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A Divided Team

What happens to teams when you divide them in two and put them into different rooms?  It never ceases to amaze me that even teams that have to collaborate quite closely can be hostile towards one another when they are separated.  They are supposed to be working towards fending off a common enemy, see the competition, but somehow it seems easier to have a pop at the people in the next room, the next building, or the next department.

What hope of co-operation is there when teams are on different sites, never mind when they are in different countries, have different cultures and speak different languages!

This trait can be ably demonstrated by an exercise called Planners and Operators.  The Planners are invited to go into a separate room and are allowed 20 minutes to plan a specified task.  They are allowed to talk to the Operators during this time, but they never do!  They produce elaborate plans, which are not tested on the hapless Operators until they are complete and the 20 minutes has been consumed.

During this time, the team of Operators are usually wondering what the planners are doing.  The time is ticking by and there is no sign of them, no emissaries sent to find out whether the Operators would like some input into the plan.  They have disappeared without trace.  Operator teams usually become quite impatient, looking at their watches and questioning the apparent lack of activity.

However, when we ran this exercise recently, the usual patterns of behaviour didn’t occur.  This group of Operators all have quite strong Belbin Team Worker tendencies.  Are they worrying about the task about to confront them?  Not a bit of it.  They have put the task aside completely and are having an animated discussion about food – Celebrity Master Chef, their own cooking exploits, recommended restaurants, anything but the task.

So, the Planners appear triumphant at the end of the 20 minutes and plonk the plan down for the Operators to perform the task.  At this stage, the Planners are not allowed to talk to the Operators. For the sake of the exercise, they are in a remote location.  They have 5 minutes.  After a short time the Belbin Shaper in the Planning team is going a funny shade of purple, frustrated that the Operators are having great difficulty understanding the instructions in the plan.  The instructions are ambiguous because they haven’t been tested on a real live Operator.  Heaven forbid!

If the Operator team has strong Implementer tendencies, they will be grimly determined to fulfil the task.  They will be head down for 15 minutes or more before they realise that their allotted time has been consumed.

The review session at the end of the exercise is always good fun.  Why didn’t we think of talking to you?  Why didn’t we test the plan?  Why didn’t you understand the instructions?  Oh no, this never happens in real life!  Just try dividing a team in two and putting them in separate locations!  Even better, do the opposite; try putting people together who normally work apart, such as operators, engineers, quality, planners, and managers.  Watch how understanding and collaboration increase.

Warning: we recommend you don’t do this exercise with UKIP MEPs.

If you would like more information about the Planners and Operators exercise, or about Belbin team roles, please email us on

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