Can you make a square from string? Most teams can’t.
Business, teamwork

Can you make a square from string? Most teams can’t.


When students begin the semester at Melbourne business school, some of them participate in an exercise with Prof. Peter Gahan, designed to break the ice, and see what kind of teams can perform best. Prof. Gahan teaches subjects relating to organisational design and human resources.

The exercise put forward is very simple – can you make a square from a ball of string?

Each team member is blindfolded, and team are broken up into groups. A ball of string is placed somewhere in the room, and the students are asked to find it, unwrap it, and then form a perfect square using the string. The exercise is timed. It sounds easy – and everyone fails.

Prof. Gahan and I talked about this exercise over lunch at a dining room for faculty in the Melbourne Law building. He has run this exercise over many years and has observed which teams perform the best.

“All the MBA students we have really struggle to get the job done. They talk a lot about how to do it, in the moment, but when you look at the squares they are far from perfect – the MBA’s perform the worst. Too many chiefs.”


When we talk about high performing teams, one thing we highlight frequently at OHNO is Daniel Pinks book Drive, where he outlines that to motivate teams and get great results, teams need as much autonomy as they can get. The crux of it is that top-down management structures underperform those who work in teams that are more self organising and autonomous.

But what’s fascinating is the teams who perform well at the string square exercise are the most top down, and hierarchal in structure. Melbourne business school has teams come in from the police force and the military, and teams from the private sector, and these highly structured hierarchal teams simply outperform the other students by a mile.

I asked Prof. Gahan why he thinks this is.

“All teams start out the same way. They fumble around trying to find the string, but then the more autocratic teams suddenly stop, and someone will shout, Alright, everyone just stop. who is the most senior person here?”

“Some of these teams then quickly identify numbers, so they give people identifiers, so that commands can be easily distributed. Number 1, move forward one inch. Number 2, move back one foot.”

For whatever reason, when Prof. Gahan looks at the squares created, those teams from the police and the military deliver the best results.

There are many ways of looking at the success of these teams and wondering what the contributing factor is.

  1. Is it because the teams follow orders, based on rank? Which makes the process faster?
  2. Is it because the teams work well together already? Maybe they move as a cohesive unit?
  3. Are autocratic teams simply better suited to the task?

I certainly don’t have the answers on this one. But it does make you reflect on having a system to solve problems, and how that system of rules can lead to higher performance.

One thing Prof. Gahan raised when we met was a big misconception about Holacracy. A business that runs as a Holacracy like Zappos, is at first thought to be run by self-directed actions. The idea that staff can simply do whatever they want, and the whole company is in chaos.

But Holacracy has very engrained rules, in ways, much like the military. There are defined operational systems that ensure everyone knows how things should work. Meetings are run in a very particular way. It is very clear who can decide what. Who has authority to hire someone, for instance? That’s very clear, and when it’s not, a meeting is created not to discuss who you should hire, but simply to work out who is going to be responsible for that domain of authority moving forward.

The game is simply to dish out responsibilities, then leave the details of that decision up to that person. If they want to talk about it, or they want to hear from other about their thoughts – nothing stops them. But whats key is that people can simply make decisions when they need, as long as they follow a consultative approach. You want teams to seek information from those who might provide good council, but you don’t want people having to convince others in order to make the most basic of decisions. If every time you need to decide something you have to summon the powers of persuasion, it creates too much anxiety, and slows teams down to a grinding halt.

If we take a common organisation today, there are staff who are tasked with delivering millions of dollars in sales, but can’t be trusted to book the ‘cheapest’ airfare without strict oversight.

If I were to guess at why the autocratic teams create the best squares, it’s that the military and police teams simply have better operational systems in place, and the success is less about the person giving out orders being the most senior, but more that a framework exists that delivers high performance.

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