Back to Class: Managing Groups and Teams

Squad game: New MBA students get a crash course in decision-making under pressure.

November 04, 2021

| by Dave Gilson
A top-down view of camping and survival gear, including a water bottle, flask, jacket, backpack, flashlight, notebook, and more. Credit: iStock/Cory Hall.

Which survival items would you choose if you were stranded in the desert? | iStock/Cory Hall

On a recent Tuesday morning, six students huddled in a breakout room at Stanford GSB and confronted a life-or-death situation. One did what any good first-year MBA entering survival mode would do: She popped open her laptop and created a spreadsheet.

Editor’s Note

In this ongoing series, we bring you inside the classroom to experience a memorable Stanford GSB course.

A plane crash had just stranded the squad of three women and three men in the Arizona desert in the height of summer, equipped only with 15 pieces of gear. Their task: Rank the importance of these items, which ranged from the obviously practical (a quart of water) to the seemingly random (a bottle of vodka).

The squad was taking part in the Desert Survival exercise, a ritual for new students at Stanford GSB. The scenario, of course, was imaginary, but the pressure inside the room was real. The first order of business was determining if someone had any relevant experience. “Would anyone say they’re outdoorsy?” one squad member asked. A man mentioned that he’d been a Boy Scout. “I know nothing about camping,” a woman said.

Over the next half hour, the squad debated how each piece of equipment fit into its survival plan. “We could survive quite a few days without food,” one student stated. “One of the things I learned in the Boy Scouts when I was 10 was to use cactus for water,” the former scout offered. “I think the gun is super important,” insisted another. As the clock ran down, one woman mused, “I think it’s not as important what we pick but why we pick it.”

There are so many strong, reliable predictors of influence that have nothing to do with expertise and competence. So it’s very easy to get misled.
Deborah Gruenfeld

Taught on the second day of the fall quarter, Desert Survival forces near-strangers to solve a problem without falling back on their résumés. “The vast majority of people know nothing about desert survival — like absolutely nothing,” says Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor of organizational behavior who has taught Managing Groups and Teams, a requirement for all incoming students, since 2008. “It gives us a really nice opportunity to examine who’s having influence in these discussions and to look at why they’re having sway.”

The exercise began bright and early, with Gruenfeld presenting the plane-crash scenario before a full lecture hall. Students came up with their own rankings of the 15 survival items and then broke into six-person squads, preassigned teams that they’ll work with for the rest of the quarter. When the squads returned, Gruenfeld revealed the ideal ranking, as determined by an expert decades ago. No spoilers, but the top picks clearly caught most students by surprise.

The squads then reported how close their group and individual rankings came to the expert’s. The results fit a pattern Gruenfeld has seen many times before: Most groups outperform their average individual member. It’s a lesson in the benefits of teamwork, with a twist. Arguably, the most effective squad is not the one with the “best” score but the one with the widest spread between its team and individual performance. “If there’s a big difference there, then you know the team did something special,” Gruenfeld says.

The exercise provides a memorable entry point to the latest research on what’s really happening beneath the surface of group decision-making. While students debate the utility of a winter coat in the Sonoran Desert, factors like personality, gender, and physical presence are silently shaping the discussion. “There are so many strong, reliable predictors of influence that have nothing to do with expertise and competence,” Gruenfeld explains. “So it’s very easy to get misled, especially in situations where it’s not obvious who the experts are.”

In the end, the specifics of the scenario aren’t all that important, Gruenfeld says. “What really matters is the process. There’s something very universal and timeless about the dynamics that we’re capturing and the principles that underlie it.”

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