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Is a team building day just a ‘day out’?

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As a teamStaff training and team building are often seen as either a waste of time or a valuable part of working relations. Ian Sasse gives a series of useful tips on how to get the best from them.


Picture the phrase ‘team building’ and you could be forgiven for seeing images of bouncy castles, quad bikes or people manoeuvring pretend barrels of ‘nuclear waste’ over shark infested rivers.

Often, these days are great fun but the connection back to real work can be tenuous. Even if the goal is social, too much activity impairs achieving the goal.

Real team building takes longer than a romp in the countryside, as those who have to rely on team members in critical situations often report.

Team working on the other hand can be improved rapidly by experiencing practical situations and afterwards reflecting in an open way on how performance can be improved.

“There are occasions when what the team needs is not necessarily what it wants and it’s important for managers to retain control over purpose and content by setting clear parameters.”

It’s important to remember that putting people into a group or on a list doesn’t make them a team. Team building is a process – not an event. When used effectively, team events can make a strong contribution to building a team or improving the way it works. Here are some tips for success:

Have clear and simple outcomes

Be clear about what you want to achieve. The answer to questions like ‘can you do something on managing change or working more effectively?’ is usually ‘yes’, but there is a wide range of activities, approaches and outcomes for such an open specification.

Ask yourself why you are doing the event. How will you judge if it has been successful? What do you expect people to do differently as a result? Keep the objectives simple. Don’t try to achieve too many different things from one day. People may only take away about three messages so ideally each message will reinforce the others to make a memorable experience.

Involve the team

Where possible, involve the team members in event planning. The team can talk about what worked or did not work on previous occasions.

There are occasions when what the team needs is not necessarily what it wants and it’s important for managers to retain control over purpose and content by setting clear parameters. Consider involving others who affect success – customers, suppliers, partners, supporting teams.

Involve the trainer

Involve the trainers early in the process. This ensures they understand the context, the budget and what you are trying to achieve before starting to design your event.

This may involve preparatory activities or information gathering which the team can do to feed into the event day. If involved early, the trainer may be able to suggest how the end result could be achieved more effectively or for less money.

Make it memorable

How will comments and conclusions from the event turn into action back at work? This is a key part of event planning. Too often, organisers of team events leave the learning behind at the venue. Teams carry on as they always did when they get back to work. Ideally the event will be seen as just one stage in engaging the team, to enable positive behavioural change.

The value of the event can be extended by taking photographs or giving a memento so that, each time it is seen, participants are reminded of the event and the learning. Some teams follow up with a challenge where a trophy is awarded to the group which achieves most in line with the event outcomes each month – the natural competitiveness of teams can sustain the involvement of people for the rest of the year.

Make it relevant and consistent

Whether serious or fun, an event should be relevant to the real world of work. Even paint-balling and quad biking can be made to deliver more than just a fun day out if carefully planned around objectives. It is generally good to hold the event ‘off-site’ to avoid distractions and allow creativity, but if the connection to work is lost altogether the event becomes fairly meaningless ‘play’.

The way the event operates also needs to be consistent with the behaviour and values back at work. If there is a clear mismatch between the two experiences it is a recipe for cynicism which can seriously impair learning. The quality of an event will only be as good as the quality and attitude of the provider in creating an event which fits the work culture and language of your organisation.

Individual needs are important

Beyond the health and safety concerns of ensuring that participants are not put at risk, it is important to recognise that people are individuals, even on a team event. What they enjoy and value is different, and the way they want to take part is different.

“A regular trap that teams fall into is choosing an event around a skill which requires practice or experience, when not everyone is experienced in that area.”

Where possible, activities should allow for different roles, and permit individuals and teams to self select activities. A regular trap that teams fall into is choosing an event around a skill which requires practice or experience, when not everyone is experienced in that area.

A golf day, for example, can be alienating, humiliating, and divisive for those who don’t play (with no hope of acquiring sufficient skill within the day). On the other hand, if everyone is a novice or are equally skilful it can just as easily be part of a powerful experience.

Allow enough time for the team

Time and money are constant pressures, but time is important for motivation. Too often, event agendas are packed with activities and speakers, but with little opportunity for the team to speak about the issues which concern them.

This is sometimes because managers are concerned about control or allowing a platform for negativity. Actually, these facilitated sessions, where teams can express views and be listened to, are often the most positive and productive of the day and are valued most by participants in feedback.

It is worth remembering when time is precious that events don’t have to take a whole day. They can be delivered in half a day or act as a practical interlude of a couple of hours in a conference or team meeting. I have used this format to support conferences, management team meetings, team briefings, and Christmas celebrations.

Case studies

After a successful project at the University of Leicester last year, I was recently invited back to give a further 90-minute session which fitted the theme of working together and raising performance.

In contrast to the academic discussions during the day, the session started with an active personality profiling game followed by a light competitive performance improvement exercise against the clock. The feedback from this session was great. It did not drag on for the whole day – it was quick, snappy, and effective.

A further case study comes from a local authority. A service team held a briefing away day with a Christmas lunch for staff. The morning session formally launched a major change programme which Agents of Change had developed with the management team.

The afternoon session responded to the mood of the Christmas lunch with a high-energy Christmas themed activity celebrating the creativity of team members.

Staff were mixed from different roles into competing teams. They self-selected and completed short challenges sometimes as individuals, sometimes with the whole team.

Every challenge had a Christmas theme, ranging from physical dexterity to endurance tests, mental puzzles, and productivity games. Successful completion acquired resources which enabled the team to take on a new batch of challenges racing against the clock. Their achievements were assessed by their managers. It brought out creativity, hidden talents and devious tactics in equal measure.


Ian Sasse is managing partner of Agents of Change, offering bespoke management training tailored to the needs of the client. For more information, contact Ian on 01455 285942.

One Response

  1. Team Building
    Yay! – all great stuff.

    Can I add two more essential elements?

    The first may seem trivial, or at least tactical. Get the venue right?
    Indoors or outdoors, I find this can affect participant responses far more than the broader intention might ever suppose. “Time spent in reconnaisance is never wasted” – as General Custer is said to have remarked at his famous last stand! It applies to away-days too.

    The second is *really* critical. Allow time to learn the lessons!
    An away-day event may offer many great shared experiences – a key part of any team-building opportunity – but if they are not drawn to any conclusion, with time for feedback and open reflection, the real team-building lessons may never be learned.
    What a waste that would be!
    This doesn’t need to be a ‘heavy’ item – it can be done formally or informally; but please don’t omit it?

    Have fun! (Isn’t that important too – for everyone?)

    Best wishes

    Jeremy

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