Measuring team building exercise effectiveness

Managers are supposed to be out there with their people, not sitting in their offices playing with their budgets and figuring ways to cut down on benefits. Occasionally, a bright spark from human resources convinces them to become visible. That is when their people have another ‘oh dear’ experience, with thoughts of wrinkles cracking open when they try to smile.

Team Building: The Big Myth

Traditional team builds are interventions - don’t you just love the word - that are supposed to reinforce member roles and improve social cohesion in the group. For example, they could involve building a raft with tractor tyres and rowing it across a river. If you think that means the boss rows and you steer, you got it wrong. This is why I am a trad team-building atheist – unless, of course they are democratic happenings that help the best teams get even better.

The Power of Natural Teams

Work teams are never natural, because people are thrown together in a loose notion of wanting to have a job. Real teams develop around a sudden, common problem. When workmates solve these together, they form the strongest bond and display their finest attributes. Bear with me for a moment while I tell you a true story.

A Real-Life Natural Team Build

I was on a camping safari in the heart of Africa and staying over on a large island in the Botswana Okavango Swamp. Forget about the fences, the man with the rifle said. Lions, elephants, and hippos don’t do boundaries so zip your tent up before you go to sleep. Tent, you must be crazy man. That thing’s only crawl height. To cut a long story short, we city types are sitting round a campfire in the early evening downing beers when someone asks, “Where’s John”?

John was from London and about as bushwise as a poodle. It turned out he thought there would be twilight and wandered off in shorts with a camera and nothing else. The man with the rifle said, “I need you three folks to help me if I am to find John and get back safe in the dark”. That was when I learned to turn an African bongo drum into a tracking beam. One of the other two kept the fire roaring while the third made sure we beat the drum, stoked the fire, and supplied us with beers. Well it wasn’t Piccadilly Circus\, was it, so don’t be nanny state.

Normality returned two hours later, when John came down the tree two miles away. He had been flattening his camera batteries firing off the flash, while a lion wandered around and signed his name on the tree trunk. I have to tell you that we celebrated our teamwork late into that night. John was none the worse for wear except for the embarrassment, but had more insect bites than there are underground stations on the tube.

So What Do We Learn From This?

We learn the awesome power of spontaneity. We grow, when we shake off our fear of the unknown, and discover new skills we never thought we had. I certainly did this on that night. Canned team builds do not work for me. Whether you are a manager, an employee, or a human resource practitioner if you want to build a team, you must dump tradition.

Three Steps towards a Totally Unique Team Build

We tend to bury our personalities deep at work, and behave the way we think the place wants us to. This could be conservative or radical, gay or straight, religious or not so, and so on. You cannot have a team build with shadow personalities. The real you must shine out around the table before the fun begins.

  1. Get to Know Each Other First

The best way I know is three rounds of liar dice also called bluff. You need a shaking cup, a pair of dice, and a small box to do it. After chips in (small coins please) the first player shakes the dice into the box, lies or tells the truth about their hand, and adds one or more coins to the pile. The other players can match, raise or fold as they feel lead.

Crunch time comes when two players only are left, and the dealer must admit the truth. Trust me, when the team knows what you look like when you are lying there are no secrets left. Now that is a unique icebreaker if there ever was.

  1. Learn to Get Out of a Spot of Bother Together

The second phase is to get the team into a situation where they have a problem and they have to sort it out together through consensus. I have great fun with my workmates in garden mazes with tall hedges we can’t see over, and we have good laughs when we end up in dead ends as we often do. Of course, this is not the only option. It depends on what you have handy where you are.

The most important thing about real team builds is the exercises are spontaneous and there is no one obvious solution. Wherever the team ends up is their answer to the dilemma, they own it, and everyone owns the team.

3.The Chilling Down Phase

I don’t believe in formal reviews. Feedback and affection are given and received in my world throughout spontaneous team builds, because this is what happens in the world real world too. The team’s final task is to decide how and where to go to celebrate their success. That is it in a nutshell. Let the rest be as organic.

So How Do You Know When a Team Build is Genuine.

The answer is easy now you know the secrets. Real interpersonal growth happens through sharing on a level playing field, where traditional work roles give way to taking interpersonal risks, and knowing each other as real people is the reward.

The first proof of a genuine team build is an increased sense of being part of together. The second and final one is when the team is more effective in the future, than it was in the past before the team build. 

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