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Spider Web Exercise

The Spider Web exercise is one of the most powerful exercises for teaching High Performance Team principles. The downside is that it takes three to four hours of preparation time to construct the web. Teams of 12 to 18 team members can tackle the web. A second or third web can be constructed for simultaneous experience by additional teams.

Kick-off Instructions

Position your team on one side of the web. The coach stands on the other side. Tell the team that the web represents a learning barrier for the team and that your customer needs to have all team members achieve a minimum level of new knowledge. This new knowledge will be represented by having each person successfully pass through the web. Explain that this is not an out-of-the-box thinking exercise. In other words, no props, tools or support items can be used. This exercise requires that everyone pass through a hole in the web. Touching the web is not allowed and has serious consequences. Touching by anything including clothing constitutes a touch. There is an invisible barrier around the web - above it, below it and to the sides. This barrier cannot be penetrated. The exception is that team members may extend their arms - but not legs or bodies -- below the web to support someone being passed. Once someone has passed through a hole, it will close. A closed hole will be represented by a piece of masking tape placed at the bottom of the hole. It is very important to stress the fact that running, diving, or throwing people through a hole is not allowed and is dangerous. Explain to the team that if a touch occurs, any team member who sees the touch will have to report it to the team and the team member who is being passed will have to be returned to the starting side. Stress to the team that when a touch occurs, it is very important for the supporting team members not to let down and drop the team member who is being passed. Once team members are through the hole they may assist in helping other team members get through the web. Explain to the team that some rules cannot be known at the outset and that they will have to be discovered as the exercise progresses. Offer the opportunity for anyone who is uncomfortable attempting this exercise to walk around to the other side. The coach needs to stress that in any group there may be one or more people with physical or psychological concerns about participating and that that is OK. However, anyone who elects to walk around will not be able to help their teammates until the first person successfully passes through the web. Explain to the participants that they will have 25 minutes for 12 people to complete the exercise (add 2 minutes per person over 12). Ask the team if they have any questions before the exercise begins.

Start the exercise and note the time. If the team touches the web, use a strip of masking tape to make the hole slightly smaller, but not so small that no one in the team can pass through that hole. If a team member calls a touch and the team responds by returning the person being passed to the starting side, you may go to another place on the web and increase the opportunity by widening an unused hole slightly or removing a closed hole tape marker. The team is demonstrating accountability and quality and should be rewarded about half the time, but not every time. Each time the team passes a person through the web, you step up and say, "Did we have a successful pass?" The team shouts "YES". "Did we have a touch?" The team shouts, "NO." "How do we celebrate success?" "1, 2, 3, YES!" If you see a touch, AND you see that one or more of the team members also say the touch, but decided not to report it: When you ask the question, "Did we have a touch?" and the answer is NO, you look the person in the eye who touched and say "Remember, quality is everyone's concern." Then you say "How do we celebrate success?" and flag the hole as closed. The team should not be rewarded in any way for knowingly fudging on the rules. However a successful pass, with no touch may be rewarded by surreptitiously widening a open hole, removing the tape from a closed hole, or forgetting to close a hole that has just been used.

In the beginning most teams chew up about a third to a half of their available time trying to plan an approach to the problem. Some teams will draw diagrams and try to measure people, others may try to prototype passing a person through an imaginary hole. If a team is bogging down on planning, and 10 to 15 minutes have passed, you will want to announce to the team how much time it has left. During this initial stage, its normal for one or two people to pull apart from the team and just stand around. If you see this going on, walk over and blindfold the watchers. If the team asks what's going on, explain that they have some unused resources standing around and that the team knows what happens to unused resources, they get even less useable. When, and if, the team starts using the blindfolded people, walk over and remove their blindfolds.

As the team approaches the deadline, determine if another minute or two will allow them to successfully complete the exercise. If so, give it to them. If they obviously have no chance, meaning they have four or five people left to pass and are out of time, stop the exercise at the deadline.

Give the team a short break and when they return form them in a sitting circle to process the exercise.

Processing the Exercise

The coach asks the team the following questions and gives everyone a chance to contribute their thoughts:

  • What are some of the key learnings or takeaways from this exercise?
  • What would you do differently?
  • What did you do well?
  • Were any team members blindfolded? Why? Why were the blindfolds ultimately removed?
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