I had a very interesting experience recently while facilitating the Helium Stick activity with a Handbell Choir. The choir had come together for a day long, start-of-season retreat. To start off the day I was asked to have the choir participate in the Helium Stick exercise. For those of you who may not be familiar with this exercise you can google it and find videos and explanations of how and why it works. The short premise is that you use a light pole and have 6 to 14 people to stand in two rows facing each other with the pole between them. The participants hold out their arms at waist height and the pole is place on their outstretched index fingers. The group is then told to lower the pole together, however all fingers must stay in contact with the pole at all times. I have done this several times with different groups and the results are that they never get the pole down (one end keeps rising), or can take 15 – 20 minutes or longer for some groups to complete the task.
My most recent experience though was quite the opposite. This group of Handbell Ringers have been playing together for almost nine years; almost all of them are charter members or have been playing with the group for several years. If you are not familiar with Handbell Choirs, they are unusual in that each individual is just one part of the total handbell “instrument”. Each ringer is responsible for two bells and their accidentals (sharps and flats). If one ringer is missing, those two notes in the written score would not sound. Each ringer has to watch the musical score and when their notes arrive, play those notes. It takes a lot of concentration and counting. It also takes an immense amount of team work and awareness of the surrounding environment. You have to be aware, not only of when your note comes up, but also the timing, loudness and rhythm of those playing around you. For an example of what I am describing go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tFfzv6Ougw#t=61
At this particular retreat, I explained and described the Helium Stick as usual and had the twelve participants’ line up to start the activity. In less than 5 minutes they had successfully lowered the stick – without anyone cheating. So we did it again and this time they had it down within four minutes. It was quite astounding and unexpected. Is the fact that this group, due to the nature of playing handbells together and being so connected, created a situation where this exercise was a “no brainer”?
Here is my hypothesis from this event: That a group of individuals who have spent so much time together participating in an interdependent, highly communicative activity, developing the ability to just look at one another and use simple communication cues, are able to work together to the point that they can accomplish this task in a minimal amount of time. And if this is the case, what are the implications for learning and developing teams? Sounds like the basis for a great research project.