Utilizing Each Other’s Strengths with Marcello Ingrassia by MSS19 Matt McGrath

Marcello Ingrassia is a trainer and project designer, free-lancing for CVA (Communaute des Villes Ariane), Airbus,… He recently gave a workshop on “Group Dynamics, Team Building – Team Skills” at ISU, as part of the Master of Space Studies (MSS) curriculum.

Matt McGrath, an ISU MSS19 student, reports about this two-day workshop:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” (John Donne)

After nearly a week in the International Space University’s (ISU) MSS19 program, our class underwent an intensive team-building course with the reputable Marcello Ingrassia. With students representing 17 different countries spanning the entire world, we have diverse ways of thinking about problems and need to find methods to utilize each other’s strengths over the course of the year.

The first lesson was an exercise in memory. Our entire class stood in a circle and used different techniques to memorize each other’s names. Reciting our names, however, was not enough. We eventually stood on chairs in a circle and carefully maneuvered ourselves so our first names ran alphabetically clockwise around the circle. This exercise was not only fun for us; but also for the staff watching us nearly fall off our chairs as we tried to scoot past each other without touching the floor. This exercise proved effective and I can confidently say that I know everyone’s name in class.

For our next exercise, Marcello took only 20 students for the afternoon workshop. This number is important because later in the year, our Team Projects will be split into two groups of roughly 20 students. Based on stories from the MSS18 graduates, the Team Project is objectively one of the most difficult exercises in our program because there are 20 ambitious students with 20 different ideas coming from 20 different backgrounds trying to work together towards a single goal.

My favorite activity of the day involved our team losing one of our key senses: sight. All 20 students were blindfolded and placed in a straight line holding a section of a long rope. Marcello asked us to make a perfect square with an equal number of students on each side. Initially, there was a lot of incoherent chatter amongst the team and very little teamwork. However, we eventually had a few common voices to focus on and began by closing off the ends of our rope to create a circle. We discussed the best ways to locate the corners of the square and went into action counting off numbers to identify how many students we needed per side. Ultimately, Marcello began the count down as we scrambled into our final positions to remove our blindfolds. When we opened our eyes, we were in a perfect square with six students exactly per side. The key to this exercise was the balance of active and passive participants in the group. At first, we had too many active members and no one could hear one another to direct the group; but we accomplished our goal and turned what could have been a frustrating activity into a fun experience.

Our final activity of the day involved us splitting our group of 20 into four groups of five. Our task was to design and construct a bridge of four identical sections that would support three small cars, but there was a catch. We were dispersed into separate rooms with separate materials given to each group. The groups elected a negotiator to speak on behalf of their team and were allowed to meet with the other team’s negotiators three times over the course of an hour. This was not only an exercise in teamwork, but also organization and communication. Our team needed to highlight what materials we had and effectively communicate this with other teams to create identical bridge designs. We have many engineers in the class, so blueprints were drawn up with measurements to each structure of the bridge and very few details were left to the imagination. At the end of the hour, teams re-grouped into the main classroom to combine our identical bridges for testing. The toy cars moved across our bridge, more or less, seamlessly and we successfully completed our mission. This exercise had an elegant message that separate pieces of a puzzle combine to make a much grander structure. The sum is better than parts.

After each exercise, we communicated difficulties and triumphs from the participants and Marcello emphasized how important reflection and communication are to teamwork. Looking around the room, I felt much more comfortable with my new classmates and felt like we effectively began the transformation from individual students into a team.”

Marcello Ingrassia’s impression of this year’s workshop and collaboration with ISU:

I began collaborating with the ISU in the spring of 2008 (ISU MSS 2007-08), doing interventions on group dynamics. Eleven editions of ISU MSS, which for me is like a flame, always the same, always different. On the one hand, the contents and methods as well as the goal of my sessions are the same. On the other hand, the participants are always different with their cultural and peculiar character traits, their backgrounds and their visions. Consequently, group dynamics are always different because they are the result of the interaction of different personalities, motivations and aspirations. This for me is every time a source of new stimuli, it is a sort of journey, a small adventure through a constantly variable human dimension.

I am very happy that ISU devotes particular attention to group dynamics, in other words, to everything related to the Team Building and the Team Skills. In fact, the acquisition of relational capacities is essential for a correct development of group work. What I try to convey to the ISU students in my sessions is the value of an experience that goes much beyond the acquisition of a technical-scientific background and that must inevitably be seen in a future perspective.

I sincerely believe that the ISU is the ideal place to acquire and learn to value the so-called soft skills. The ISU is the place where you learn to share ideas, to think in groups and to consider your doubts as a privilege. A place where students have the opportunity to learn more about themselves through the others, to experience their potential and recognize their limits.

Diversity makes the experience at ISU so rich and is precisely the key concept that more than any other characterizes my training interventions. Countries, languages, cultures, backgrounds, areas of interest, work experiences, age, visions of reality, etc. In front of so much diversity, the Working Group/Team, appears somehow magical, a sort of synthetic alchemy capable thanks to an empathetic relationship among the members, to condense so much diversity into a unity of intents, efforts, functioning, mutual understanding.

In my training sessions, I always find myself in front of talented, intelligent, well-educated, ambitious students who eventually will have a leading role in their work contexts. I think the best way to be a good leader is to be a good member of a Team Project. We could say that nothing like Membership can lead to a good Leadership.

The experience of the ISU Master, and in particular the one acquired working in the Team Projects, should be seen as an authentic privilege, an extraordinary training opportunity that allows each student to work as a reliable member of a group/team and to understand what brings with it to take on in the future the role of leader.


Photo credits: ISU - Marcello Ingrassia (at the back, raising hands) with the ISU MSS19 class

Cover Picture
Photo credits: ISU – MSS19 student Matt McGrath in the center, during the team-building workshop