the first simulation resulted in low personal and team scores, whilst a more bold approach in the second simulation, assisted by the experience from simulation one produced a higher team score, but with members‟ personal goals sacrificed for the sake of this success. Differences in group structures also facilitated an improvement in team results, with effective role implementation in the second simulation, matched by a clearly defined goal and higher levels of group cohesiveness. Furthermore, communication problems in the first simulation were addressed by efficient decision making processes and conflict management in the second simulation, successfully avoiding phenomena such as process loss and groupthink. The following report will provide a critical analysis of my personal Everest experience, our subsequent results, group dynamics and communication structures, incorporated with real life organisational and management concepts and theories.
Simple elements in Everest created a very immersive and emotional experience. As a task force, our formal group was created to accomplish the task of completing both Everest simulations. We evolved through the standard sequence of five stages, known as “forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning” (Tuckman & Jensen 1977).
The Forming Stage
The forming stage can be represented by the pre-Everest experience. The first phase was marked by the creation of a Facebook group “Everest Simulation 2010”, for members to join and gain more knowledge about each other, as well as propose suggestions in relation to Everest. However, in our scenario, a complication arose. The environmentalist quit the group, and in the absence of one member, we could not begin our simulation. Worried by the probability of the failure to complete our designated task, we generated a series of Facebook posts to members, emails to lecturers and eventually the problem was solved by our effective communication system. As a result, a new environmentalist was added to our group, and the forming stage was recommenced. On a reflective note, this incidence demonstrated how unexpected occurrences can cause major problems, thus effective communication and commitment is vital to solve problems.
The Storming Stage
The storming stage can be identified by our First Everest Experience. At a personal level, I accepted the presence of the group, but resisted the imposition of control on me. As I felt a sense of unfamiliarity with my fellow members, I was reluctant to share my opinions. In addition, the insufficient time allocated to the simulation led to conformity and groupthink. At each stage, I needed more time to critically analyse and solve problems. However, extensive pressure was exerted on me, rushing me conform and make irrational decisions. This irrationality is also reflected in our poor performance as a team.
At the team level, lack of communication, intra-group conflict with differing goals and disagreement on the group‟s direction led to a very unsuccessful first attempt in our first simulation. Emotions were displayed as the environmentalist was frustrated at his sudden critical health condition, forcing the team to abandon the mission and stay back at Camp two, when we did not need to. This sudden misfortune definitely assessed our motivation and decision making processes. The unstable hierarchy of leadership, where I felt the leader was too passive in making decisions, also resulted in a triangular fight for leadership, as the leader, physician and I all tried to dominate. Ultimately, such self-oriented roles led to the creation of an ineffective, dysfunctional group.
The Norming Stage
As a result of our relatively unsuccessful first Everest simulation, we entered the norming stage with a reflection of our experiences through more communication on Facebook, discussion of Debrief questions and Team Contract. The Team Contract assimilated a set of expectations regarding leadership, communication, member behaviour, group processes and our ultimate goal. This stage solidified our group, building a strong sense of group identity and esprit de corps, cohesively preparing us for the next simulation.
The Performing Stage
The Performing Stage witnessed our transformation from a group to a crossfunctional team. At a personal level, I became comfortable with my team, and was able to express my opinions and initiate discussion. Groupthink and process loss was avoided, by the development of a culture that appreciates debate. Problems that required my expertise as a marathoner was successfully solved, as my role as initiator and information seeker allowed me to lead and obtain information conveniently. In conjunction with the absence of ambiguity, I was very satisfied with my group‟s performance. At the team level, communication was improved, as group members were more comfortable with each other, sharing opinions and information effectively. This, in addition to our utilitarian approach to maximise our team percentage, led to a highly more successful simulation. Our human relations view of conflicts solved problems and disagreements by our decision making process – processing information, enabling group discussion, voting and sacrifices. This was aided by our new approach of shared leadership, an essential element of a work team (Katzenbach & Smith 2005), as well as designated task-related and maintenancerelated roles such as gatekeeper, initiator and harmoniser (Benne & Sheats 1948). From the second simulation, we discovered many flaws in our approach to the first simulation, where information was not shared, communication was ineffective and the confusion of roles led to ambiguity and poor conflict management, causing process loss. Ultimately, I learnt that in Everest, the rules are designed to encourage teamwork and punish failures to communicate, applicable to real life situations.
The Adjourning Stage
Everest groups began as task forces; hence at the completion of the Everest simulation tasks, we enter the adjourning stage, focusing on the wrapping up activities. This included discussion of our team scores, completing Debrief Questions together and discussing strategies used. Informal activities were also planned, such has group photos and a small lunch celebration, marking the disbanding of our Everest group – ASCAM.
The two simulations saw great differences in the percentage of personal goals achieved, number of bonus points acquired and percentage of team goals achieved. After the second simulation, my percentage of personal goals as marathoner doubled from 44% to 89%, bonus points increased from 0 to 2 and percentage of team goals achieved increased significantly from 46% to 83%. This improvement is mainly caused by our changing group structures, affecting communication, decision making processes and conflict management.
Roles and Status System
Differences in roles adapted by each member significantly changed the strategies adopted in problem solving. The first simulation was governed by an unstable hierarchy of leadership, with one leader, a feature of a work group (Katzenbach & Smith 2005). The dissatisfaction towards the leader‟s passivity provoked an ambiguous fight for dominance between three people – the leader, the physician and me, all adopting the self-orientated role of dominator (Benne & Sheats 1948). This status incongruence, contributing to relationship conflicts, undermined the group‟s progress, hindering effective communication and information share, as evident in the number of bonus points scored in the first simulation – 0/3. Confronted with such problems, our group took advantage of the Team Contract and many discussions through the Facebook blog, to change the status structure of the group. A shared leadership strategy, matching the essential element of a crossfunctional team was developed, enhancing member satisfaction and smoothed the internal functioning of the group(Katzenbach & Smith 2005). This was aided by the designation of maintenance-related roles of harmoniser and follower to the team physician, photographer and environmentalists, gatekeeper to team leader, and the task-related roles of initiator and information seeker to myself (Benne & Sheats 1948). This example of role modification theory where team members adapt to changes within the social and organisational environment, improved our conflict management significantly by minimizing task, relationship and process conflicts (Leung, Chan, & Lee, 2003). Thus the second simulation, performed with transformations from work groups to work teams, and self-orientated roles to taskrelated and maintenance-related roles, resulted in effective communication and problem solving strategies. Problems such as challenges to predict upcoming weather was addressed by such efficient strategies, increasing our bonus points to 2/3.
Problems in relation to group conformity also explain the differences in team results. My failure as a marathoner in Everest one, apparent from the 44% of personal goals achieved was largely due to the phenomenon known as groupthink (Turner & Pratkanis 1997). As challenges arose, my personal response was to gather information, discuss strategies, and look for better alternatives, in order to effectively solve problems. However, the insufficient time allocated towards simulation one resulted in extensive pressure for me to complete tasks faster than my pace, forcing me to conform to other group members‟ opinions. This situation was improved in the second simulation, as we learnt that time management is crucial for effective problem solving. Extra time was allocated for the simulation, and by the development of a group norm that values debates as positive attributes, groupthink was avoided. As a result, there was a substantial increase in the percentage of my personal goals achieved – from 44% to 89%.
Group Cohesiveness, Tasks and Goals
The nature of the Everest game encourages members to hide information such as personal goals and given problem solving information, in order to protect the individual member. This process loss is attributed to a low level of cohesiveness and uncertainty in the goal of the team, as conflict arises between personal goals (Podsakoff, Makenzie & Ahearne). The low alignment of our group and personal goals, in conjunction with a low level of cohesiveness led to confusion in the decision making process. Confronted with scenarios to decide between staying at one camp to earn the photographer‟s and the environmentalist‟s personal goals, opposed to other members‟ personal goals of reaching the summit, unresolvable process conflicts were initiated, forming a dysfunctional team, as evident in only 46% of team goals achieved.
By making use of reflection and discussion times after the first simulation and incorporating new ideas in the team contract, our team performance improved to 83% after the second simulation. This was due to a clearly defined team goal – to achieve at least 75% of team goals and gather as many bonus points as possible. Although we only received 2/3 bonus points, this utilitarian approach was very effective, as members were prepared to sacrifice personal goals to accomplish the team objective. Furthermore, the recognition of Everest tasks with high degrees of complexity and interdependence made us realise effective communication and controlled levels of conflict is needed to improve the group‟s effectiveness (Saavedra, Earley & Van Dyne 1993). Thus the combination of a high alignment of group and personal goals and a high level of cohesiveness led to an increase in productivity and efficiency, as evident from the increase in percentage of team goal achieved.
Analysis of Communication Structures and Experiences
Communication structures and experiences varied significantly in the two simulations. Improved communication approaches related to conflict management, decision making, methods and barriers, resulted in high efficiency, facilitating the success in the second simulation.
Both Everest simulations were dominated by the mixture of structured and unstructured problems. As marathoner of the team, structured problems such as predicting the weather at every camp were identified and easily resolved by programmed decisions, based on given information and previous solutions. On the other hand, unstructured problems, such as bonus point challenges require mainly non-programmed decisions. Unfortunately, this concept was not recognised in the first simulation, as we fixated on initial information given and proceeded without adequately adjusting to other information, demonstrating the anchoring effect (Kahneman & Tversky 1974). We failed to share information, trapping ourselves in task and process conflicts, and unproductive arguments, epitomising process loss and poor communication. This problem was conquered in the second simulation, as we efficiently communicated strategic information and shared our knowledge and ideas (Alge, Wiethoff, & Klein 2003; Dawson-Shepherd 1997). Where problems arose, the gatekeeper ensured the expression of all opinions and consensus was usually reached. Although task and process conflicts still existed, such as the group split in determining the actions of the photographer, we employed the human relations view of conflict, and treated it as positive contribution and honest communication. This correlates to research that shows a low to moderate level of task conflict consistently demonstrates a positive effect on group performance, because it stimulates discussions of ideas and thus helps groups to be more innovative (DeDreu 2006). Eventually, the situation was resolved by the group leader implementing the final decision. Thus by fostering communication interactions, a sense of companionship and security was espoused in our group.
In regards to the decision making process, the first simulation was flawed by a misunderstanding of team objective, due to poor communication. This was resolved in the second simulation as we applied an effective decision making process, by identifying the problem, and developing and analysing our alternatives. Our strategy was based on the calculation of objectives as a percentage of personal goals for each member. By allocating weights to each objective, a heuristic was formed – that in any incidence, our priority in maximising the team goal is to first avoid rescue (Kahneman & Tversky 1974). This decision making process proved successful, as it eliminated the confusion in simulation one, providing a clearly defined method for us to adopt an optimistic strategy of “maximax” – maximising the maximum possible payoff to earn the highest possible percentage of team goals achieved. In addition, the transformation from an analytic to directive style, transiting from high to low tolerance for ambiguity in the second simulation also facilitated our avoidance of process loss and successful information share. Coupled with our bounded rationality approach which promoted open and honest discussions, effective communication was achieved, hence we were able to make decisions faster and more efficiently (Kelly 2000; Skidd 1992).
Methods of communication
Prior to the simulations, our Everest team exchanged information and raised suggestions through virtual networks – Facebook groups and email. Conversely, in both simulations, we recognized the inconvenience of virtual networks, in regards to discussions and information sharing, thus incorporated face-to-face communication in a computer laboratory. This allowed us to share information instantly with all members and to „gauge emotions and body language‟ (Alge, Wiethoff, & Klein 2003, pp. 28). However, despite the effective methods of communication prior and during both climbs, significant differences were evident, contributing to higher levels of performance in the second simulation.
Barriers to Communication
The first simulation was dominated by many barriers to effective interpersonal communication (Dawson-Shepherd 1997). Filtering occurred, as our group was in the storming stage, and was uncomfortable with openly discussing problems in regards to the passivity of our leader. Emotions were on display as the environmentalist became very worried about the volatility of his health conditions. Information overload was also a problem. Paired with jargon such as the functions of the medical kit and our failure to share information, this signalled the creation of our dysfunctional team.
As our team progressed into the norming and performing stage in the second simulation, such barriers were eliminated. Open and honest communication through feedback and the team contract allowed us to improve on our experience. Our understanding of the environmentalist‟s vulnerable characterisation and my need for extra time to complete problems, coupled with active listening with empathy also minimized conflict and groupthink. Jargons related to the physician‟s roles were also addressed by research prior to the simulation. This coincides with the organisational theory where a successful team requires thoughtful and serious planning, and that problems usually occur due to a lack of understanding to the goals of the team, and the methods to achieve these goals (Mussnug & Hughey, 1997). In addition to our lateral communication approach, facilitating coordination between team members, great success of the second simulation was achieved.
Ultimately, Everest is a simple and elegant game where rules are designed to encourage teamwork skills and punish failures to communicate, forcing players to learn the principles of good teamwork. Comparing my personal experience in the virtual environment to real organisational models, the adaptations of such skills are clearly defined. Formation of conspiracies due to ambiguity, relationship conflicts, process loss and groupthink governed the functionality of our team in our first simulation. Results are powerful reflections to all members, where we undeniably learn the cost of poor teamwork and the ways in which teamwork problems can be overcome. This attributed to our improvements in the second simulation, with more effective approaches in decision making, conflict management and communication, accompanied by enhanced group structure. Thus success can only be accomplished by grasping the essence of effective work teams, incorporating the four critical interpersonal behaviours of understanding, empathy, tolerance and communication.