A Case Study: Team Synergy, Collaboration, and Consensus

Early in my career as a NASA manager, I attended some management training programs at Wallops Island. The courses were typically one to two weeks in length and were characterized by good camaraderie with fellow managers from other NASA centers, interesting case studies, effective training modules, and excellent food. Most gained pounds while ensconced in the training center. nm,n,n

One interesting exercise has several lessons for me. It was categorized on the agenda as an exercise in team dynamics.

We were each given the same book on management about 1 week before arrival at the training center. Most of us skimmed the book and found it rather stale.

On the first day, we were divided into study groups of about 8 and given time to meet each other. Several times we were given exercises to complete together as we were learning the people within our group.

On day three we were each given a pop True-False quiz based on the book we had supposedly read. After much groaning, the hour began to answer the 50 question quiz. We were told pencil down. We were given the second quiz and told to copy over our answers onto that quiz sheet and hand them in.

Then we were told to keep our original and each group was given a blank quiz. We were given an hour as a team to answer the quiz. Those groups that had a higher score than the best of the individual scores within that group would be judged to have positive synergy. Those that turned in a group quiz answer sheet with a score lower than one of the individual scoresheets from that group would be judged to have negative synergy. And for extra fun, the deliberations would be videotaped.

A good working definition of synergy is that the outcome of the team working together would better than would could be achieved by any one of the individuals working alone.

Naturally, the first step of our group after organizing a bit was to go through the True-False Quiz and see where we had agreement on the answers. Out of 50 questions, we all had the exact same answer for something like 35 questions and we had disagreements on the other 15.

So we needed a process to go forward. The original plan was to discuss each of the 15 questions and see if anyone changed their votes, then go with majority rule. Very logical and almost all teams quickly got to this strategy.

However, after a few moments of further discussion it occurred to us that scoring well on a quiz was an enviable goal, but generating a positive team experience might be preferred. So we decided that if we couldn’t get a unanimous agreement on a particular question, we would leave it blank. This was particularly challenging for some of us since just guessing would give you a 50% chance of getting it right. So leaving it blank was a particularly poor test-taking strategy. But we decided it was the best for a group that was going to be working together for the next 2 weeks.

As it turns out we ultimately left 3 true-false questions blank. On 3 questions we could not get unanimous agreement as to the right answer.

The scoring was accomplished. Several groups had positive synergy and several had negative synergy. Our group had neutral synergy. That is, our team score, with 3 blanks, was the same score as the best individual score within our group.

What then transpired was interesting. The course unit directors were shocked by the 3 blank answers. They had never had a group in their many years of doing this exercise that had not handed in a completed quiz sheet. After all, guessing was a good strategy, so why not go with majority rule or even just allow someone to guess. Even a coin flip would be a better test-taking strategy.

We responded that we decided at the outset that for this exercise, a pop quiz on a management book, that our team cohesiveness was more important than the score on the quiz. Therefore, without unanimous agreement on an answer to a question, we would not put down an answer. The course unit directors looked like we had failed, but then it seemed to us that their expressions changed. We completed the course with no more mention of the issue.

Interestingly, one of my colleagues took that same course several years later. He told me that now the directions were that no team could answer a question unless they had unanimous agreement. So apparently we were onto something.

The second part of the exercise was begun shortly after the grading and synergy determination. After a break, each team was given the videotape of one of the other groups to watch and then share observations with that team on their team dynamics and any individual performance comments. The team we reviewed was one that had the worst negative synergy.

This team was composed of 6 men and 1 woman. Unknown to the group at that time, but the woman had the only perfect score on the quiz. I think the score for the group was 90%. We knew these facts, which made the review of the video easier.

Turns out the woman was a relatively new manager and she managed exclusively women in her team. The men were classic NASA managers and managed predominately men within their groups.

The men had no skills whatsoever for trying to include the woman in their deliberations. She tried on several occasions to correct their thinking but they really didn’t listen to her nor did they try to draw her out. She was a soft talker, it was clear from the tape review that she was very certain of the correct answer, but could not influence the conversation. Near the end, her eyes were welling up and the men still did not notice nor find a way to include her. Clearly, it was a detriment to their quiz score and their team dynamic performance.

Our group severely chided the men for their behavior and the negative synergy score accentuated our input. We also counseled the woman to not give up and to look for ways to get her viewpoints aired in team dynamics that are different than ones she is comfortable. But we had to admit, we found it frustrating that part of our feedback was encouraging her to make changes to better fit the male-dominated culture of NASA.


I have tried to remember the lessons from this week in my leadership activities. Clearly, team dynamics are a challenge. In the classic priority list of results, process, and people, solely driving for the best results in any single activity may drain the team for the potential of positive synergy on future activities.

Avoid sacrificing team chemistry and dynamics, and therefore future performance, just for seeking the best outcome in any single exercise.

Working hard to include contributions from everyone in the group is a necessary component of leading groups. The best ideas may come from people who are unprepared to ‘force’ their ideas on the group. Learning how to draw people out is a valuable skill. [See Andy Anecdote].

Be willing to invest energy in drawing out people within team decision paradigms … it not only contributes to team chemistry but generally gets the best results.


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[…] or voting with simple majority rules.  Although there might be times when either is desirable (see link for an example of unanimity), frequently this is not ideal.  My presumption is that most times the […]