Tales from the Unstuffed Shirt

Count to Twenty (aka that post about Team Equity)

This post is about team equity. Teams are all over the place these days: sporting events, offices, shop floors, classrooms, hospitals, you name it. We’ll spend time exploring the importance of equity to team strength. Good stuff, right? But before we do, here’s one of my favorite improv games, known for its simplicity and sneaky difficulty:

Count to Twenty

Have a group of 7-8 or more stand together in a circle, facing inwards. Ask the group to initiate the game by having any participant count “one”. The goal of the game is for the group to count to twenty (or more), one person at a time. There is no time limit. There are only three simple rules:

  1. No shortcuts—e.g., counting around the circle (or other patterns), visual cues or one person doing all the counting;
  2. Everyone must count at least once;
  3. If two or more members speak at the same time while counting, the game restarts at “one”.

I love this game! Anyone can play; it requires no special knowledge or training—only patience and a willingness to collaborate. And, it’s devilishly hard…until it’s not! It’s fun to watch a group struggle and complain about how this game is impossible to complete, then witness them collectively “figure it out” and succeed with shouts of joy and high fives. I’ve been lucky to be a part of groups who have sustained the game to counts of fifty and above, and the energy in the room is just electric.

So, what does Count to Twenty have to do with team equity? Let’s start by defining Team Equity:

Team Equity: the characteristic of a group working together towards a common goal that empowers its members to take ownership of specific work towards the goal on the basis of their individual interests and abilities.

Like the game of Count to Twenty, team equity is a simple idea that’s tricky in practice. We all know that teams function best when its members are empowered to choose their participation and are contributing in ways that are personally meaningful and provide a high probability for success. We also want to believe that we practice team equity, but too often we get bogged down in other considerations. Sometimes, teams start out with the idea that they’ll empower members to decide on their contribution, only to fall back into traditional roles.

You can tell when you’re moving away from team equity when you start to hear (or say) things like this:

“Randall should run this project, since he has seniority.”  

“Let’s give this analysis to Susan—she’s always willing to take on extra work.”  

“It’s Lynn’s turn to make the presentation.”  

“Hari needs to contribute more.”

Young improvisers struggle at the Count to Twenty game because they think the game is about equality: that the group will only be successful if every member is contributing equally, in a similar fashion, according to “the rules”. I’ve seen this mindset lead to much frustration. A game participant will say a number, and then immediately start to get impatient when no-one promptly follows with the next digit. Or, a player who has already contributed several times will get agitated because, well, they’ve already done their part and why isn’t anyone else speaking up? When they can’t hold it in any longer, they’ll blurt out the next number in unison with another player who was playing at a different pace, causing the game to reset to zero.

Goosebumps are generated when players realize that the game is all about equity. Certain players are great at maintaining cadence, steadying the group and stepping in whenever a gap in counting gets too long. They may count 2-3 times more often than the other players. Other players realize that they’re better in a supporting role. Someone may decide that the best thing they can do is to make their single contribution and spend their energy supporting the team with silence (not an easy task). When it clicks that point of the game is in finding your unique individual contribution to team success and delivering it with commitment, much joy ensues.

The same goes for teams everywhere.

When teams are focused on team equity instead of equality, they do their best work.

They accomplish great things because team members have confidence in their personal contribution; and, because they believe that their teammates are all similarly aligned towards achieving their common goal.


Live - Laugh - Love.

As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”

Steven Beauchem is a strategist and consultant helping clients to excel in the digital world. He studies and performs improv in Chicago and San Francisco, and is passionate about leveraging the ideas, energy and techniques of improv to drive innovation and cultural change in the corporate world. In his spare time, he is a board member at Stage 773, home of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, and is also developing a new improv performance series (expected to launch in Chicago in spring 2017). Steven's writings here are his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employers or clients.

Written 6 years, 4 months ago.
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