Every year, the Coordination Office organises a retreat for all us IMPRS students. Each time there is a different topic, ranging from career options to interpersonal skill development. This year’s topic was “Communication & Teamwork”. In science, especially during PhD, communication & teamwork skills are essential to successfully master your research and get to publishing results. Without adequate communication between lab fellows, constructive research is not possible. But communication also harbours much more, such as intercultural communication, intersectorial communication and communication with people you have not met before. Thus, this year’s topic was not only fun, but also interesting and important to explore.
The retreat took place in the lower Alps of southern Bavaria, in Pfronten, from September 7 till 9. During 2.5 days we had plenty of time to participate in numerous workshops and get-togethers to learn and improve communication & teamwork skills, and also to get to know other IMPRS members better. It is important to highlight that first-year students just beginning their studies are joined together with 4th-year students, elevating the opportunities to learn and exchange impressions of PhD everyday matters.
After the arrival, we all familiarized ourselves with the hotel area and got to know not only the program, but also the trainers of the upcoming workshops. The first day was completely designed by the training group ‘Allgäu events’, focussing on the hands-on and practical parts of building a team under pressure, maximizing communication and working together to achieve a common goal. The second day was then taken over by ‘Vortex Impuls’ to discuss the outcomes and deepen the theoretical knowledge on how to build, work as and lead a team. Each evening was not planned in advance, but people vigorously played games, bowling, table tennis, and kicker & danced until late to numerous choices of music.
The first day...
After arrival, we were randomly spread into different groups and, with the help of electronic devices, had to solve many quizzes, riddles & mathematical questions to find a hidden treasure. This included wandering around the close-by area around Pfronten, constantly pressurized as no group wanted to be the last one finding the treasure. It was challenging, but also incredibly funny (despite the awful rainy weather) to work together with people from different backgrounds that you haven’t known before. Each challenge and riddle was tough, but together as a team was doable. And I would like to stress that you could only solve the whole hunt for the treasure if everyone participated and worked as a team – just like in a scientific environment.
After a lunch break, we again had to form new teams and build a huge chain reaction out of wooden materials, metal & plastic. The goals of each group ranged from building a trebuchet to throw a ball into a net to create a stream of water to hang a skeleton on a rope. As much as it sounds funny and to some extent ridiculous, it was incredibly challenging. Without the simultaneous help of many hands, we would have definitely failed. One of the most challenging parts was for everyone to accept that not everyone can always be a team leader, but has to compromise to work together and focus. Making a true team effort, concentrating for several hours and not panicking during the last minutes have paid off: the huge change reaction completely worked and the success as a team was exhilarating.
After dinner, the day was slowly closed by people playing games and mingling extensively. Interestingly, it was not the case that certain groups were formed and stayed until the end. People interacted with many other people and new groups were constantly formed. Everybody was welcomed and included. This open atmosphere during the whole workshop was definitely one of the best parts of the retreat. After many hours of dancing, fewer hours of sleeping and a good breakfast the second day of workshops began.
The second day...
We started off by playing a game in little groups with dices showing symbols. Each symbol resembles a movement you have to immediately perform. The slowest member of the group has to pay a tribute to the person rolling the dice, alternating between the participants. There were not many rules to the game, but one important: absolute silence. Albeit communication complications at the beginning, we could still manage to play the game a few rounds. At the end of the round, the winners of each group had to join another group which restarted the cycle. This time, however, the game became much more difficult as each group had different movements for the same symbols. Despite the fact that you noticed the twist rather quickly, it was not easy to communicate and explain without talking. If you think about it, the message of the game really matters. Communication is not only relying on spoken words, but it is also impacted by movements, mimics & behaviour. Our awareness of multi-faceted communication was definitely increased. We then were to practice this in the next round.
In the second part, newly formed groups had 90 minutes to create a written and illustrated plan on how to build a high-performance team. Quickly it became clear, that (at least in my group) people had different understandings of high-performance groups based on experiences, backgrounds and understandings. What is more important for a high-performance team: diversity or perfect factual knowledge? What about the team leader or time management?
At first sight, it seemed easy, but the more we discussed, the more the complexity and depth were added. Nevertheless, we finally defined our solution. After the given time and delicious cake, we all came together being prepared to present our solution in front of the others. However, we were then asked to create one final draft out of all the different groups within 15 minutes. I particularly enjoyed this part as it required immediate action building an efficient team and performing on a high level, just like a high-performance team. To our surprise, it worked and we created a solution everyone could compromise for in about 10 minutes. In the end, we learned one professional definition of a high-performance team and discussed how applicable this is to scientific research groups in our institutes.
The last day...
The next day it was time to pack and finish the retreat with a gorgeous hike in Ammergau at castle Neuschwanstein and the Alpsee. Luckily, the weather got better and we could really enjoy the views. Finishing with a lunch in a proper Bavarian restaurant, we drove back to Munich. In total, I enjoyed the mix of hands-on and theoretical background – there were no signs of boredom at any point throughout the retreat. How can I summarize the outcome of this workshop in one sentence? Awareness and use of multi-faceted communication and profound and thorough team building & leadership are key to personal development, achievement and success. Whether you want to become a scientist, a consultant or open up a café, everything demands interpersonal communication and a team that works together. Just as it is with IMPRS, a team that works well together stays together.
Author: Stephan Holtkamp