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Robert Neubecker

To become a better leader, I played cooperative games with my research group

Boom! The bomb exploded. But don’t worry—it was a virtual bomb, part of a game I started to play with my research group through teleconferencing in the early days of the pandemic. Called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (KTANE), the game consists of a “defuser”—me—who has the bomb but no idea how to defuse it, and a group of “experts”—the members of my team—who have an instruction manual but cannot see the bomb. I have to describe the components of the bomb to them. They have to identify each component in their manual, figure out how to defuse it, and explain the solution to me. Then I have to execute based on their instructions. If we make too many mistakes or run out of time—boom!—the bomb explodes and the game is over. For our group, playing offered excitement and camaraderie—and for me, a lesson in how games can hone leadership skills.

I learned about KTANE from my older son, who organized a game for our family. He was the defuser, describing to his younger brother, my wife, and me each of the bomb’s modules—for example, a set of colored wires that need to be “cut” a certain way and a set of buttons labeled with symbols that need to be pushed in a certain order, among hundreds of much more complex puzzles. It was a roller coaster of joy and desperation. We were hooked.

I was especially captivated by the role of the defuser, who controls the flow of tasks and information to keep everyone busy, productive, and efficient—just as I try to do as lab head. Maybe bringing this game to my research group, with me as the defuser, would be good practice for me while also helping our lab stay connected and maintain morale during the COVID-19 shutdown.

After an initial round to get our bearings, we hit our groove. Our communication flowed smoothly, the experts solved their puzzles efficiently, and we had some laughs along the way. I thought we were ready to increase the complexity of the modules—but I pushed us too far, too fast. Frustration skyrocketed as our bombs exploded again and again. The worst part was that we weren’t identifying or learning from our mistakes.

This reminded me of my experience struggling to mentor some students who didn’t acknowledge their mistakes, and as a result weren’t growing as scientists. I tried to convey to them that we all make mistakes; certain errors are beyond our control and we might not even be aware of them. The most important thing is to take responsibility for our missteps and move forward, not pretend they never happened. But that message rarely seemed to get through.

Maybe bringing this game to my research group … would be good practice for me.

So after each explosion, I began to lead the group through the game’s logfile analyzer, which included information about the correct solutions to each module. Talking about research mistakes can be delicate and uncomfortable, but within a game the stakes are low. I practiced offering constructive, supportive feedback—and my students became more comfortable receiving and acting on my input. Within a few rounds, our bombs rarely exploded. I realized that cooperative games like KTANE—and we’ve gone on to play others, too—offer a fun, nonthreatening environment to practice effective communication and dealing with mistakes.

In real life, we don’t have a logfile analyzer to show where we’ve gone wrong. Still, the game has given us a foundation to build on. Recently, one of my students inadvertently provided the wrong cells to another student, affecting a lengthy and expensive experiment. This could have been a sensitive situation to navigate. But I reminded my group of the lessons we learned from KTANE. I emphasized the importance of communication, the humbling experience of realizing that everybody makes mistakes, and the crucial value of identifying and learning from these errors so we can minimize repeating them. I felt like a pilot who, after many hours training with a flight simulator, was confidently flying a real plane.

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