Team building

As the size of my company grows there has been recent need for some restructuring. I’m sure most of you struggle as I do with deadlines that are constantly shrinking coupled with increased demands for deliverables of all kinds. Two years ago I never heard the term “pull planning.” Now, it seems to be an activity that is performed, sometimes repeatedly, on every job.

So, with all these taxing demands and less time to execute them it has become too much for one person to run both the technical and managerial aspects of my design-build engineering department. Since my skills are more suited for the technical than the managerial we created a new position to support the department, that of the engineering manager — a position requiring the talents of someone more managerial than technical in skill and experience. That position has been temporarily filled internally, but we would like to find another person to fill the slot permanently.

At the time of this restructuring, the department’s morale was at an all-time low due to all the aforementioned demands and deadlines. We seem to have been operating in crisis mode continually for the better part of two years. In reality this is nothing new — back in New York at my old firm the running joke with my Sargent at Arms was every morning I would walk in and ask him, “OK, what’s the crisis of the day?”

So, to stave off this morale issue our new engineering manager came up with the idea of having a team building session. Not an entirely new idea, but the execution of it was certainly unique.

The details of the evening were kept a surprise. We left the office a little early and drove up to Los Angeles to a funky restaurant called Yxta, a Mexican restaurant on South Central and 6th Street in a very sketchy neighborhood, but the restaurant was a well-hidden jewel. The group of us — 12 in total — dined and drank for an hour or so, after which we headed over to the surprise location for the team building exercise.

The location of the event was less than a mile away — a short trip that took us deeper into the bowels of this funky, industrial, graffiti covered neighborhood. When we walked into the building, we were greeted by the sign pictured.

To make a long story a little less short, the premise of this team building exercise was that you are locked in a room that has walls lined with cabinets and chests that are all locked with a variety of padlocks. Scattered around the room are a collection of clues to the combinations of the padlocks. You have one hour as a team to decipher all of the clues and open all the locks to reveal further clues. Ultimately, the goal is to find five directional moves that will open the final padlock to reveal a key to open the door and escape the room.

To make the challenge a little more challenging, after the first five minutes, a zombie bursts from a cabinet in the back of the room — and he is one scary zombie! He is played by an actor, and he is every bit as good as the characters on “The Walking Dead.” Fortunately he is chained to the back wall and has limited reach. If he “bites” you, you are dead and out of the game. However, every five minutes his chain gets a foot longer, and his reach into the room grows. By the end of the hour he has full reach of the room, so if you don’t escape in that time you are all dead.

It is a very hard challenge. The success rate is only 23 percent. To succeed, it is essential that the team work in a cooperative manner. You have to split up into small groups and work on various clues simultaneously. As the zombie works his way farther into the room someone has to keep the zombie distracted while others work on clues that would otherwise be within the zombie’s reach.

To give you an idea of the complexity, one of the many items in the room is a sheet of paper with two lines of blank spaces (sort of like the game hangman), and each space has a number underneath. On and under some of the objects in the room are clues, such as S=11, so on the space with the number 11 below you write the letter "S," and so on until you eventually spell a two word phrase, which seems to have no significance.

Meanwhile, on one of the chests there is a clue next to a padlock that reads, “Uncles and brothers I have none, but this man’s father is my father’s son. Who am I?”

The answer to the riddle — which is hard to solve with a zombie nipping at your ankles — is “Son,” and the letters S-O-N correspond to numbers on the aforementioned piece of paper. Those numbers are the code to the padlock. With the top of the chest open, a hole is revealed, and there is an Allen wrench on the floor of the chest that has to be fished out using a make-shift fishing pole. The Allen wrench in turn can be used to remove a key that is bolted to the wall that opens the next chest. In the next chest is a clue to one of the required five directional moves that opens the final padlock.

The game goes on like this for an hour until you either reveal all five directional moves and escape the room or get eaten. We unfortunately got eaten. We had four of the five moves and were only a few minutes away from solving the fifth, but we were not in the 23 percent success rate. The process requires teamwork, leadership and creative thinking. It is very good for morale, and I would recommend it for any team that works together on a regular basis — be it a company team or a project team. The event is offered by Trapped Productions,, and is offered in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, D.C., Denver, Detroit, Houston, L.A., Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Tulsa. So, take your team out and have some fun!

Timothy Allinson is vice president of Engineering at Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a BSME from Tufts University and an MBA from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states and is a LEED accredited professional. Allinson is a past-president of ASPE, both the New York and Orange County chapters. He can be reached at

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