Team building: Powerful tool or waste of time?

“Team-building”: Whenever I utter these two words in front of a business audience during my speeches or seminars, I receive two kinds of reactions:

Some members of the audience remember very good times they had with a group during an outside activity (e.g., a circus class,…); they got to know themselves better and had good stories to share.

However, others remember with horror when they had to hug trees or play paint ball or do other activities they didn’t really enjoy doing.

With this in mind I want to explore team building with you. Despite the amount of money being spent on team building (often several thousand EUR/$ per annum and team), I believe some questions are often not asked: why to do it, what the optimal team building should look like – and whether it is even worth it or not.

First of all, I think a team is fundamentally built when it has to go through real-life business challenges together: When people work with one another, when each team member brings different skills to the party and when you start to know and trust each other – that’s when a team is “built”.

Additionally, there are also team-building activities and these can be of value as well – if you are very clear about what you want to achieve with the activity.

First, I’d like to define team-building activities as ones that are outside of daily work. In order to understand them better I think we can look at the activities from two angles:

  • Business-focus: How much focus on business-topics (Yes or No)?
  • Time: How long does it take to do the activity (short or long)?

This results in four different types of team building activities. Let’s explore them one by one.

Long, non-business oriented: The classic fun activity

These are the typical ‘fun’ or ‘challenging’ activities: cooking, horse-riding, painting together, clown classes, two days of rafting together – the list goes on. These can indeed be fun.

However, don’t fall into the trap to assume something like the following:

“Ah, that’s how John sliced turkey together with his colleague in the cooking class — that’s how he will collaborate together when a crisis occurs in the SAP implementation.”

Treat these activities as what they are: fun. They can therefore be great for celebration and rewards purposes.

Long, business-oriented: The offsite

These are longer sessions where groups/teams get together to focus on non-daily business oriented topics. Many people don’t even call these team building activities. However, for me, these are – aside from working together on a daily basis – the fundamental team building activities, because they allow you to get in the helicopter and explore the business and the way the team works from 30,000 feet above.

Strategy retreat & working sessions belong here. Focused and facilitated training sessions for the full team (including the leaders) belong here as well. These are fundamental moments, as a group can reflect together on the future and the way the business and the organization operates. These are done ideally in an offsite fashion as everybody can be focused then and doesn’t have to go out for this ‘short meeting’.

Do those if you want to reflect and think about a new direction and want people to connect and reflect with each other. I recommend every team and especially multinational teams to have at least one per year focused on this.

Short, non-business-oriented: Refreshing moments

Here we come to the next area, the shorter time frames. These can actually be very nice and brief activities and – if implemented well – help keep the mood in a team high because they can also show another more fun side of working together. You also do not need to have a lengthy organization process or offsite arrangements for these.

One example: a virtual team needed to come up with a new logo. Instead of leaving it to others the team actually worked on it together during a web conference connect. They drew the draft of the logo and had fun together. Doing short 5-10 minute activities like this can be refreshing from time to time.

Short, business-oriented: The mini helicopter

It can also help to briefly step out of the daily grind and into the helicopter without going on an offsite. A reflection of 5-10 minutes every now and then can also help to build and grow the team further.

One example for this is a team health check. One team I worked with asked themselves two questions on a regular basis: “How is your mood on a scale from 1 to 10?” and “How efficient are our processes on a scale from 1 to 10?”.

The moderator asked everybody to plot their answers on a (hidden) flip chart in the room or on a virtual white board in Cisco WebEx, MS Lync etc. This and the resulting discussion did not usually take longer than 15 minutes but was a great brief checkpoint for the full team to see where they stand. Also mini-trainings, where everybody takes 5 minutes to share a key work tip can work in this context.

Team building – a balanced approach
The next time you think your team needs a team building, look carefully at what you want to achieve together, and why.

Team building activities don’t always have to be long, not always only “fun”, nor must they be limited to once per year. A balanced approach, both in terms of time as well as a “business-to-fun” ratio can help turn team building into a powerful tool.

Have you made any experiences with team building activities? I look forward to hearing about them.

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