How do you build trust with someone you've never worked with - or even met - before? How do you determine the value of your product in the market and determine your ideal customers? How comfortable are you taking a business risk? These were among the questions that attendees of M&C Asia Connections (MCAC) had to ask themselves during the event's occasionally intense teambuilding activity, Straits Traders, which challenged teams to make tough negotiations with one another, all with a historic twist.
Attendees learned about the challenge before them as they arrived to the Alkaff Mansion restaurant bar and event space on the first full day of MCAC. The historic mansion, set atop Singapore's Telok Blangah Hill, which exudes European grandeur of an earlier era, proved a fitting location for the history-infused business dealings that were about to take place there (the venue can accommodate more than 1,000 people seated and 1,500 standing for an event, with a variety of spaces both indoor and outdoor).
Upon arrival, each attendee was handed a badge that identified them as part of a trading party - British, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and so on - and learned that they'd travelled back 200 years, to the founding of Singapore and its establishment as a vibrant trading port.
Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles (Asia Ability director David Fotheringham decked out in period costume) explaining the rules of the game.
The man explaining the rules was none other than Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles himself (Asia Ability director David Fotheringham decked out in period costume). Each team received a few luxury goods (tokens representing sandal wood, mother of pearl and spices), commodities (rubber, tin and textiles) as well as "cash" and three "information cards", each offering a historical fact or tidbit that might be of value to the team - or to one of their trading partners.
Teams of traders presented with information cards detailing the value of their luxury goods, which include mother of pearl, sandalwood and spices.
Deal or no deal
Over four 15-minute rounds (or "trading years" as they were defined in the game), members of each team sought to cut deals with one another, leveraging the limited information they learned to figure out what they could get good money for, and what was likely to drop in value soon. When the British learned from an information card that the Armenians would receive an extra $10,000 for every piece of mother of pearl they had at the end of the game, they worked to sell the Armenian team this information, then sell them the mother of pearl they had on hand - at a significant mark up, of course. When the Portuguese learned that sandal wood would drop in value for them between years three and four, they sought to unload it quickly. Each trader had to decide how much information to pass along to their competitors, what a given item was worth and how much to believe what others offered them.
Some intense haggling going on between groups of traders.
"It's a game designed with an intricate web of information and bonuses or penalties that give different values to items so year to year you could be strategising to stock up on certain materials or less of another," said David Fotheringham, director of Asia Ability. "It gives people the opportunity to connect with literally anyone and everyone."
Any member of a trading party could negotiate with any other, trading cash, goods or information, gaining knowledge with each interaction, creating a surprisingly intense series of rounds in which the entire room at Alkaff Mansion exploded in deal-making and trading chatter. One might pay for a piece of information that turned out to be extremely valuable, strengthening their trust in the partner who offered them the info. Or they might realise they were sold goods that the other trader knew would drop in value, making it unlikely they would want trade with them again.
"If you learn by doing, then you appreciate the learning so much more," said Mr Fotheringham. "When you're in an experiential learning process, you're the one making the discoveries yourself - you're connecting the learning experience to your own day-to-day. You own it, it's your learning, your takeaway."
And just as it offered out-of-the-box learning, the activity also provided unconventional networking, with teammates bonding over their mutual pursuit of greater wealth and gaining a trust of or grudging respect for tough-bargaining rivals.
It's a wrap! Attendees giving a thumbs up to the intense game of negotiation, which fostered ties and provided plenty of entertainment.
"The teambuilding was so much fun," said Kimberly Dierks, senior programme manager for Brightspot Incentives & Events. "Sometimes these activities can be kind of 'eh' but it was a blast - the company that planned that did a great job and that was a way I made wonderful connections; working with different people from different countries and organisations, it was a lot of fun."