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Leaving your comfort zone
Published on Friday, 08 Jan 2010
Illustration: Brian Wang

Mention plans for an off-site team-building exercise and you can expect a range of responses from colleagues. For some, the first reaction will be to recall past training sessions where they felt "shown up" in front of co-workers or were set group challenges that appeared to cause dissent not unity. For others, thoughts may centre more positively on the prospect of a day away from the office during which they can reveal hidden skills and perhaps discover unsuspected talents.

As a priority, anyone asked to lead or co-ordinate a team-building event must be fully aware of this mix. Of course, it will differ every time. But the only way to ensure a worthwhile, meaningful event that instils a sense of purpose and provides tangible benefits for each attendee is to assume that everyone arrives with different viewpoints and expectations.

The essential aim of the exercise - whatever form it takes - is to get people to reconsider their standard opinions and positions. A small shift in perspective, a greater willingness to listen, and a new appreciation of the untapped abilities in others are the first steps towards creating better teamwork. And, while the more substantive goals may well include morale building, identifying talent, succession planning and moulding future leaders, the starting point is to persuade people to move outside their comfort zone and see things in a new light.

Any team-building exercise, however conducted, should feature certain key elements. These include the following: 

Clarity about return on investment

Unless you want lengthy battles over budgets and the usual questions about justifying expenditure, you should be clear and upfront about the intended return on investment (ROI). In this context, words like "fun" and "reward" are not the ones to use. If company money is being invested, there has to be something more concrete, even when it can't be converted directly into a dollar sum representing, say, expected extra sales or future cost savings. Therefore, whoever provides the training should set out particular objectives. It also makes sense to outline the ways to achieve these and to include required preparatory and follow-up work, so that attendees don't think of the event as a "day off" or, worse, a waste of time.

Those taking part and those approving the initiative, are always going to want some obvious payback. For individuals, it may come in the form of new experiences, joint projects and eye-opening ideas. For the company, the priority will be see how a team-building exercise can lead to things like improved employee performance, better communication between departments, enhanced levels of customer service and fewer problems with staff retention.  

Total engagement

At the start of the actual activity, it is vital to grab the group's attention immediately. The instructor should therefore be sure to have a compelling, or even shocking, introduction. In practice, it may be nothing more than a summary of what is planned for the next few hours such as, "You will be building a rickshaw" or "You are going to learn a basic circus skill". The intention, of course, is to make people sit up and listen from the word go. But as importantly, it is to make everyone in the group realise straightway that they will be on unfamiliar territory and, therefore, obliged to turn to their teammates for advice, assistance, feedback and support.

Having established a sense of excitement and uncertainty, the next step is explanation. Once engaged, people will want to know why they are being asked to do this and what it will entail. That is the time to spell out not just the stages and practicalities of the chosen exercise, but also the present value and broader benefits of good teamwork.

With the rickshaw activity, the purpose is to work together, following a clear set of plans, to assemble a life-sized model which actually moves. Doing this the participants need to delegate tasks, co-operate effectively and trust one another to deliver. Each person has an assigned role, and, since it is unfamiliar, must learn from those around to perform their part successfully and, thereby, contribute to the whole. The parallels with the day-to-day workplace are obvious enough.

An exercise like this provides insights into human behaviour and working relationships. By offering intellectual and practical tests to be solved jointly, it breaks down barriers, builds mutual respect and, subsequently, strengthens bonds. Where necessary, the facilitator can give clues to move the activity forward or adapt it along the way, so that everyone keeps giving input and remains engaged throughout. 

Activate performance

Team-building is not about finding leaders. Rather, it is about getting everyone present involved and giving them a chance to perform in unexpected ways. Most groups are used to allowing a leader to emerge and even dominate. That may mirror the patterns of the workplace, but good leadership is a matter of getting the best out of everyone, which means promoting teamwork and allowing diverse talents to flourish.

Teams only function well when the members overcome internal conflicts and share information. Nothing drives that message home more effectively than having everyone face a brand-new challenge at the same time. When, for example, I have asked groups to build a 3D pyramid from large sheets of cardboard, it is always great to see lower-ranked staff stepping forward to give instructions to managers and directors. This creates new kinds of awareness, self-confidence and trust, all qualities which lie at the heart of any successful enterprise.

By requiring an element of abstract thinking, individuals also quickly shed the self-imposed inhibitions that normally exist within the corporate hierarchy. An accountant, for instance, can show an untapped aptitude for design, or a sales person may impress with opinions on how best to divide the work. A big plus is that this brings "quiet achievers" to the fore. They find themselves in the unaccustomed position of coaching colleagues, passing on skills and being relied on to take a lead.

This emphasises to all the participants that there are different roles to play in different teams and that better results are achieved through communication and sharing resources.  

Back-to-work benefits

The BTW, or back to work, benefits are ultimately the yardstick against which any team-building exercise must be judged. For that reason, it helps to customise the experiential activity to suit the needs of the company and, indeed, the group of participants. This makes it possible to reflect aspects of the corporate culture, address known problem areas, and be immediately relevant. However, there is a risk in customising too much. The intended benefits are to create different perspectives and a new sense of partnership, and that doesn't happen by simply recycling old case studies or rehashing familiar lines of argument. In fact, a team-building exercise that allows the most senior attendee to assume the lead or assigns tasks based on known experience has signally failed.

To provide new insights for application in the workplace, the BTW benefits should relate to clear criteria and be something easily measured. Examples include the rate of staff turnover and the number of complaints made about other departments. But companies should be ready to devise their own measures, being the best judges of their in-house priorities and methods.  

Constant follow-up

Team building is most definitely not a one-off event. The specific training session may last only a day, but there should be extensive follow-ups to monitor the BTW benefits and remind or redirect where necessary. Tools such as a personal development journal support this, allowing participants to record observations and track changes. Some companies even make a review of these journals a part of regular meetings or performance reviews, and use the comments raised to influence arrangements for the next formal team-building event.

Written by David Simpson, director, Team Building Asia

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