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Call me a dork, but I love icebreakers and team building activities.
You know the ones I mean. The ones where you have to get awkwardly close to your colleagues or – even better – strangers on a training course. The ones where you have to reveal your favourite hobby or the best book you’ve read this year. I especially love the ones with a hidden (or not so hidden) take home message: “One thing can look very different depending on the perspective you’re coming from.” “Working together means we achieve results quicker than we could on our own.” “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
One of my favourite ‘team building’ activities, which I first encountered during my high school years, is one affectionately called ‘A Knotty Problem.’ It’s the one where a group of people stand in a circle, grab other people’s hands at random (creating a big, messy knot of hands and arms) and then have to work together to untangle themselves back into a circle, with no crossed arms and no one standing with their back to the middle of the circle. Back then, this activity would usually be done in two or more groups and was all about competition. Which group could work together quickest to untangle themselves? Which group had the best logic, the best communication, the best luck?
Since those halcyon high school days, I’ve found another version of this activity that I love even more.
Instead of it being a competition, there is only one group and the activity is repeated twice. The first time, a single member of the group steps outside while the knot is created and comes back in the room only to be told they need to single-handedly solve the ‘knotty problem.’ They are the only one allowed to talk, and they have to direct the rest of the group by pointing and asking people to move this hand, or twist that way, or duck under that person’s arm. It’s inevitably a bit of a mess and the knot takes ages to become untangled. Understandably, the people who are stuck with their arms in the knot get uncomfortable and frustrated. If only they were allowed to take the reins! They could solve this thing in no time! (Which is usually what happens when the activity is repeated, this time with everyone having the ability to participate, make suggestions and ultimately untangle themselves).
I love this activity because it has such a simple, important message. Outsiders will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to ‘solve’ or ‘fix’ a real or perceived problem being experienced by a group of people. That’s because they don’t know the situation – how did this situation come about? What are the underlying factors? What has been tried before? And, importantly, they don’t know the people – what do they think about the ‘problem’? What are their hopes, experiences, fears? Do they have ideas about what can be done based on what has worked or not worked in the past?
At All We Can, we care deeply about some big, global issues: Inequality; Injustice; Poverty; Climate Change. And we care about how these issues affect the most vulnerable people in our world – the individuals and communities who each day struggle to put food on the table or are left out or pushed aside because of their gender or age or where they live. We want to do something. We want to see change. We want to see every person realise and live out their full potential. But we are honest with ourselves that we don’t have what it takes to single-handedly address these issues we care so much about. Our team is pretty great, and we have some ideas and skills built from our experiences. We have some resources thanks to the amazing people who support us to do our work. But we are still outsiders, and we will do more harm than good if we don’t recognise what that means.
This is why I am passionate about the way All We Can works. We work through individuals, groups and organisations who come from and live in the communities we seek to serve, who care as deeply about these issues we do and who have their own ideas, skills and resources. We don’t come into their lives and contexts – as the ‘outsider’ in the first version of the knotty problem – thinking we can solve the challenges they face. Rather, we form relationships, we listen to people telling us what their challenges are and their ideas to address them, and together we think about how we can use our combined resources to do something positive.
Just as we couldn’t do anything without this type of relationship, neither could All We Can do anything without the ongoing support of those churches, families and individuals in the UK and across the world. Those who pray with us, give sacrificially of their finances or volunteer in our office or as speakers at events. By working together – and keeping the voices, ideas, skills and resources of the people we seek to serve at the middle of all we do – we can continue to make a meaningful difference.
Stephanie is All We Can's Partnership Manager for Zimbabwe and also leads All We Can's work to find ways to support the capacity development of the local organisations and churches we work with across the world.
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