Several summers ago for work, I attended a week-long team-building conference held on a college campus. Attendees were divided into groups of five and members of each group were to collaborate on various projects for the duration of the conference. Small assignments began on day one and we were informed that the conference would culminate with a day-long special teamwork exercise. On the last day of the conference a project unique to each group would be assigned and required to be accomplished by day’s end.
“To demonstrate how your group has become a solid team.” the instructor explained with an evil grin.
Groans echoed through the classroom. My group’s leader was the most vocal.
None of the five in my group had met before the conference. In fact, we each came from a different state and attended the conference for various reasons. My group leader made it clear that he had been told to attend and he voiced his annoyance often.
“Is the teamwork project on the final day mandatory?” he frowned as he asked our instructor.
“Yes.” the instructor said sternly. “Don’t skip the final project.”
In spite of a rocky start my group worked through the assigned projects for the day. Everyone got along and was very nice but there was little interaction besides working together on the assigned tasks. At the end of class we left together but nothing was said as we walked from the conference hall across campus to our quarters.
The campus was beautiful. It was well landscaped, surrounded by woods, and a huge lake was its centerpiece. As my group neared the lake on the route to our rooms we passed a small dilapidated brick shed tucked into the edge of the woods. One side of the shed had collapsed to expose what was once a cellar. We got closer and heard a slight rustle from inside. Two of us stopped to peer over the edge of the brick wall that surrounded the old cellar hole. When we did, a duck flew up and out, nearly hitting us in the face as it headed towards the lake. Down in the cellar hole, surrounded on all sides by the tall brick wall, was a nest with several eggs. Interesting, we thought, and continued on to our rooms.
The next morning my group met at the conference hall to begin our day’s assignments. Once again my group leader voiced his opinion about the massive project scheduled for the last day.
“Don’t ignore the final project.” the instructor reminded.
Each day that week was pretty much the same. Our group met, completed our tasks, said little else to each other, and returned to our rooms. We did well with our assignments but it was difficult to see progress being made towards becoming a cohesive team.
We stayed very late, almost until dark, on the eve of our final day. My group leader once again grumbled loudly about the next day’s massive assignment.
“Don’t dodge the final project.” the instructor warned.
We left the conference hall to head to our rooms no more a team than on day one. We approached the old shed, something we’d done every day, where one or two of us would peer into the cellar hole to look at the eggs. This time we heard the mother duck before we saw her. She paced along the brick wall, quacking loudly. When we got closer she hesitated a second before flying away, not to the lake, but to an old azalea just a few yards away. She quacked frantically as we, this time as a group, peered over the wall and into the cellar hole.
Huddled together in a corner were nine tiny ducklings.
They were hard to see since it was late evening but we clearly made out nine fluffy balls of duck. We weren’t sure how they would get out, but darkness, preparation for the final day’s project, and the hope that the duckling’s mother knew more than we did swayed us into simply heading back to our rooms.
The next morning we met to head down the path one last time to the conference hall. The only sign that we were a team was our mutual dread of that day’s final project. We ourselves weren’t even convinced that we’d come anywhere near being a “team” capable of working together when presented with an impromptu task.
In a fog of dread we marched towards the conference hall. The loud and frantic quacking we heard near the old shed snapped us out of it. The mother duck once again paced back and forth along the brick wall and flew to the old azalea when we approached. All nine ducklings still huddled at the bottom of the cellar hole. We as a group peered over the edge of the wall together.
“They’ll die in there” our group leader announced unceremoniously.
I looked around the collapsed shed for a board the ducklings might use as a ladder but found nothing long enough. Inside the collapsed portion of the shed though, was a gripper used to change light bulbs on a rusted, but very long pole. I pulled it from under bits of the collapsed roof and took it back to the group.
“Maybe we can use this.” I said.
The pole could actually reach the ducklings – which scattered and peeped loudly causing the mother duck to quack more frantically than before. Rust prevented the light bulb gripper from closing, so it was impossible to actually grab a duckling and raise it from the hole without it falling from the gripper. They could be scooped out maybe?
As we planned our approach there was a crash in the old shed. Another group member emerged with an old bucket.
“Can you scoop them into this?” she asked.
As the mother duck quacked incessantly, the five of us looked at each other and launched into action.
I used the long pole of the light bulb gripper to herd the ducklings into a corner closest to me. One group member, held tightly around the waist by another group member, leaned into the opposite end of the cellar hole as far as she could, the old bucket dangling from her hand. I leaned into the hole, scooped one duckling into the light bulb gripper, and passed it into the bucket. Success.
One by one I scooped ducklings into the dangling bucket manned by two of the team members. With each scoop, the remaining ducklings scattered. The other team members, using long sticks they found in the woods, leaned into the cellar hole to herd scattered ducklings back towards me. It took quite some time but we finally had a bucket of ducklings. The mother duck continued to quack frantically from under the old azalea as her babies peeped louder and louder in the bucket.
Together, the five of us walked towards the mother duck with the bucket. She backed away, frightened by so many of us, so our group leader went alone. He made his way slowly to within a few feet of the old azalea and gently dumped the nine ducklings onto the ground. They huddled motionless. The mother duck kept up the frantic quacking, moving closer to the fuzzy huddle, until one by one each duckling stood to run directly to her.
Her frantic quacking ceased instantly. She waddled slowly but steadily towards the lake with a mass of ducklings following closely between her legs. We actually applauded!
“Now that was teamwork!” our group leader said.
And with that comment we realized we were late for our last day’s mandatory project.
We hurriedly made our way to the conference room. Covered in rust, mud, and duck poop we mentally prepared ourselves for what the instructor would say about our tardiness. A feather floated silently in the air as we opened the door. The instructor turned to face us.
“Well!” the instructor began. “I was certain your group was going to duck out of this final assignment.”
“We did duck out!” our team leader responded.
The instructor didn’t understand why we five laughed in unison, as a team.
Stuart M. Perkins