Performance Management Blog

Team Building – Failures and Designing for Success

My friend Andrew Grant at Tirian is an Aussie and a great writer and thinker about all things team building. I just now got his newsletter and thought to repost it here. I strongly recommend that you read this and click on some of the embedded links to his other thoughts and writings.

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Here is what Andrew had to say:

Overcoming the IFS and BUTS of Team Building

The Australian swimming team’s performance in the London Olympics was the worst on record. This is a country where most children can swim before they can walk, and Australia is usually one of the strongest countries in this category, but this time around something went horribly wrong. A recent investigative report into the swimming team’s poor performance by Dr Pippa Grange has revealed that whilst the swimmers were all highly skilled physically, there was what has been described as a ‘toxic culture’ in the team. This led to, Dr Grange believes, ‘an increase in individualism, and in turn a diminished sense of responsibility or connectedness to the team’. Described as ‘a schoolyard clamour for attention and influence, with a ‘science’ of winning appearing to overshadow the ‘art’ of ‘leadership work”, the report has highlighted the need for strong leadership and alignment and a collective purpose.

It’s in situations such as these that developmental team building has a critically important role to play, as ironically all these soft skills can dramatically impact the bottom line outcomes. And yet there can be a great degree of cynicism and scepticism about the value and purpose of team building, and as a result it is often ignored – but at great cost.

How is it possible to design a team building session that works?
The typical response of individuals to the prospect of having to participate in a team building exercise has, by one jaded observer, been described as a ‘groaning’ response. Some feel they have ‘been-there-and-done-that’, while others are concerned about taking out valuable time from their day to do something that they feel is irrelevant (playing games). Some people reluctantly participate out of a fear of being seen to not conform, but they do so with hidden contempt. In these cases the team building program can be in danger of backfiring.

Through innovative simulations and engaging facilitation positive intervening experiences can and should be created. When professionally designed, these experiences can break down the barriers and provide unique leadership and team development opportunities and outcomes.

So how, exactly is this achieved?:
1) Check the group is 100% on board (challenge by choice)
Example: We once had a boss want to run an adventure based program, but he assumed that everyone would want to do what he did (a common mistake). He didn’t realise some people just don’t like running around chasing clues or being physically challenged. After a number of complaints the adventure idea was ditched. We ended up in an exclusive luxury resort in Japan where one of the unique cultural elements was to sleep on the floor! As this experience was so culturally different from anything else the team had been involved in, the desired goal to create a ‘unique’ experience that would challenge the team was achieved. We created a 3 day program around this event that really broke down the barriers and achieved incredible outcomes.

Solution: Taking people slightly outside their comfort zone does have benefits as it can challenge individuals to examine their behaviours, (with no hierarchy) but not to the point of discomfort where individuals feel coerced or threatened. Choose activities that all are comfortable enough with and all can participate willingly in.

2) Ensure the facilitators are skilled
Example: We recently ran a program with a skilled PhD trained facilitator from McKinsey – as she explained, facilitators at her level can spend hours just crafting a single question to ensure that the team can gain a major insight from the experience, and then adapt their behavior as a result. For the activity to have meaning there needs to be a learning outcome where some insight dawns on the participant in a way they will never forget, as it’s connected to the experience. Like a good chef, this goes way beyond simply knowing the individual ingredients to being able to design the final professional creation (a carefully blended combination). This is not the sort of experience where a university student tells a team to open the next clue, and then asks them ‘how they feel about it’.

Solution: Ensure that the facilitators for the program are qualified and experienced. Inexpensive and inexperienced facilitators might save on the day’s budget, but the real cost is wasting the participants’ time if an activity cannot be properly framed, contextualized and debriefed.

3) Ensure the program is both intelligent and relevant
Example: The danger with the ‘Amazing Race’ type exercises is that these programs tend to be linear with shallow content, and whilst fun, the time invested is often not worth the outcome. This easily leads to the ‘groaning’ /contempt effect.

Solution: Ensure the program content is intelligent and relevant: good team building should have an authentic theme to make it memorable, with intelligent and relevant facts and case studies related to the theme. As an example, one of our most popular programs which uses this strategy is ‘ON THIN ICE’. The program is a simulated expedition to Antarctica, with lots of video footage and interesting facts and information about the challenges faced by actual Antarctic expeditions. During the simulation a variety of issues related to virtual and cross cultural team challenges, leadership challenges, communication challenges and so on quickly surface. With careful questioning and framing, the real issues can be effectively and professionally dealt with. To add some inspiration, we often invite a polar expeditioner in to share first-hand stories of the challenges individuals and teams face in these high pressured situations, and the leadership skills needed to survive.

4) Focus on the key outcome rather than the activity – creating high performance collaborative teams
Example: A client once came to us asking to design a highly competitive team building program. When we enquired about the desired outcome, we were told ‘collaboration’. Even as the question was being answered, the client began to see the irony. This client was focusing on the activity rather than the outcome. Most work teams would struggle with the ambiguity of collaboration in a culture that breeds self-survival and competition. And yet the productivity of a work group often ultimately depends on how the group members see their own goals in relation to the goals of the organisation. As 4 out of 9 people struggle with successful collaboration in the workplace, this should be a key focus of any team development program.

Solution: Team building programs need to be engaging and exciting, but not at the expense of reaching what must be the key goal of any team development program – collaboration. Simply participating in a collaborative exercise will also not be enough. Anyone can collaborate when they need to and when the conditions are controlled. The experiential learning opportunity created should drive home the need for true collaboration no matter how challenging the circumstances. (Read his post on The Collaboration Deception here)

Simulation for success

In most organisations employees are required to make more complex decisions more quickly, with fewer resources and no margin for error. Becoming good at this necessitates something few people have – opportunities to practice.

Musicians, actors and athletes wouldn’t dream of performing without extensive practice. But how do business people practice? Mostly they end up making mistakes and learning by trial and error. But learning from real mistakes can get expensive – both for the company and for the people who make them. Simulations create a “virtual practice field” that allows individuals and teams to test assumptions and experiment with ideas without having to suffer financial reversals or career setbacks.

So what does effective team building do? Peter Senge says that companies need to create practice places where issues that arise in the work place can be isolated and focused on. This enables the team to see the consequences of particular actions and incidents that can occur very rapidly in the workplace, and ensure they can be examined in more detail. The complexities of the everyday working environment can be simplified and analysed. Actions and attitudes that cannot be reversed or taken back in the real world can be re-tried countless times in a protected environment. If the participants are successfully brought on board, the environment is favourable, the content intelligent, the method educational, the facilitator skilled, and the focus correct… team building experiences can be high impact and highly transformational.

As Plato has so cleverly identified, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”

Ensure the experience is well designed and planned, and you can ensure great success.

You can sign up for Andrew’s Great Stuff  at www.tirian.com/articles/about-t-thoughts/

Scott Debrief

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/

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Dr. Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant, earning CPT and CPF credentials. -- You can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com and a detailed profile is here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottsimmerman/ -- Scott is the original designer of The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine teambuilding game and the Square Wheels® images for organizational development.

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