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David was a great help to us in Blyth Valley in carrying out a review of the VCS infrastructure support in the area. He has extensive knowledge of working in the sector and his final report helped us map out a way forward.

Chris Simpson ,Head of Community Regeneration and Culture
Blyth Valley Borough Council

Balloon Towers

The Winning Tower

The Winning Tower

I’ve just recently had the privilege of being involved in a fund raising event at Rudstone Walk in South Cave (one of my favourite local conference venues), for Young Enterprise. It was brilliantly organised by the Early Birds, a group of women so named from their involvement in the Women’s Breakfast Club. The brief I was given was to design a series of team challenges, along with colleagues from other training organisations, for a group of people from the local business community who were sponsored to take part. The challenge I set was very creatively named by the Early Birds “Reach for the Skies”. The team task I set was deceptively simple – build the largest free-standing structure possible in 30 minutes using only balloons and sticky tape. I’ve used this simple team building game on many occasions and the results never cease to fascinate me. Like all team building activity, the success or otherwise of the venture depends on the quality of the leadership. If a clear leader emerges with a vision for what the final structure will look like and if she/he matches their leadership style to the level of skills and motivation of the group, then almost certainly they’re on to a winner.

Groups tend to adopt broadly one of two approaches to the task. Some groups start without a clue as to how the structure will emerge, but launch into balloon blowing up duties with a view to figuring out what to do with them at a later stage. Each team gets 100 balloons. It is rarely possible to use so many balloons in the time allotted so spending the first 15 minutes inflating every balloon is not time well spent. Groups that adopt this approach end up hopelessly over-stocked with the raw materials (i.e. the inflated balloons); analogous to companies that tie up far too much resource in stock that inhibits more effective investment. In this case, the exercise took place in an old barn so the static generated in the balloons became a magnet for dust which made it very difficult for the selloptape to stick, a most unwelcomed complication. Other groups sit and ponder for a while (while the clock is ticking away), devising a plan and then implementing it. The problem with this approach is that there are a whole range of complexities involved in building things out of balloons. Balloons most inconveniently are not uniform in size or shape (at least the ones in the ‘Party Selection’ from Wilkinson’s aren’t). Sticky tape is a most frustrating building material, particularly when combined with party balloons. The casualty rate for balloons is high and at times it sounded like a firing range in the barn as groups realised how fragile a medium they were working with. So the rigid planning approach doesn’t work either. How many Business Plans do you know wholly accurately predicted the trading environment on which their three year cash flow forecast was based? Once the groups who adopt this approach realise that their plan isn’t going to work (and it rarely does), too much time has been invested in the ill fated design so the last ten minutes is spent in a chaotic rescue mission resulting in a less than impressive final product. (Any of this sounds familiar?)

The most successful structures emerge from the consequence of strong leadership, a clear vision and effective distribution of labour, recognising who is best suited to each task (inflators, stickers, designers). Having a vision doesn’t necessarily mean having a rigid plan to implement it. The groups who end up with the tallest and most stable structures are flexible, adapt quickly to the changing situation, use their resources effectively and appropriately, are quick to praise colleagues and cautious to criticise. Like most successful ventures, building a good balloon tower depends on putting most of the initial effort into the foundations. The winning group spent the first 20 minutes creating a bulky mass of balloons, carefully sorting out the taller, thinner balloons for use later, recognising their value for height, but not substance, and using them appropriately. The structure grew exponentially in the last five minutes, based as it was on firm foundations. At 93” it was half as high again as its nearest rival (which fell over after 30 seconds!) and remained standing long after the participants had gone home. There is much to be learned from this simple exercise, and it’s great fun too (but there again, all the best learning is). You can see the rest of the activities that went on at Rudstone Walk, including Jon Levy’s video, on the Early Bird website.