Reason 10

20151104_144313They Involve You in Team Building Exercises

It’s inescapable. Sooner or later someone will inflict a team building exercise on your team. You will survive a mythical plane crash in the desert, fall backward into the loving arms of your teammates, dissect your personalities, climb ropes, perch on platforms, build models and solve puzzles. If you’re really ‘lucky’ you might get to brave the real wilderness for a few nights! Every team building exercise ever invented is designed to get the members of the team to do two things:

  1. Look at things differently.
  2. Look at things more deeply.

The reason we grow to hate these exercises is that we really don’t want to look at things any differently than we do right now. It’s too hard and we’re too busy and we’re not convinced it’s really necessary.

So step one in making these things matter to the rightfully skeptical team is making a connection to something that does matter; performance. It never ceases to amaze how many team building exercises are concocted and inflicted without any consideration of performance.

Team building exercises typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Fun diversions
  2. Potentially good
  3. Transformational

Fun diversions are the one category where a link to performance doesn’t matter. They are activities that the team normally doesn’t do together. You go bowling or out for dinner and have a good time. No one brings a flip chart to record ‘takeaways’ or ‘next steps’. No great learning or change is expected. These are valuable since you see different sides of people. It’s nice to be on a team that does this sort of thing (well, unless you haven’t dealt with Reason #9).

By far the majority of team building exercises fall into the second category, potentially good, which consists of activities designed to enhance the potential and performance of the team. So keep in mind, if you can’t answer why a team building exercise will enhance performance, you are doing a fun diversion.

In order for potentially good exercises to work, the learning MUST transfer back to the workplace. And this is where most of these exercises fall short. Transfer of learning requires two things:

  1. An exercise and debrief that make sense in the context of the teams work.
  2. A process for practice and application outside of the exercise (i.e. once back at work).

To point one, the best team building exercise ever designed is the debrief of an actual piece of work the team has done. The problem with this is that the team is often so immersed in the work the debrief does little to help the team see things differently or deeper. So an exercise that is somewhat abstracted from the work and then applying the learning back to the work scenario is potentially good. This means the debrief of the exercise is of primary importance. Who really cares if your teammates caught you when you fell into their arms? Did you really think they’d let you fall with everyone watching? In the debrief, someone has to say, ‘Sure, you caught me here but when I made that mistake last week at work you let me drop like a rock!’ That takes more courage than it does to depend on your team to catch you physically. Without the courage to speak the truth in the debrief the necessary links cannot be made back to the work world and the potential for improved performance is lost. And it’s easier to find this courage if the exercise is meant to improve performance.

To point two, a team building exercise in itself is never enough. People and teams see things the way they do because they have a pattern of seeing things that way. That pattern has developed and been sustained for long periods of time. To actually change such a pattern requires incremental change over extended periods of time. Practice, and lots of it. That’s why you need a process for practice and application of what was learned in the exercise. You can do this by making the use of learning a performance requirement and by building in real-time practice over time. Do both.

Transformational team building exercises are so rare you’ve probably only read about them in books. Never expect, or design for transformation; you will be disappointed. And be rage-fully skeptical of those that promote their transformational exercises. If transformation takes place, let it be a wonderful surprise, a gift. Transformation is 99.99% dependent on the person, or team being ready. When this occurs almost any exercise will work.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. In your experience, is more effort, from a design perspective, put into the team building exercise/workshop or the process for practice and application outside of the exercise workshop? Why?
  2. What’s the most effective team building exercise you use?
  3. What’s the most effective design for practice and application that you use?
  4. How have you dealt with the challenge of getting teams to see things differently or deeper?



4 Responses

  1. “The reason we grow to hate these exercises is that we really don’t want to look at things any differently than we do right now. It’s too hard and we’re too busy and we’re not convinced it’s really necessary.”
    So True!

    • Thanks Brooke! What is both interesting and problematic about this situation is that the practitioner/facilitator of the team building exercise too often is complicit with this outlook and then tries to design some magical event that will not only solve the issue noted above but then also create some kind of transformation within the team.

      The magic wand is never good enough and the facilitator gets blamed for not creating change and is royally pissed off at the group for being blamed. And no one has really talked about the real important things; how is this exercise going to affect performance and how are we going to sustain what we have learned?

      Both of these are joint accountabilities too often left undiscussed!

  2. I too have facilitated many ‘events’ that incorporate such exercises. In the moment, it is always very gratifying to witness the energy with which groups engage as well as the insights that emerge in a good debrief.

    “Without the courage to speak the truth in the debrief the necessary links cannot be made back to the work world and the potential for improved performance is lost.”

    I find the courage is often there … but taking the insights back to the ‘real’ world almost impossible. Perhaps because of the patterns that are so entrenched personally and reinforced by organizational ‘stuff’. Brooke’s comment is important … gets down to what really matters for people individually, for teams and for organizations.

    Another challenge is the understandable cynicism that plays out. Once an individual has had the courage to speak out about something important and seen nothing come of it, they begin to see such exercises as fun and will play enthusiastically but have no expectations for anything to change and no commitment to driving that change.

    • Thank you Bonnie! Your point – ‘taking the insights back to the ‘real’ world almost impossible’ – really emphasizes how stable our patterns of interaction can be and thus challenging to alter. I would say you are right if the only hope of altering a pattern of behavior is in a single event, typically loaded with content.

      If the design of learning shifts to incorporate more real practice back in that real world then the potential of altering patterns becomes much more possible.

      Interestingly, two other things happen as well. First if the team doesn’t want to design in real world practice then they quite simply do not want to alter their patterns and you can just move on. Second, it unburdens an actual learning ‘event’ from the expectation of being the only thing to alter behavior patterns so the event can be much freer of endless content and more focused on interaction and emergent ideas.

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