Conventional current wisdom has it that one-off team building days are likely to be superficial, low impact and prone to ‘burn bright, fade fast, syndrome.’ Someone once said that such team building events are tantamount to ‘pulling them out of the dirty pond, hosing them down and then throwing them back in again.’ Modern thought is directed to the idea that team coaching, over a period of time, is the recipe for building sustainable development. On the whole I agree with this – I even wrote a book about it.
So it may seem perverse to be writing about the benefits of one-off team building days. However our experience tells us that when a team is preparing for an event, and high performance is paramount a one-off, highly focused intervention can be the difference between good enough and excellent. Recent interventions I’ve been involved with include:
- Launching a team formed of several consulting companies combined with an in-house HR sponsor. The team was about to work together to launch a massive – and controversial - cultural change programme in a major media organisation and needed to be ‘joined up’ in approach even before day one
- Preparing a management team to work well together on a large-scale ‘Open Space’ event in which the entire staff of the company would be participating. It was vital for them to agree and present a consistent approach and to speak as one voice during this event. They also had to gear up to deal with an expected influx of ideas and suggestions from the staff – in the end they needed to respond to about 150 staff proposals promptly, positively and consistently and the team day prepared them to handle this
- Providing a day to prepare about 30 sales specialists from Cosworth, the engineering group famous for racing and sports car engines in particular, to perform well at an important three-day conference on sales strategy. We describe something of this day below.
Our recent experience with Cosworth showed that if such a day is closely focused on a specific outcome the benefits can be massive. Cosworth asked us to design and run a day for their senior sales team. This was a group drawn from the UK, the USA and India – there were to be almost 30 participants. The goals for the day were primarily to help the team gel and to prepare for their participation in an important conference to be held over the following two days. This conference – focused on sales strategy - represented a significant investment for Cosworth: the actual costs and opportunity costs of assembling this international team for three days were high. Our job was to make sure the team was fully prepared to perform well at the conference itself.
With this target in mind we knew we had to:
- Engage quickly with the team to build their confidence in us – we had not met any of them before the day itself
- Build commitment to the process and create credibility for the event
- Provide experiences of sufficient interest and intensity to maintain their interest and engagement – we had been briefed that as a group they were action – focused and generally impatient of reflection and theory
- Focus on the learning they could derive from the experiences that would practically translate to performance on the conference days proper – and to their relationships and communications once the conference had finished.
We contracted with the group carefully but with a sense of energy and purpose – they committed to putting themselves into the event as a pre-requisite to benefiting from it. The group was then offered a short but challenging exercise in which we told them what the unofficial time record was for its completion - and they beat the record time! This success was then used as an opportunity to challenge the group to set themselves the highest standards of attainment for the day and for the conference overall. It was a challenge they warmed to.
From this point on we immersed them in a series of activities involving construction of apparatus, harnessing creativity and imagination around a design project, and finally, a very tough problem solving exercise that emphasised collaboration, focus and disciplined attention to team process. We followed each activity with a light learning review. The team approached each task with energy amounting to fervour and were especially engaged when there was an element of competition involved. There was a LOT of laughter.
The team was delighted and triumphant when they solved the final tough problem –solving exercise with seconds left on the clock. They were right to be pleased – only a few teams crack this particular exercise.
With energy still high we asked them to review their learning for the day in terms of, (a) what they wanted to take forward into the future, and (b), how it was going to impact on how they were going to work together over the all-important following conference days.
Specifically they identified:
- The key strengths they had in terms of the way they worked and communicated
- How to build on those strengths in future
- A couple of potential weak spots in how they work together
- How to guard against these
- A set of behavioural principles to guide them through the conference and in their future interactions
In addition they benefited from getting to know each other, building rapport and developing greater trust and openness – essentials for any high-functioning team.
The day attracted great feedback and set them up to have a purposeful and successful conference.
With other teams we have worked with on this kind of ‘prepping’ event we have found certain features and principles of design that make for a great event:
- Find ways of ensuring that everyone in the team has a voice and a say at various parts of the event
- Build review and learning in at several points of the day not just at the end
- Provide a range of activities to suit a range of personality types – not rocket science, but it is easy to fall into the trap of only providing things that suit the personality of the boss or sponsor, and we aim to be explicit with them about this aspect of design at the outset
- Get the team to identify and build on its key strengths and only focus on weaknesses where they are possibly fatal flaws
- Contract very carefully for the kinds of behaviour and attitudes that are likely to create a successful day
- Set your expectations high and challenge the team to the highest possible standards. We find that when we encourage a ‘world class’ mindset it lifts energy and commitment.
The one-off team build does indeed have its limitations but in the right circumstances and with the clear purpose of preparing for a specific end in mind, we have seen how it can provide the difference between good performance and great when it matters most.