Team Building - From Fun Event to Genuine Team Improvements

Alan Hunt

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What does the phrase “team building" mean to you? Quad-biking? Abseiling? Propping up the bar with your work colleagues? Allow me to disagree.

Let's look at the word “build" and see where that leads us. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “build" as “Establish, make or accumulate gradually". This definition implies a sense of time passing and growth. This, in turn, implies a modicum of care and attention to maximise the growth - or at the very least monitor the development.

So what kind of process works best to turn a team building session into something that improves team effectiveness back where it matters?

It is not uncommon for trainers and facilitators to like the sound of their own voice. Yet we all know that it is far more powerful if people can learn something for themselves rather than be told it. People turn off very quickly even after a very enjoyable team activity if the next thing they hear is the facilitator telling them his or her view of their performance.

I'll go further - the tried and trusted technique of “What did you do well? What could you have done better?" isn't much better. All too often you can hear people leaving team building sessions saying “every time we do one of these, we fail at the same old things" closely followed by “we'd have been better off talking about the real issues at work". If you are lucky, they might add “I enjoyed it though". So here's the dilemma. If you leave it up to the participants themselves to come up with the improvements, their blinkers stop them from seeing the obvious development opportunities that the activity unveils to those observing. Yet if the observers tell them what they see, the participants don't listen - or worse, become defensive.

I can hear you thinking “but a truly skilled facilitator will lead them to the learning without them realising it". Don't you believe it. Only the most naive of the group will fail to spot a facilitator guiding them somewhere they don't really want to go. And that taints the learning - or at least the chances of it being applied.

So if the participants can't see the learning and won't listen if someone else tells them, is a team building session doomed to mediocrity before it starts? No - there is a third option.

A team building debriefing guide, tailored to the activity and (ideally) to the participant group, is a superb mechanism to guide the learning while not interfering in the process. So what are the key characteristics that such a guide should have? My experience suggests the following seven elements are all key components:

1) It should be tailored to the activity and focus on those aspects that have one or more direct parallels in the group's real working environment.

2) It should provide an opportunity for individuals to reflect before any discussion within the team on the points it makes.

3) It should be constructed such that the input of every member of the team is necessary to complete the process.

4) It should not make value judgements in the way in which it describes particular aspects of the activity that might have gone well or less well for the team. Rather it should provoke discussion and encourage transfer back to the workplace.

5) It should provide places for individuals to capture their own learning and for the team to capture the group learning.

6) It should be useable purely by the participants themselves after brief instruction.

7) It should offer a framework for the team to invite observer input so that any “external" comments are requested by them rather than forced upon them.

Achieve all of these and you will have a superb base to build team improvements upon. And that feels like what the Oxford Concise English Dictionary is getting at.

Alan is Managing Director of Sandstone, a leading UK team building company. He enjoys creating innovative activities that combine fun with genuine team development. In his spare time, he does voluntary work for the RNIB.


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