Braintoffee describe their experiences as “experiential round-the-table team activities to enrich your programmes”. There are a range of activities: the one I ran was called Blackout and was set against a Cold War backdrop — a scenario where participants had to schedule the crew for an aerospace launch.
This review contains mild spoilers, so if you think you might be a participant rather than potentially running Blackout, look away now.
Everything was easy to set up and run
The first thing I noticed about Blackout — and I understand this is the same for all of Braintoffee’s activities — is that the demands on the facilitator are very low. There was a little bit of physical set-up, and it helped me to understand the scenario but starting off is as simple as giving over some light instructions and running it is completely hands-off: it runs itself.
That may make experienced facilitators feel a little redundant while the activity is running but I found it refreshing to be able to focus solely on observing and taking notes ready for the debrief. It also opens up an opportunity for anyone to run this for their team, although I’d recommend an experienced facilitator for a productive debrief — more on that later.
The activity unfolds along with the team’s wings
I had a team of ten participants — a geographically spread team that don’t get together too often and are working out their best ways of working as a team. Some were a little unsure about playing a kind of ‘game’ at work and more so when the initial briefing was, well, brief. As instructed, I told them some broad things about what kind of activity it would be and the kind of behaviours that would work best and handed over a large envelope full of papers.
The envelope full of papers is a great starting point. The first couple of pages are in-character instructions for the task the team has been assigned in the scenario. Then, what follows, is an assorted range of papers, not all of which seem immediately relevant. Other materials come into play later but I won’t say too much for fear of making spoilers too heavy.
At first, the team weren’t sure what to make of the envelope and started to have one person read out the instructions to the rest, followed by the first few pieces of information/evidence. However, they soon realised that, with the clock ticking, they needed to divide up the papers and have people examine different things all at once.
From there, the activity really unfolds and the participants start to get into their roles and the task. I think the slightly uncertain start is actually a huge plus because I could feel an excitement build in the room as people started to find ways of working together and unearthing developments in the plot and ways they might reach their goal. There was a real sense of people finding their feet within the activity, individually and as a team.
There’s a lot to unpack, especially in terms of story
The other thing that unfolded was the story and that’s the beating heart of the activity. Again, without wanting to make spoilers too heavy: there are twisting plot threads and rising and falling concerns throughout. Story elements come into play in various ways, identified by various people. There’s a real sense of unpicking the story and the facts: what’s going on here? What’s happened and what does it mean for our task?
And the way that story — and the facts that bear on the aerospace scheduling task the team were assigned — are distributed among the materials, really brings everyone into play. The team only had 90 minutes and in my case, they addressed that by having different people work on different elements and feed the relevant information into a group discussion and decision-making process.
The other thing about the story was: that it really energised people. Almost like a binged boxed-set or Netflix series, new twists came thick and fast and the participants were invested. When somebody found something that really changed things — which was often — they were really excited. All this came without the plot feeling forced or gimmicky. It was central to the activity and it felt more or less realistic (if a little more dramatic than your average workday).
There’s a real possibility of many endings — each with learning possibilities
With so many threads intertwining — and with a big choice for the team to make about their response to their initial task — there is real uncertainty about the ending. It could go a few different ways, which makes the team’s actions and decisions feel meaningful. Some of these could be classed as a kind of failure but even these provide big learning opportunities
In the event, my participants uncovered and connected most of the key facts to make the ‘right’ decision, although they still had some dots to connect by the end. The activity comes with a video to play participants which explains exactly what was going on and how everything fits together. This worked well because they felt good about the dots they had connected and had a big ‘reveal’ moment about those they hadn’t.
It also left the debrief clear: it could be about how they’d worked as a team, rather than them trying to puzzle out anything still unsolved. I’d recommend a skilled facilitator to get the best from the debrief for these activities: I observed a lot of behaviour, good and less so and I felt my experience in facilitating activities and debriefs being put to good use in making sure they examined their own performance and reached their own conclusions and maximised the usefulness of those conclusions.
The activity can bring out a huge range of behaviours
This activity — Blackout — is focused on uncertainty and ambiguity and building ways of working where none exist. It certainly brought those out and other activities in the Braintoffee range focus on other things. What it also brought out were insights into decision-making, handling complexity, team dynamics, assertiveness, flexibility and more. I suspect that most of the activities in the Braintoffee range are similarly broad-reaching.
It allowed an interesting space for participants to work in: one where key workplace behaviours were in demand but where they were removed enough from their workplace to be free of processes and traditions. They were focused on the task and that gave rise to some very genuine behaviours that were great to review. Participants could really see where they’d worked well and how behaviours had contributed to success but also where they hadn’t and where work might be needed.
This could suit a wide range of teams and situations
I’m keen to use more Braintoffee activities in the future and I’d strongly recommend them to anyone looking for an engaging experience for a team. They have elements of games-based learning but still feel like a work-based task (albeit one with an engaging dramatic backdrop). I think this type of activity would suit anyone who wants to be hands-off as a facilitator or wants an introduction to this kind of activity but doesn’t want to lose out on any of the depth and richness that comes with a thoroughly designed experience.
The setup might seem unusual to any facilitators who are more used to being hands-on and running an activity from the centre but I’d probably count myself among those and I enjoyed running it. I feel like it has probably influenced how I’ll approach some future designs of my own in terms of having experiences ‘run themselves’.
In terms of topic focus, I feel like the list is endless: Blackout itself could cover almost anything under the headings of complex environments and decision-making, communication and team skills or processes and methods of working. Other activities could probably also cover those areas but with slightly different or additional focus areas.
If you’re interested in Braintoffee activities, head over to the Braintoffee website, where you can learn more and then get in touch with Judith Cantrell at Braintoffee to discuss your specific requirements (individual instances are slightly tailored to suit your specific circumstances). Please mention that you heard about Braintoffee via Untold Play.
I was supplied with a free copy of a Braintoffee activity in exchange for a fair and honest review.