Collaboration on the Moon

Posted by  Mark Schenk —November 13, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

image0088Last week I was in Yeppoon in Queensland delivering a keynote and workshop on collaboration at an innovation in government forum. In the workshop I used an activity mentioned by Bob Sutton in his new book ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss‘. Bob is also the author of ‘The No Asshole Rule’ that we have blogged about a few times.

The activity used an age-old prioritisation game called Survival on the Moon (you can find the instructions here). Groups are asked to prioritise fifteen items to survive after a crash-landing on the moon. Everyone does it individually, then they do it as groups (hopefully getting a better result). The interesting twist in Sutton’s book is organising the groups with a hierarchical spread (executives through to junior staff) and then giving the most junior person the answers in advance. They are asked to argue strongly for what they know to be the right answers without revealing they have the correct answers. The scoring system is based on the variance of group priorities from the NASA-provided ones.

In my workshop there were nine tables with about six people at each one. Five tables had one of the junior people with the correct answers. The results were very interesting.

  • Groups with answers at their table scored an average of 31 (NASA rates this score as ‘good’)
  • Groups without answers scored an average of 36 (NASA rates this as ‘average’)
  • The best score was 21 which NASA rates as excellent. This group observed that the reason they did so well was because there were no men in their group
  • Two groups scored 26 – one group had the answers and one of them didn’t
  • Two of the groups with the answers scored relatively badly. In both groups, the person with the answers observed that “no-one listened to me” or “I couldn’t get a word in”.
  • Several groups commented that people who were more senior, and people with higher educational qualifications, tended to dominate. This is consistent with Sutton’s observation on page 131 of Good Boss, Bad Boss’ that some bosses ‘wield excessive influence…even when they spew out nonsense…and insisting they are right even when they are dead wrong’.

So, none of the tables that had the answers got anywhere a perfect score, though they scored, on average, better than groups without the answers.

One thing this highlights for me is the need to do some more reading on the effect of gender on collaboration. I will definitely do this exercise again. Next time I will record the individuals scores as well as the group ones.

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. Shim Marom says:

    The results relating to the influence of better educated people brings to mind the Kruger Dunning Effect ( accordance to which less competent / less knowledgeable people tend to exhibit higher levels of confidence relating to a particular area of expertise. For whatever reasons, senior managers seem to think that their seniority is also reflected in some hidden wisdom and common sense, denied from their subordinates.

  2. Fran Lo says:

    You might want to look into University of Connecticut’s GlobalEd project. They did research on MS and HS students involved in an international negotiation simulation. My students participated in the simulation (which they loved, by the way). UConn found that groups with all girl members could have a larger group, because the females cooperated better. For an all-male group, it had to be very small to be effective. This goes along with my classroom observations.

  3. Tom Graves says:

    Good points, and ones that I’ve noted elsewhere with the same exercise (though I’ve not seen those described with such clarity before).
    I would be vary wary on the gender-issue, though. It may indeed have applied in this case, but there are all manner of complications and layers that can apply, in which gender can easily be confused with other factors such as the kind of ‘seniority’ themes you also describe above.
    Beware especially of the ‘essentialist’ propaganda that women are somehow inherently better or ‘nicer’ than men. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with several extraordinary female bosses and co-workers over the years, but I’ve also suffered some truly atrocious examples as well. From much painful first-hand experience, it’s become clear that female-dominated organisations can be every bit as dysfunctional as male-dominated ones. And they’re often dysfunctional in ways that are far harder to address and resolve, because power-relationships in ‘female’-type cultures tend to be covert (e.g. ‘queen-bee’ or ‘popularity-contest’) rather than overt (as in ‘male’-type hierarchies).
    Tina Fey described the teenage version of these dysfunctional ‘female’-type relationships in her book ‘Queen Bees and Wannabees’, which was used as the base for the 2004 comedy-film ‘Mean Girls’. Might be a good place to start?

  4. Stuart Reid says:

    Hi Mark – your reference to gender reminds me of some research that was covered recently in Science (
    The research found evidence for a kind of general ‘collective intelligence’ possessed by a group. And this collective intelligence is “not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.”
    Apparently the only *statistically significant* correlation was between collective intelligence and social sensitivity, but still interesting that there was a correlation with the proportion of females in the group.

  5. Mark Schenk says:

    I neglected to mention a comment from one of the groups that made me laugh. They were talking about the senior person at their table and said “he kept pulling the ‘unrelated science degree’ card on us”. Apparently the guy had a maths degree from 20 years before, and reminded them of that numerous times during the activity.

  6. James Grey says:

    Hi, Mark.
    Any correlation with team diversity (not just race or gender but styles as well)? Our research indicates that highly diverse teams perform better than those with a little diversity. Homogenous teams are a little better than mildly diverse but worse than highly diverse. So if we get an active Community with global representation from as many of our source countries as possible we get imprved collaboration and output.

  7. Mark Schenk says:

    Thanks for the thoughts Tom and for the useful reminder that being female does not equal better boss/collaborator/leader etc. As with you I have see excellent and appalling examples in both sexes. Amazon shows ‘Queen Bees and Wannabees…’ as authored by Rosalind Wiseman. Is this the book you referred to?

  8. Mark Schenk says:

    Hi Fran,
    the conclusions from the UConn project are very interesting. Do you have any references where these are written up? Couldn’t find any on the GlobalEd site

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