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Original article

June 16, 2006

Mezzanine trivia builds management team
By: Bill Schadewald, Houston Business Journal

Management team building is big business in Corporate America.

National training gurus and leadership seminar promoters collect high fees for a few hours of work molding executive cadres into cohesive crews.

My job has exposed me to a number of these activities over the years.

I've participated in outdoor wilderness workshops where office operatives combine skills to build a bridge across a creek using only materials provided by Mother Nature.

I've done breakout sessions where different detachments in separate rooms pool ideas on how to resolve the same hypothetical work place problem.

The paper's management team even spent 30 minutes of personal face time with Tony Robbins. The energized motivational celebrity on pay-TV seemed less dynamic with a small group of skeptics. I was still trying to find my inner power when he left, but at least I didn't have to walk on hot coals.

All of these exercises combined don't compare to the best 30-minute training program I've come across on how to build a true management team.

The Mezzanine Lounge is an ideal place to see how a successful process can work.

On certain nights an eclectic group of people with different day jobs and varied backgrounds convene in this urban watering hole. They are united on a mission of extreme trivial pursuit.

The Mezzanine is an executive suite among the hundreds of restaurants and bars across the country where patrons can play national trivia network games on closed-circuit TV.

A typical game has three separate sets of five questions each and lasts a half-hour. Questions cover the entire spectrum of categories, from sports, science and geography to pop culture, business and food

A question is followed by five possible answers numbered 1 through 5. Players select answers by pushing corresponding buttons on interactive boxes. As clues appear wrong answers can be changed, but points are lost. A perfect score of 15,000 means the player collected the maximum 1,000 points on every question.

National rankings flash on the screen following the game. First are the names of the top 20 locations in the country, with Mezzanine habitually in the top 10.

Names -- or handles -- of the highest-scoring individuals are next. Once again, a Mezzanine player consistently shows up high on the leader board.

The secret of the Mez team's success is a complementary meshing of minds. Management players supplement each other with specific trivia skill sets.

Core members of the Mez team are identified by handles on the following roster.

CLAVIN -- Combination office manager for a local manufacturing firm and investment advisor with a Ph.D. in economics. A primary go-to guy on subjects such as history, sports, pop culture and business.

COOGS -- A computer operator with more than passing knowledge on most subjects and a knack for coming up with the most intelligent guess in rare instances when the team is stumped.

AARDVARK -- Wife of COOGS with a law degree from Harvard who writes books and works as an online editor for various publishers. Broadway shows, science-fiction and juvenile literature are her trivial fortes.

BBB -- A University of Texas communications graduate who works at home. Up to speed on film, mystery fiction and contemporary music, she can recall names of minor characters in short-lived TV shows carried on non-major networks.

MOJO -- An environmental engineer who travels around the country on cases for a local law firm, he arguably is the reigning Houston wizard in the field of obscure factoids. Well schooled in all subjects. If MOJO's brain has an Achilles heel, nobody yet knows what the category might be.

SLOTEK -- An oil and gas reservoir monitor only half a memory cell behind MOJO as a Jedi Master of minuscule data. He may even be a cerebral equal in science and geography.
Trivial synergy

As a new game approaches the Mez team becomes more focused than a board of directors awaiting a quarterly financial report.

Once the game begins, they are a well-oiled mental machine of trivial moving parts all operating in smooth synergy.

Here's how a team management textbook would describe the intellectually integrated Mez team in action as the first round of five questions flashes across the screen.

Question 1: "Which Great Lake is the most shallow?"

SLOTEK and MOJO almost simultaneously say "Lake Erie -- Number 4" as COOGS echoes agreement.

Erie it is and everyone nails 1,000.

Question 2: "Maurice Podoloff is associated with what sport?"

Blank faces on all but CLAVIN. "Basketball -- Number 2."

Nods of approval around the table.

Question 3: "On the FOX Network TV show 'Arrested Development,' what is the name of the youngest brother?"

BBB blurts out "Buster -- Number 3" to pick up the team and keep the perfect game intact. Murmured kudos from her mates.

Question 4: "What unfinished novel was written by Samuel Butler?"

A toughie. "Erewhon" -- Number 5 -- and "The Way of All Flesh" -- Number 2 -- are both likely choices. MOJO and SLOTEK like 2, also the preference of COOGS. But nobody is sure.

This is where the Mez players collectively execute a seamless shift in management strategy. They split answers between 2 and 5. This way, some personal scores suffer but the more important overall bar average remains high. The perfect game is kaput.

Question 5: "The song 'The Art of the Possible' comes from which Broadway show?"

AARDVARK makes the quickest call with "Evita -- Number 3" and draws polite commendations from rest of trivia task force.

The next two rounds invariably are repeat performances.

Then the top 20 location rankings appear. Mezzanine is a perennial first with an average score of 14,000-plus. Apparently most of the equally avid trivia management teams at certain arch-rival locations nationwide also weren't aware that "The Way of All Flesh" was unfinished.

The result draws polite cheers, soft clapping and some high-fives as Mez management team members celebrate each other with "good job" and "well done" in post-game camaraderie.

A Mez master -- most likely MOJO -- also prominently appears among the top 20 singles. But the team tabulation is considered far more important than personal performance (except for one member who won't be mentioned by name).

Trivial protocol and decorum are additional attributes that make the Mez trivia whizzes a uniquely suited management unit. Egos never clash. Wrong guesses don't draw rebukes. No team member is considered more or less trivial than another.

Watching a 30-minute presentation by the Mez brain trust might give companies fresh insight on how to build a balanced management team.

Instead of sending junior executives to the wilderness and workshops, take the front-office crew to a trivia spot. Divide up teams and start the game.

Stand back and watch as the unfolding interactive behavior separates the operation's directors-to-be from the dead-end administrators.

The only expense is the price of pub grub and libations. And it's guaranteed be more exciting and entertaining than 30 minutes with Tony Robbins.

bschadewald@bizjournals.com 713-960-5938

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