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Tips on Team-Building Read This Before You Crash in the Desert!

January 16, 2000
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If you've been around the team-building block, you're probably familiar with that classic activity in which each participant jots down three things about himself or herself: two that are true, one that is false. A facilitator or group member then reads each person's list of three, and the others try to pick out the falsehood.

Sounds like a great way to get closer to your colleagues, doesn't it? Well, yes and no.

Bob writes: 1) A long time ago, I was arrested for grand larceny. 2) While in college, I chugged a whole bottle of tequila. 3) Sometimes when I'm up late at night, I can see angry gremlins hopping on my sofa. This information is almost certain to -- and I'll be diplomatic here in case Bob reads this -- affect your working relationship with Bob.

Another example: You're eager to learn more about Fran, who seems to be so, well, you decide. She writes: 1) I collect spoons. 2) I have spoons from all 50 states. 3) I have a thimble collection. After hearing this, will you be more or less likely to go to Fran for those wild, crazy, out-of-the-box ideas?

The fact is, team-building activities can make a difference, but they're hardly a quick, prepackaged "fix." Don't be fooled by the countless workplace activity books with titles like "One Billion Games Trainers Play and Amazingly Get Paid For." To make the most of a team-building exercise, you need careful planning and plenty of follow-up.

There are plenty of activities designed to show how teams are far more effective than individuals when grappling with complex problems. Perhaps you've encountered the famous "Airplane Crash in the Desert" scenario, in which you and your colleagues have to make key decisions to stay alive. There's also a jungle survival scenario, a mountain scenario, and several others.

Don't be fooled by the countless workplace activity books with titles like "One Billion Games Trainers Play and Amazingly Get Paid For."

These are lots of fun, mainly because you're so darn happy you're in a comfortable meeting room and not nursing two broken legs while surveying the charred wreckage of a commercial airliner. Unfortunately, extensive studies -- including my personal experience with at least two of these activities -- show that there is a 96% chance your group will include an "expert" in whatever topic the situation addresses. This can disrupt the whole exercise.

Let's say your team is working on the jungle scenario. After everyone reads the background information, Chris begins: "Heck, this is easy. I just went on vacation to Puerto Rico and saw a rain forest, so I know all about this stuff."

You:

Wow, you got lost in the jungle?

Chris:

No, we were on a bus tour.

You:

Oh.

Chris:

But the solution is so obvious to anyone who has been to a rain forest like I have. The first thing you need to do is ...

A third category of activities aims to stir creativity while showing that group power can produce an astounding number of ideas. The facilitator holds up a simple object -- say, a Styrofoam cup -- and asks the group to brainstorm pages and pages of ideas on how that object could be used. This exercise really gets the creative juices flowing, with people suggesting such uses as "drink with it" and "use it to pour acid into the facilitator's eyes."

Last but not least, there are activities that try to foster empathy among colleagues. One favorite is the so-called headband exercise, in which each person is physically labeled with a descriptor or directive -- it's wrapped around their forehead so everyone but them can see. John may be labeled "creative,"

Mary may be a "great listener," Maury may be a "conformist." Directives can include things like "ignore me," "listen closely to me," and so on. The group then proceeds to have a conversation, and these descriptors -- which define how each person is perceived and treated by group members -- trigger all sorts of discoveries, such as the realization that a staple is digging into your forehead.

A big downside to this activity is that some facilitators go a bit overboard when coming up with the labels. True story: One person (we'll call him Bill) once spent 30 minutes wearing the words "laugh at me." In keeping with the exercise, Bill didn't know the nature of his label. What he did know, by the end of the half hour, is that he wanted to dismember each and every one of his so-called teammates. So it's important to be cautious when coming up with labels.

If you want the team-building to have a customer focus, organize a session in which team members go out to meet and talk with customers.

Okay, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh. And here's a confession to soothe the feelings of trainers and facilitators: I myself have used the above-mentioned activities in my efforts to strengthen groups. Actually, I used one of them...or maybe it was someone else. My point is, team-building activities can work as long as you follow some critically important tips:

  • Get clear on what the group wants and needs to gain from its team-building efforts -- and only then start looking for the right activity. Don't assume anything; talk things over with team members and get clear on the objectives. If people seem to be expecting too much from a single activity, scope them down to something that's realistic.
  • If you have a gut feeling that a certain activity or exercise may not be appropriate, trust your instincts. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something else.
  • Whatever the activity, always follow it with an immediate, in-depth debriefing session in which people crystallize their discoveries, link them with their real work situations, and decide what they plan to do that's new or different. Ideally, people should make specific action commitments.
  • Revisit the discoveries and commitments in follow-up sessions. If you have regular meetings, great -- talk about the team-building activity and check whether all of you are doing what you said you were going to do.
  • Avoid the many hackneyed exercises -- like the brainstorming ordeal in which people try to come up with one hundred ways to use a Popsicle stick. Put on your thinking cap and develop something original. If your thinking cap seems worn out, assemble a group and pool your creative energy.
  • Try to make the activities real. If you want the team-building to have a customer focus, organize a session in which team members go out to meet and talk with customers. If the intent is simply to tighten the team's bonds, look for a one-day community service project, such as a cleanup at a nearby park or repair work for a local homeless shelter. Followed by a thorough debriefing session, authentic activities like these can produce a surge of pride and stronger bonds among everyone.
  • Take advantage of daily opportunities to strengthen relationships. The next time you face a workplace challenge, for instance, involve more people in getting the job done. Also, turn meetings into true meeting opportunities by removing physical barriers, circulating a contact list, celebrating milestones, ensuring an open meeting process, and working in small groups.


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