Teamwork that works by Eva-Maria Hartwich

Working on a project in a team can be great fun. Or a disaster. Or something in between.

How can you achieve your project objectives while maintaining the fun part of co-working? Allow time and room for agreeing on your team’s workflow: who takes decisions on what and who does what and how.
It’s as simple as that.
Is it really?  Nope.

It all needs to happen upfront

My experience is that allowing time for discussion right at the beginning of a project is even more important if you work in multicultural teams. The ways of thinking and working rooted in everyone’s individual, collective and cultural socialization can result in very different assumptions and behaviors.

Here is a recent real life example:

Peter and Pierre (names changed) are both peer project managers sitting in the same office, but they have different country origins. They work hand in hand on an innovative engineering project. They need to bring different entities (industry & academia) from different areas of expertise to the same table. Their roles are key to the success of the project. When I stepped in to help tackle some specific cultural issues, they confessed the following: it took them ONE year to set up their way of working together. It took them one year to trust each other. Building trust needs time, of course. But it also requires communication. And here is the fallacy: it does not require communication about the project matters themselves, not in the first place. What is needed, first and foremost, is a step back. It needs reflection from a bird’s eye perspective. When you work in a team – be it national or international – asking each other the following questions upfront and finding a common ground usually paves the way for great teamwork:

  • How do you see the project?
  • What is your personal objective?
  • How do you define teamwork?
  • How do you work? Do you make To-Do-Lists and tick tasks off one after the other? Or do you do the things you need to do whenever you feel it’s the right moment for them?
  • How do you communicate? Do you write e-mails or do you instead make phone calls?
  • Do you copy your/our boss in your e-mails? Do you copy me in your e-mails to keep me updated?
  • Do you like to schedule regular team meetings to keep me up to date with your part of your work? Or do you only want to meet when certain issues come up?
  • How do you generally cope with things that go wrong? Do you handle them yourself or ask others for help and advice?

How do we as a team want to work out all these things? On what shall we agree?

Pierre and Peter figured all this out after working together for one year. They could probably have saved 11 months, if they had taken a step back…

The sugar cube tower game

This is all great theory and in any team session – be it training or team building – participants might nod approvingly. But it makes a huge difference if you have experienced the theory. Let me share a simple, ludic tool that allows for experiential learning to help any heterogenic/intercultural teams to:

  • Develop cooperative interactions
  • Develop communication and knowledge management
  • Create synergies

This game is not about demonstrating (and thereby fostering) the difficulties and differences within the team. Instead, it helps to demonstrate the opportunities for synergies, starting out from a self-critical perspective.

To play the game:

You need 2 teams with a minimum of 4 players each. Each team receives the same number of sugar cubes. The goal: to build the highest sugar cube tower. The teams have 1 minute to discuss their way of working. Then they have 3 minutes to build their towers. Determine the winner of the first round. For the second round, one member of each team leaves its initial team to join the other team. It’s a conscious change of the team dynamics. Each team has now 2.5 minutes to build the highest tower, without the extra minute pre-discussion time. This intensifies the time pressure. Determine the winner and then, most importantly, take time to debrief with all the participants.

The game sets a clear objective: building the highest tower. But it leaves room for how the team members achieve that goal. This is when interaction, changes of perspective and negotiation processes can take place. The second round and the change of group dynamics provide further learning: did the members of the team integrate the experience and knowledge of the new team member? How did the new team member act and feel within the new team? It is also worth analyzing the roles and behaviors of each team member, the group dynamics and the lessons learned. Finally, the participants need to discuss how to transfer these lessons and experiences to the real world. Here are the opportunities for setting their individual team rules upfront and, hence, for creating powerful synergies.


Eva-Maria Hartwich is the intercultural trainer, consultant & coach behind Embrace Differences ( She has worked for more than 10 years within international companies in France and Germany and has a wide range of work experience in training, translation/subtitling, customer service, communication, web, PR & marketing. She studied languages, translation and international relations in Grenoble (France) and Edinburgh (UK), and holds certificates in Intercultural Coaching and Intercultural Training from the University of Jena, Germany. Eva-Maria speaks German, French, English and Spanish.

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