Thursday was the first day of my Intersectoral Leadership class at USC. One excellent thing about the program I'm in
is that we do lots of activities that force us to experience the concepts we're learning about. The Dominoes and Poker Chips game created a really interesting leadership dynamic I hadn't ever witnessed before - there was an abrupt shift, before which we were operating as separate teams, and after which the whole class was unified, and I was surprised to find everyone listening to me.
So on Thursday morning, Professor Callahan began stacking dominoes and three colors of poker chips on the front table. He explained to our five table groups that we were going to play a game.
Each one of us would start with two random poker chips. Our objective was to be holding a domino when one minute was up, and we could trade chips for dominoes. Here were the trading rules:
- You may trade three chips of different colors for one domino; you will also get one chip (of your choosing) back.
- You may trade three dominoes for seven chips (of your choosing) back.
- No stealing from other players
- Anyone who does not have a domino in hand when time was called was dead.
He gave us two minutes to strategize. I was concerned people at our table would be competitive between each other, and quickly suggested that we all pool our chips to make some quick trades. I figured if we could convert our chips into three dominoes, then convert those back into more chips, we could convert our remaining chips back into four
dominoes, and we'd all be set.
I don't know what other tables planned, but when he called for trading to begin, his table was mobbed. Everyone was calling for him to make exchanges for them. I had offered to be the trading rep for our table, and we got as far as our three dominoes, and exchanged them back into chips, when he called time. We had no dominoes; all of us were dead.
We all returned to our seats, and Professor Callahan counted the total number of dominoes throughout the whole class. Only four people had dominoes out of a class of 21.
He reset the starting conditions (he took all the dominoes, and gave us each two chips), and asked us to take some time to plan again. We figured that, given the short amount of time, we should just hold on to our three dominoes and settle for one of us dying. I volunteered for that part, since I had proposed our plan, and knew I had to be willing to sacrifice, or they would distrust my call for everyone to contribute their chips.
We pulled this off, but at the end, the whole class only had seven survivors. We had done better, but no one else had. It still wasn't a very satisfactory result.
In the next planning session, and at the suggestion of one of my group members, I suggested to a group on one side that we could jointly pool our chips. They weren't interested, however, so we decided to stick with our original strategy - to no better success.
In the next planning session, Leila suggested again that we might want to coordinate with other groups, so the two of us approached two other groups that we had seen making plans together. I started talking to one of the two groups, and the other of the two started walking toward me to hear what I was saying. As the two groups converged on Leila and I, I raised my voice to be heard by both groups.
"We can all join our chips into one big pool," I began.
And in that moment, I noticed something strange and incredible. Suddenly the whole class was silent, listening to what I was saying. Everyone, including the group that hadn't been interested the round before, was suddenly a single group instead of separate pieces. There was a complete phase change, like ice cubes melting into a pool of water - a qualitative change in the nature of the group. The speed with which it happened was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life.
I don't know what exactly caused it. I'm sure it was a combination of factors:
- Everyone was frustrated, and were ready for someone who could propose a solution
- Other groups had been testing out the idea of coordinating, and were ready to try it on a larger scale when someone suggested it
- And we shouldn't underestimate the importance of someone speaking clearly and confidently - as Professor Callahan likes to say, a leader brings clarity.
We were sharing now, and everyone agreed to pool their chips, bring them to the front, and several of us would be in charge of making exchanges from chips into dominoes. We would immediately pass the dominoes back to others. When the time was up, Professor Callahan counted our dominoes. We had 9 - one fewer
than we had had the previous round.
I sat down, frustrated, but fortunately was not allowed to give up, because immediately the de facto
ambassadors for two other groups came over to me to figure out how we could improve. The game wasn't over, and our temporary setback didn't mean we had failed.
We planned again, refining and streamlining our process for assembling chips into piles. When we tried again, we earned 14 dominoes. The round afterward, we reached 17, and in our seventh round, we all had dominoes.
Afterward we reflected, as a class. Professor Callahan reflected that we had done relatively well (though not extraordinarily well) in terms of the number of rounds we needed to all get dominoes. He noted that every group sees a dip when it first joins as a group (which is pretty common for adopting any new strategy, not just in this game), which is discouraging, but that usually the drop is much more significant.
We also observed that once we had our strategy in place, a large number of people chose to be helpful by getting out of the way, and not clogging up the table area. Not everyone can be a leader; Professor Callahan talked about what he calls "followership," or the skill of being a good follower (even though you might also have the capacity to be a good leader), to allow things to get done. Too many cooks spoil the soup.
I noted that the task might have been significantly harder if, at the end of each round, Professor Callahan had totaled the score of each table
, rather than of the entire group. We were already split into table groups, and totaling the scores in that way would have set us against each other even more.
At the end of the exercise, Professor Callahan told us to each keep our dominoes. Mine is now sitting on my desk, to remind me of that moment when we became one.