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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Groups outperform individuals on mental tasks, December 2, 2007, 2D

An effective and interactive way to demonstrate the ability of groups to outperform individuals on mental tasks is the “Lost on the Moon” exercise.  In the activity, participants are given a list of items that are available to them while they await rescue on the dark side of the moon.  Variations of this exercise also exist—like being trapped in the dessert or wilderness.

The first step in the exercise is to have participants complete the assessment completely by themselves.  Participants must rank the importance of 18 different items for survival on the moon—which include things like tanks of oxygen, a compass, matches, milk concentrate, flares, a solar-powered radio transmitter, and a tarp.  During this phase, participants are not allowed to ask questions, talk with others, or look up answers in any way.  They should rely only upon the knowledge that they possess in their heads at the time of the activity. 

After everyone has completed their individual rankings, participants are then divided into groups of four to six people each and complete the exercise again as teams.   It is important that everyone in the group participates and gives input into the group ranking.  A group of five with only two contributing members is really only a group of two with three bystanders.  All members must participate in the group output.

When the groups complete their rankings, group and individual answers are scored by comparing them against “expert” rankings for the items.  The closer the participant answers match the expert rankings, the better the score on the exercise.  A member of each group should calculate the group score as well as their own individual score.  The facilitator of the activity will ask each group to provide its group score on the exercise as well as the average of the scores of the individual members.  The group and average individual scores should be written somewhere so that all participants can see them. 

When the directions are followed and participants take the exercise seriously, the group score will almost always be better than the average individual score.  It shows that individuals, when solving mental tasks, only have their own experiences and knowledge to draw upon to solve problems.  When individuals work together as teams, their abilities to solve problems are enhanced.  This synergistic effect is a result of the combination of the knowledge and past experiences of the group members.  The past experiences of four to six people will always be greater than the knowledge and past experiences of any single member.

As a group development tool, exercises like these help show the importance of groups and teamwork to organizational performance.  Managers can use these exercises to show organizational members the importance of individual differences and experiences to a team and to demonstrate the importance of all members working together to solve problems.   The investment of a little time to conduct a “Lost on the Moon” exercise with groups of workers could return big benefits for organizations.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved