Inflating Virginia Commonwealth University

It was old home week during a recent engagement with Virginia Commonwealth University's Division of University Advancement – I had worked in the division's public relations team both as a student and as an alumn.

Seeing some old, familiar faces was almost as fun as watching more than 60 university professionals inflate more than 500 balloons and construct a massive balloon tower in the middle of the room at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Contrary to the chaos pictured in the photos we took, there was a method to the madness.

VCU's advancement team – the folks who communicate, raise money and engage alumni for the university – held their annual retreat at Lewis Ginter, and their associate vice president, Samantha Marrs, wanted to create a lively space in the afternoon focused on teams.

The assignment was simple: We formed seven teams, and gave each a roll of masking tape and 72 balloons. Their objective was to build the tallest, free-standing tower possible using only balloons and tape. They had 20 minutes, and we changed the rules along the way. Several times.

Everyone finished in the middle of the room, surrounded by a teetering, colorful tower of balloons.

We debriefed individually, in small groups and as a large group in a way that led to a very basic set of messages:

At a system level (represented by me, my microphone, my directions and my ever-changing rules), we all work in environments where someone else sets the objectives, controls resources and makes decisions that can either enhance or handicap our work.

At a team level, disruption is... well, disruptive. We have new people floating in and out of our teams constantly, and we rarely slow the process down enough to bring them on board in a smooth, effective way.

Finally, at the end of the day (or the beginning of the day), the only thing we have any control over is ourselves. Asking ourselves with some frequency how we're doing at supporting our organization, our team, our coworkers – that's important work. We don't do it often enough.

An hour and fifteen minutes after we started, the balloons were (mostly) gone, and the retreat was winding down. Hopefully, we brought more than hot air into the room with us.

Interested in engaging your team in new ways? Let us know.