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Why Team Building Programs Rarely Work

Eight years ago, in his book “Powershift” trusted futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that the next source of power in the world economy would be the ability to manage, control and use knowledge. We are in that time. Like never before, the ability to share and leverage the knowledge of others is separating successful organizations from those that fail. While it is possible to create the systems and structures that support the transfer of information, synergizing information into knowledge requires teamwork. Teamwork, then, is the necessary method of operation in this information driven economy.

Whether in manufacturing or service, organizations that creatively increase efficiency and reduce cycle times by utilizing the wisdom of teams are improving their bottom line in long-term sustainable ways. The winning team is developed by design and nurtured through continuous effort.

The question then, is how does an organization build such teams.

Team building practitioners have generally been most effective by taking potential teams into an off-site environment for some period of time, doing some basic training and motivation in productive team behaviors, and then giving the group artificial challenges to overcome. Attempts are made to carry the behaviors that precipitated success at the training site back to the organizational environs. Sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.

The Problem with Adventure Based Team Building

A training method which has grown in reputation and is fairly commonly used throughout the Organizational Development world is to give the team incrementally more challenging tasks which, if the skills of the individual and the group are fully used, will end in success. Programs using adventure-based methods such as Outward Bound, Project Adventure and their many imitators have proliferated. As former “Outward Bound” instructors and Project Adventure facilitators, we’re well versed in the strengths and pitfalls these methodologies. Sadly, the issue of physical prowess is almost impossible to eliminate as a major contributor to success in these types of programs. What is needed is a training method that eliminates the hierarchy of physical prowess, and equalizes team members in a new and unusual environment. What we don’t need is a deeper adrenaline experience… team bungee jumping, paint-ball wars and whitewater rafting may lead to high five’s in the moment, but are unlikely to cause lasting change in the quality of work relationships at the office.

The common belief that the higher the “rush” the more powerful the team-building experience is wrong. It is equal value and contribution coupled with skillful debriefing around relationship dynamics which moves a team forward.

Off the ropes course, out of the woods, and into the kitchen.

The adventure of gourmet food preparation in a professional restaurant setting provides all of the challenge needed for great team building exercises, while at the same time making physical prowess of no significance in the likelihood of successful outcome. While many of us exercise and have recreated extensively in the outdoors, very few of us have even looked into the exotic environment of a professional kitchen at a fine restaurant. We order, it comes out, we eat. We have no idea of the dynamics of creativity, communication and teamwork that are occurring behind the swinging door. It’s a place of magic to us, where the magicians wear big white hats and use tools we’ve never even touched let alone know how to operate.

An example of the perfect environment for team building, and one in which anyone can excel.

A recipe for building high performance teams.

We begin with the raw materials of a potential team (or one in need of a little more time in the oven), a multi-station professional kitchen, a chef who knows that too much direction spoils the team building experience, a menu, raw foodstuffs and a team-building facilitator. The group is briefed by the facilitator in the dynamics of productive teams, and given a series of simple challenges which could be easily overcome but which are chosen for their uncanny ability to set participants up to fail by behaving unproductively.

Yes, fail.

As an Outward Bound instructors, a yardstick of skill was our ability to choose a challenge for a group that was perceived initially to be impossible, but which, by working effectively together, the group would invariably succeed at. Consequent to that success was a significant increase in group esteem and “team spirit.” Long-term experience with our clients however, has shown us that upon returning to the workplace, the group rapidly moves from productive “adventure challengers” to “business as usual.” They are proud and a little bit full of themselves. (A common outcome of adrenaline based experiences.) This bravado, however, is recipe for personal inattentiveness to maintaining effective team behaviors. “We don’t need to remain vigilant for unproductive behaviors… we are a great team!”

Effectively used, the opposite formula yields a far more positive and long-lasting outcome. Failure, in the presence of simple challenges which only require that we behave in mature and productive ways (something we all know how to do in theory…) yields vigilance for unproductive behaviors where former methodologies yield overconfidence.

So as these challenges are struggled with, and gradually overcome the lesson becomes clear: we must remain constantly vigilant for our personal unproductive behaviors. If we are to succeed in the long run and this vigilance must never end.

Now the group is ready for a real challenge!

Into the kitchen we go. There is a short safety lecture by our consultant chef. The group is oriented to the facility. They are led to a table with a pile of ingredients and the menu for a 4 or 5 course gourmet meal. They are told that they have 2.5 hours to prepare the food and present it to be consumed. They will be consuming it. “A warning…” they are told “at some point in the process, we will introduce additional stress to the environment.” “Begin.”

It is up to the group to define how they will manage the project. It is up to the group to relegate responsibilities and manage resources. It is up to the group to find expertise they are not in possession of and make it available where needed. Just like real work. Typically, teams arrange themselves into subgroups with specific menu items to prepare. Commonly, the must negotiate and share resources between subgroups. About halfway through the project, the facilitator informs each group that it has 5 minutes to transfer one of its members out and be prepared to accept a replacement. Again, just like real work. The facilitator is watching the whole time for issues of communication, planning and productive team behaviors.

Finally, the group presents a beautiful meal and consumes it in celebration.

When is a meal not a meal?

After the meal, the entire process is extensively debriefed for key learning’s. The energy of the debriefing is one of curiosity about improvement potentials rather than one of celebratory backslapping and high five’s. Being a productive team is hard work. It takes vigilance in an atmosphere of honest group introspection. The kitchen and a meal with friends have often been the places of honest conversation and evaluation of our lives. This type of experience leverages that cultural history for the improvement of team productivity, and consequently, the ability to manage the knowledge resource that is the true currency of commerce today.

Does the effect last?

The same type of strategy can unfold on a sailboat, in a conference room, or at a community fundraising event. The venue matters little… it is the pre-briefing, the fact that for most people the “challenge metaphor” is an equalizer, and that the trainers structure the process to foster mature humility over bravado based esteem.

Because a process like I’ve described fosters humility in the minds of the team rather than “ego-inflation,” the team members carry an attitude of personal vigilance back to work along with their new team skills. They remain vigilant for their own unproductive behavior patterns, rather than defaulting into the old pattern of “blame-storming” that is present in so many potential teams.

We’ve been looking for methods to make team effectiveness training stick. Try it this way and you’ll find out what we did. This works!

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