Dec 8, 2022

Could Your Team Nail the ‘Red Balloon Challenge’?

Could Your Team Nail the ‘Red Balloon Challenge’?

Culture Code Author Daniel Croyle Explains the Importance of “Vulnerability Loops” in Teamwork

In December 2009, DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced a competition to mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet. The “Red Balloon Challenge” required teams to identify the location of ten red weather balloons—hidden across 3.1 million miles. The team that correctly identified the location of all the balloons in the shortest amount of time would win $40,000. 

Some experts called the challenge “impossible.” DARPA itself expected the challenge to last a week or so. But a team from MIT completed the challenge in less than nine hours. 

How? Mindset author Daniel Croyle reveals that MIT’s unique strategy of using “vulnerability loops” clinched their success in this challenge and could be effectively applied to team challenges across the board. 

Keep reading to learn how!

What Are Vulnerability Loops?

Let’s start with a quick definition. Vulnerability loops are reciprocal signals, asking for and receiving cooperation and trust. Person A admits they need help. Person B detects the signal and responds by offering assistance and communicating their willingness to help. This exchange creates trust and closeness between the two parties and a mutual desire to help each other succeed.

How MIT Used Vulnerability Loops

Most teams who entered DARPA’s “Red Balloon Challenge” tried to keep their search protocol secretive and insular. They didn’t ask for help—since this would cut into the prize fund. 

On the other hand, the MIT team crowd-sourced help from communities within the 3.1 million miles where balloons were hidden. Each person who found a balloon—or solicited help from someone who found a balloon—received a portion of the cash prize. 

The MIT team was willing to get vulnerable and sacrifice some autonomy by asking for help. And that approach paid off, big time. 

How You Can Create “Vulnerability Loops” in Your Team

Vulnerability loops are formed and strengthened whenever team members feel comfortable asking for help and responding to requests. This give-take relationship builds trust, goodwill, and cohesion. 

Vulnerability researcher Jeff Polzer explains, “Being vulnerable gets the static out of the way and lets us do the job together, without worrying or hesitating.”

Encourage team members to get vulnerable in the following ways: 

  • Lead by example. Share your challenges and ask your team members for help. 
  • Set aside regular time (for instance, at the start of Monday morning meetings) for team members to share their top challenges of the week and ask for help as needed. 
  • Proactively praise and acknowledge teamwork and generosity, especially when employees work collectively to accomplish a task.

Think of vulnerability loops as stitches in a crocheted sweater. Each successful loop creates structure, stability, and strength that builds on other loops and forms a pattern. 

Are you building a culture of vulnerability and cooperation in your team? Hop on Twitter using #CultureCode and tell us one way you’re working to create vulnerability loops in your workplace!