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Opinion: Something Old, Something New – Successful Team Building


With the ever-changing face of the ‘team’ today – project teams, matrix working, remote teams, cross functional working groups and virtual teams - the need for effective team building is without question. So, what’s new in team building? Well…everything and nothing. Steve Marriott of Kaizen Training reports on the latest team building innovations, reflecting on his experiences at Alton Towers and the Tussauds group.

Everything – because the only limits to modern team building events are imagination and the depths of your pockets!

Nothing – because modern team building still follows some surprisingly familiar disciplines and practices.

The major difference in my experience is our recognition of ‘choice’.

Once, the mention of the ‘T’ word could strike fear into the heart of even the most self assured manager. Most managers believed team building to be a series of random outdoor activities designed to get everyone committing to the vision of the most influential or ‘up for it’ member – generally the person sponsoring the event.

Effective modern team development recognises individual preferences and seeks to engage the team in self exploration rather than blind allegiance. Developments within neurological learning have taught us that even the most embedded behaviour, preference or belief is still a matter of individual choice rather than fate. That the ‘state’ in which we learn is the state in which we replicate that learning. Simply said, if we are wet, cold, nervous, anxious or suspicious when we learn to be a team, the best way to continue as a team is to recreate that same state. How practical will that be back in the workplace?

Today’s team building events should reflect the needs of modern teams. When I first embarked upon designing team building events, I felt at the mercy of two camps – one that believed teamwork meant everyone ‘mucking in’ together and hugging a lot, and the other which thought that if they did their own job to the best of their abilities – the team will succeed.

I believe the most effective events embrace both aspects, not as opposing ends of a continuum, but as an opportunity to create an environment where both have equal footing. Where individuals are respected for their strengths and contributions whilst the whole team takes responsibility for group achievement.

They key to achieving this is flexibility. After all, if modern teams must demonstrate adaptability to remain competitive, then modern team building must demonstrate equal qualities in design and delivery. For me, combining the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ creates events which allow team members to undertake their own personal journeys, whilst having strong shared experiences. These don’t necessarily have to be ‘together’, after all, we all experience the same event in our own unique way. So long as the experience is intense and has emotional impact – the stuff of corporate legend – then the foundation for the team will be strong.

So what’s the secret?

Simplicity. The more complex an event, the less flexible you can be. Remember you’re working with human beings here, and that’s never a done deal. Build as much flexibility into your design as possible.

Creating legendary team building events is about setting crystal clear outcomes before any design begins. After all, what’s the point in investing your hard earned training budget in ever more elaborate activities when a simple and elegant solution may be close at hand? Simple is always best.

Many managers embark upon ‘team building’ at the first sign of conflict or discomfort within the group. They invest large sums of money in taking the team away to ‘bond’. In such cases a simple and cost effective review of Tuckman’s ‘storming’ phase can create a release valve for unspoken tensions.

Successful events need as much thought applied to the before and after, as to the workshop itself.

Before the event consider the steps you take to reduce the amount of stress induced by the unknown. If the mention of team building creates images for you and I of ‘outward bound style’ events, then what might it do for the rest of your team? Simple, explicit joining instructions that set the scene and begin the participant’s thinking process before the event will do much to allay any fears.

After the event it’s vital for participants to have clear actions to take away. Most important for me is how the team communicate the outcomes from your event to the wider business. Incorporating action planning and communication into the event will also ensure learning is transferred back into the workplace not consigned to the ‘just another beano’ pile.

I mentioned at the beginning that some familiar disciplines continue to add value to team building. I still enjoy great success with teams using Tuckman, Belbin Team Roles, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and Strength Deployment Inventory. I use these tools, not to stereotype or pigeon-hole team members, but to begin the process of self awareness. If you achieve nothing more than to get participants to consider their own behaviours and the impact they have on others, then consider the event a success.

For too many years, results of these profiles have been used to excuse team members’ behaviour. When we embrace the concept of ‘choice’, we bring a whole new dimension to these tools. Helping team members to understand their own preference is important, however, the real breakthroughs happen when individuals begin to explore profiles and preferences other than their own.

Whichever activities you choose to undertake; river crossing, constructing paper towers or performing the ‘Haka’, keep them firmly embedded in reality. Much of the learning will be lost if team members cannot make a link between your exercises and their ‘real’ work. Make connections to how teams will put this into practice back in the workshop. After all, if there’s not much call for raft building within the business, be sure to get the team to decide which aspects of the learning can be employed back in the workplace.

Do you have teams within your organisation that would benefit from a well implemented team build? Here are my top five tips for creating successful team builds

1. Clarity

  • Be crystal clear in all things. What is the current situation? Describe the current culture from an insider’s perspective. What are the unspoken ground rules? Current motivation, results and tensions?

  • Establish your outcomes. What is the vision for this team beyond your event? How will you know when this event has been a success? What will be different?

2. Simplicity

  • Don’t be too quickly tempted by the latest ‘fix-all’ wonder product. Tackle two or three crucial issues thoroughly and transparently, rather than losing impact in overly complex activities.

  • Involve team members in creating their own outcomes for the event.

3. Adaptability

  • Be ready to surface potential issues when needed.

  • An inflexible facilitator gets variable results. A flexible facilitator gets one outcome.

4. Reality

  • Keep the experience relevant to what will happen beyond the event.

  • Make links back to the workplace.

5. Honesty

  • The key to building trust between team members during the event and beyond.

  • Be transparent in communicating outputs back to the business.


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