"John's Story" by John Dicus

I like to use the Electric Maze® whenever possible because it has an almost magical ability to both highlight and transform the characteristic behavior of a group of participants. The Maze consists of a 6' x 8' industrial carpet, printed with an array of squares. Each square overlays pressure sensitive switches wired to a control box. The maze is not large, yet when you participate in a group Maze activity, the carpet grid feels significantly larger. And when participants try to find their way across it, the exit end seems a great distance away. Keeping track of safe and unsafe squares appears simple at the outset, yet once on the carpet the task can feel overwhelming.

I still remember my first experience on the Electric Maze as though it were yesterday. This is because not only your mind is called into play on the Maze, but also your body and your emotions. This taps directly into who you really are, how you prefer to go about learning and solving problems, and how you interact with other people in real situations. The maze quickly moves you out of your head and things begin to feel real.

Facilitation of maze scenarios allows for very sophisticated interventions, yet at the same time it is very accommodating and even forgiving. If things do not go as you anticipated, you could still take advantage of this in the debriefing session. There are at least two reasons why this works out so well. One is that the activity on the Maze truly models real life. Often, things in real life do not go as you anticipate. The other is that the Electric Maze makes interactions between participants and with the facilitator(s) safe and even fun.

In some organizations, much-needed conversations are hard to have on an ongoing basis and even harder to initiate in training sessions. Electric Maze sessions have a way of making these conversations happen. Sometimes they pop up and begin happening before you even know it, and sometimes the group just gracefully eases into them.

Some participants have told me that the experience they had during a Maze activity has stayed with them over time providing new insights and surfacing things they didn't realize they knew.

A Few Golden Moments
When I use the Maze for team development, I prefer to divide the participants into two subgroups. Sometimes I refer to them as teams to invoke their deep-seated beliefs regarding team behavior. And sometimes I simply refer to them as Groups A and B so that each individual's perceptions will govern their participation. Before a Maze session begins, I will ask each person to write down their own description, or explanation, of a team. After the session is completed, I ask each person to look at what they wrote and see if they would change anything. I have found this to be a useful debriefing topic.

In one particular session we had two groups of about eight or so with each group trying to find a safe path through the Maze from opposite ends of the Maze. There was only one safe path across the Maze, although the participants did not know this. As the session moved forward, each group progressed through the Maze squares on each of their respective ends, trying to find a safe path leading across to the other end. After a while, each group grew closer and closer to one another in the center of the Maze. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated for the players to realize that they were both discovering the same path. Even after they met in the middle, each group still worked separately to explore areas of the Maze that had already been explored by the other group.

During the debrief, a participant said that she was just now realizing that, even though they were competing in teams, they were also working to solve the same problem. She was so engrossed with her team effort that she never thought to learn from the other team. I had never referred to the two groups as teams, only as groups. In fact, I had set the rules for the activity to suggest that there was an even balance between cooperation and competition.

Something Changed
Sometimes, when I have the opportunity to do two Maze activities with a group, I will do a mid-stream pattern change in the second activity. Usually the first activity involves an S-Pattern and the second activity will involve a Switchback pattern that requires players to go backwards in order to go forward.

In the second activity, after a few people have made it across the Maze to the other end, and as players are beginning to feel confident that they know the safe path, I'll secretly make a pattern change. This is accomplished simply by activating one square to block the current path while de-activating another square (usually adjacent) to open up a new path.

The entire path does not change, just two squares. A portion of the old path leads nowhere, while a new path opens up. If the players are keeping track of what is safe and what is not, they will find the new path quickly. However, if they have been too focused on the just getting across the maze, they will have a more difficult time.

I still remember one of the first times I did this. As the players kept running into the new unsafe square that they were reasonably certain was safe before, they began giving me the evil eye. After a few minutes, they all sat down and quit. I did one of the hardest things a facilitator can do, nothing. After another minute or so, one woman got up and studied the Maze. She motioned for a few of her teammates to come over. Soon the whole group was engaged again, and they went on to find the new path in short order.

In the debriefing session, they felt safe enough to tell me that they needed to fix the blame before they could move on. I told them that I, as a facilitator, represent life. Life happens. How do you adjust to it?

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